PDiN Monitor is CPD’s electronic publication highlighting significant public diplomacy news aggregated by the Center’s PDiN Research team over the past month as well as original analysis from CPD staff, fellows, visiting scholars and guest contributors.
Country Music Diplomacy: Mama, let your cowboys grow up to be Diplomats
Good cultural diplomacy is always drawn from the unique. American country music is one area that projects a wholly American image of the rugged hero sitting high in the saddle or a scorned yet powerful woman singing about lost love. Country songs are about what the French would call la condition humaine, universal stories strummed on a guitar. As such, country music has a vast global appeal. While it is debatable in which category Elvis or Johnny Cash might fit, we can reasonably place them in overlapping categories that include country music and American musical icons with global brand status.
I first encountered country music abroad, in the middle of Bohemia of all places. Later, when working as a Press Officer for the Israeli Consulate to the Republic of Texas, I wanted to organize a country music program to visit Israel—to bring a country singer out to Israel, and to strum his guitar while floating in the Dead Sea and to visit the Western Wall and Via Dollorosa in a big ten-gallon hat. Then bring him back to Texas and Oklahoma, and on the country music stations talking about how much he luved his visit to the Holy Land—public diplomats who share the same twang always make the best ambassadors. It was a good idea that never made it up the ministry food chain.
More recently, I found those American campfire songs in India. I got a hint from the book Shantaram, but I encountered it myself with the Whiskey Lullaby that I kept hearing bouncing around in my office at India Future of Change in Delhi. And when we buried him beneath the willow, the angels sang a PD lullaby. Turns out it was the ring tone of an officemate named Suresh. The other officemates mentioned over lunch that India loves country music.
I saw the influence of American country music first hand as one evening my Indian roommate kept playing Don Williams over and over again. He told me how much he loved country to the point that he had proposed to his wife while playing the Don Williams song, “It Must Be Love.” I started Googling the artist and found sites dedicated to Don Williams in Slovenian and other languages.
Should the U.S. State Department be interested in orchestrating government-led country diplomacy tours, there are tremendous partners who can help promote some good old American culture such as Country Music Television (CMT) among others. It would be great to see a reality show on CMT about country singers touring the world and the reactions therein. Even more so, I would love to see it as a bit of American female empowerment and send a honky tonk country woman tourin’ about.
As previously mentioned, some country music diplomacy has been conducted. Another great instance of country diplomacy has been conducted by American Voices, a not-for-profit organization that conducts cultural diplomacy and cultural engagement. American Voices carried out two projects called “Country Eastern” in 2005 and 2006, sending Austin singer/songwriter Jesse Dayton to Kazakhstan and Vietnam, respectively. The tour through Vietnam came with the support of the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, while the tour through Kazakhstan was supported by private funds.
As part of these tours, Dayton was paired with local musicians and had some raucous performances that combined Country and Eastern musical styles. According to John Ferguson, Executive Director of American Voices, “Country music is very big in Vietnam, Indonesia and Burma in particular—almost unheard of in Kazakhstan, but even where it was unknown it had huge appeal.”
As I have noticed in the Shanghai Expo and Taipei Flora Expo, different states like Texas and Montana do a bit of state branding; getting some state buy-in to a country music diplomacy tour could be a great way to get Red State America to appreciate what cultural and public diplomacy is really about.
Simply put, American country music is an internationally popular brand in itself, and something that communicates uniquely American cultural values. Helping it to venture off the American range could provide the United States with some powerful and creative cultural diplomacy opportunities.
Paul Rockower is a Visiting Fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, and a journalist who writes about Jewish communities in far-flung places. His series “Tales of a Wandering Jew” was published in the Jerusalem Post and his articles have appeared in numerous Jewish newspapers. His journalism and traveling endeavors have taken him to nearly 45 countries. Paul recently graduated with a Masters of Public Diplomacy from the University of Southern California.
Thanks for the mention of our Country Eastern program Paul. We had a blast in Kazakhstan and Vietnam with this music and the inimitable Jesse Dayton. Hope we can do more with this unique American genre that stirs souls everywhere we go with it.
Paul on May 6, 2011 @ 6:47 am
John, Thanks for all the work you do in the field of cultural diplomacy and with country music as a platform for cultural diplomacy. I hope this article can help create more appreciation for the cultural diplomacy opportunities posed by the genre.
Venkat on May 6, 2011 @ 4:57 pm
Paul, may be you should lead this initiative and take this concept worldwide.May be you can start with your favorite country .I see you as the Tour Director for this PD effort.
Paul on May 6, 2011 @ 10:08 pm
Brilliant idea! Perhaps the next Country Eastern tour will make its way to India. Maybe the Republic of Texas will make me an honorary citizen for such efforts.
Paul on May 7, 2011 @ 6:10 am
1st venue in India: Venkat’s Club House.
Kimberly on May 9, 2011 @ 11:13 am
I think this would make great cultural diplomacy! I know a lot of my Russian friends loved the country music I shared with them, and I even had strangers ask where I’d be performing when I was singing a country song to some friends. As you said, country music has universal themes that can reach so many, and it is so different from other American genres that most people are familiar with. Country music also appeals to an audience that has different cultural values than rap and hip-hop audiences do, and shows a different side of America. All around, I love this idea!