At around 6:30 a.m. on Christmas Day, country singer JP Harris woke up to an explosion. A 63-year-old man had parked an RV next to an AT&T network hub in downtown Nashville and blown the vehicle up, killing himself, injuring eight others, and flattening several buildings. Cell service was knocked out for days.
When federal investigators looked into the Nashville bomber, they found letters he’d written promoting 9/11 conspiracies, suggesting the moon landing was fabricated, and claiming that reptilians had taken control of the Earth. (Needless to say, there is no evidence for any of these claims). “Everything is an illusion,” the bomber wrote in one letter. “There is no such thing as death.”
Until then, Harris hadn’t sung much about current events. “Country music brings people from different walks of life together,” he said. “So, I’ve not been incredibly outspoken about my personal politics.” But after the bombing, he fumed over fringe theories. “I just wrote out the most absurd histories of all these conspiracies to draw out the comparisons,” Harris said. “I tried to stretch it as far as I could, while keeping it tethered to the absurd shit that these people are saying and outlining on the internet.”
He revised it into a mocking single with a straightforward name: “Take Off Your Tinfoil Hat.” Stylistically, the song is traditional honky-tonk, the rhythm-centric country subgenre; lyrically, it’s simple jokes, a mishmash of references to conspiracies from anti-mask to QAnon.
When Harris’ track came out on Jan. 14, it made its way around the alt-country and Americana circuits, and to some extent the mainstream; the pop star P!nk shared it on social media. “This is the first QAnon [country] song I’ve come across that is so direct,” said Eric Ward, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Executive Director of the Western States Center. “And I just have to say, it’s also a really well-written song. It is the perfect honky-tonk song.”
To Ward, a longtime fan of country, punk, reggae, and ska (he was briefly in the band that would later become Sublime), the song seemed to crystallize an increasingly explicit partisan tension in country music, a genre known to be reticent on politics and social justice. (Back in 2003, when the Chicks denounced the Iraq War, they were blacklisted by radio stations). “Country music famously has been pretty quiet,” said country singer Michaela Anne, “After [9/11], the only protests you’d hear in country music were on the more conservative, pro-gun, pro-military side. But over the past few years, we’ve seen the deepening of the liberal-conservative divide.”
The shift coincided with an expansion in independent country music to include more Black artists and musicians of color, wider interpretations of the genre, and franker discussions of gender. Last year, the bounds of country music became a national debate when the country music charts removed Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” from their ranks. In October, just prior to the election, Rhiannon Giddens released a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “All You Fascists Bound to Lose.” Just this week, T.J. Osborne became the first major-label country star to come out as gay. The night before, country singer Morgan Wallen got yanked from radio and media platforms after a video surfaced of him screaming the N-word in the street. The same day that Harris released his anti-QAnon single, Donald Trump awarded Toby Keith and Ricky Skaggs the National Medal of Arts.
“There’s this growing split into two worlds in country music,” Harris said. “You’ve got the more mainstream-radio country—the red, white, and blue; trucks, beers, and girls in short-shorts kind… There’s also this tandem rising world of loosely defined country music, the Americana genre and alt-country and folk-country that harkens back to the ’60s or ’70s or ’80s. Most of those people tend to have fairly left-of-center politics. And that industry has grown larger to the point where it’s become a real stand-alone music industry without the help of commercial country radio or the commercial country music machine.”
“Few country musicians have openly embraced debunked theories like QAnon or Trump’s claims of election fraud, but it’s in the air.”
In that divide, fringe theories occupy an uncertain place. Few country musicians have openly embraced debunked theories like QAnon or Trump’s claims of election fraud, but it’s in the air. In January, two days after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol Building, Rolling Stone reported that three wives of prominent country artists had shared conspiracy theories on social media. Brittany Aldean, wife of Jason Aldean, posted an Instagram of the Capitol rioters. “Antifa disguised as Trump supporters… Shocker,” she wrote in the caption. “An online influencer who posts about hair and makeup products, and a former American Idol contestant,” the article read, “Aldean is at the forefront of a bizarre, emerging trend in the country music sphere: the country-wife political conspiracist.”
“The wives of the artists are kind of a good litmus test for what they really believe,” said country music critic Clay Steakley. “Since the Morgan Wallen thing happened, radio stations have been taking him out of their playlists. He’s getting punished by the industry. It will be interesting to see how the other artists align on that. For some people, it might push them further right.”
But part of why Harris had so few peers in his attack on QAnon, Steakley said, concerned fan backlash. “The political climate of the past 4 years already had a lot of artists trapped in the ‘shut up and play’ arena with fans,” he said. “Recently, it has gotten menacing, with fans threatening to doxx artists or threatening violence, whether they’re doing it over social media or privately. That has some artists anxious. Women artists and artists of color bear the brunt of a lot of that backlash.”
Harris’ audience spans both poles of the genre, but hasn’t gotten much negative flak. “I’ve never seen a MAGA hat at one of my shows, but I’ve definitely seen people who voted for Trump—I can’t control my fanbase,” Harris said. “I wanted this song to be funny and tongue in cheek and hopefully reach some of them.”
Anne was less optimistic. “Are there conservative-minded fans of his who are maybe intrigued by [QAnon] and then see this and are like, ‘Oh yeah this is lunatic?’ Hopefully. Or do they then feel attacked and cornered? And does that drive [them] deeper into their beliefs and the bubble that we all surround ourselves in? I have no idea what that does. I can’t imagine myself hearing a song about QAnon stuff and thinking, ‘Oh, I’m convinced.’ I think the people it reaches are maybe the ones who are undecided.”