WASHINGTON — Television and movies were his bread and butter. However, as actor and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson turns to the entertainment industry for support in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, he's finding more kindred spirits in Nashville than he is in Hollywood or New York.
When country music's capital hosts the 41st Country Music Association Awards ceremony Wednesday night, Thompson, a big-time George Jones fan who once dated country singer Lorrie Morgan, is the only presidential candidate on the seating chart, organizers said.
He won't be formally introduced, and he has no onstage role. He's going as a guest of one of his key donors, John Rich, of the duo Big & Rich, nominated this year in three categories: vocal duo of the year, single of the year ("Lost in This Moment") and song of the year for the same song.
If Thompson can harness his Music City connections to appeal to rank-and-file country-music fans, it could help his campaign enormously. According to the CMA, country is the nation's dominant radio genre, with 2,046 stations last year and more than 48 million adult listeners.
In one Nashville ZIP code alone — 37203 — Thompson has drawn contributions from performers Gretchen Wilson, Cowboy Troy, Ronnie Dunn of Brooks and Dunn, Curb Records Chairman Mike Curb and big-name producers, managers and agents including James Stroud, Dale Morris, Greg Oswald and Clint Higham.
Rich, the son of a preacher, sought out the candidate rather than vice versa, has performed on Thompson's behalf and is organizing one of three Thompson fundraising events in conjunction with the awards ceremony.
Rich also made news last month, saying on a radio show that homosexuality is unnatural and that if gay marriage were permitted, it would open the door to other "unsavory" unions, such as ones involving incest. He later apologized, saying that while he believes that marriage should be only between a man and a woman, he also believes that bigotry and intolerance are wrong.
In an interview Tuesday, Rich said, "The reason I personally was really turned on to Fred and his stances is that he's a real conservative, a real guy who stands for God and country, and that's what country music is built on: It's built on God and country."
The 33-year-old country star said he'd never been active in politics before and was motivated this time by his dislike for the leading Democrat.
"I thought I cannot just sit idly by and watch Hillary Clinton go trotting into the White House," he said.
Rich also said that Giuliani was more a Democrat than a Republican, to his mind. "He should be her running mate. It should be Clinton-Giuliani, as far as I'm concerned," he declared. "Why mince words?"
Thompson, who played District Attorney Arthur Branch on "Law & Order," has enjoyed some support from within his own industry, including the television series' creator, Dick Wolf. Wolf put $2,300 toward Thompson's testing-the-waters campaign back in June before his candidacy became official.
Not all country stars want politically conservative candidates.
The other half of Big & Rich, "Big Kenny" Alphin, supports Barack Obama. So has Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks. Her group became a lightning rod and saw its songs pulled from many stations in 2003 after she took her criticism of President Bush and the Iraq war public.
But Maines lists her address in Southern California, not Nashville. Willie Nelson, who listed a Hawaii address on campaign finance forms, donated to Dennis Kucinich.
The Nashville newspaper The Tennessean recently analyzed 15 years of campaign finance records and found that industry donors who backed Democrats gave more than those who backed Republicans.
Country music has always appealed to Thompson, who grew up in Tennessee as the son of a used-car salesman.
"He loves country music," said Rich, who's arranged to get Thompson into some after-parties and said he had a long list of performers who were eager to meet the candidate. "I'm sure he'll wear his rhinestone suit," he said, laughing. He added hastily, "I'm kidding."