White House

Why even country singers won’t play for Trump’s inauguration

In this file photo dated Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, Donald Trump speaks during his first news conference as president-elect, in New York.
In this file photo dated Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, Donald Trump speaks during his first news conference as president-elect, in New York. AP

The A-list performers declined or dodged. A smattering of stars from the next tier agreed to play; one canceled within 24 hours. Then even a tribute band dropped out, officially turning President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration lineup into a punchline.

Whether it’s a business decision or a question of conscience, America’s top entertainers are staying far away from Trump’s inauguration Friday, marking a litmus test for support of the incoming administration.

For Trump critics, there’s delicious irony in the fact that a man so preoccupied with his own fame couldn’t land superstars to serenade him into office. Trump supporters, meanwhile, lash out at the “cowardly” artists or assert, like the soon-to-be president has, that stars were never intended to be the focus – it’s about the American people.

The snubs might sting, but there’s a more serious truth at the heart of the controversy: come Friday afternoon, the nation will be led by a president so radioactive that for many even singing a song for him is out of the question. Across racial lines and musical genres, performers who typically refrain from taking political stands are struggling with how to craft their public responses to Trump.

And it’s not just the big names under scrutiny. Even small-town acts like an Alabama college’s marching band or a California equestrian group have faced petitions and protests for taking part in welcoming Trump to the White House.

“Keep the Ponies Away From the Phony,” read one protester’s sign outside a fundraiser to help the Merced County Sheriff’s Posse haul their horses from California to Washington for an appearance.

The list of confirmed acts might change again before Friday, but as of now the roster of famous names is short.

Country singer Toby Keith is in, defending his decision by saying he’d never “apologize for performing for our country or our military.” Also confirmed is the country duo Big & Rich; member John Rich is an outspoken conservative Republican and was the 2011 winner of Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” reality show.

The national anthem will be sung by Jackie Evancho, a 16-year-old who found fame as a contestant on “America’s Got Talent.” In a New York Times interview, Evancho insisted the performance was apolitical, but acknowledged the backlash. Her family is suing the school district for her transgender sister’s right to use the women’s restroom; Trump’s proposed administration is stacked with figures who’ve been hostile to LGBT issues.

Another act is 3 Doors Down, a band that had a megahit 16 years ago and whose current standing is summed up in a Newsweek list of its 2017 tour dates: “several casinos in Canada, a Strawberry Festival in Plant City, Fla., a Trump inauguration celebration at the Lincoln Memorial.”

Other acts have experienced complications.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir will sing, minus a soprano who dropped out in protest. Some of the Radio City Rockettes have balked and threatened to sit out their dance company’s performance. The British singer Rebecca Ferguson wrote an open letter saying that she was invited to Washington, but would agree only on condition she sing “Strange Fruit,” about the lynching of black people in the south.

Broadway legend Jennifer Holliday signed on to perform, then backed out 24 hours later, issuing an apology to “my beloved LGBT community.” Miami rapper Flo-Rida made ripples last week when his name surfaced as a performer; his camp quickly shut down the rumor.

The struggle to recruit big names was lampooned last week at the Golden Globe Awards, where host Jimmy Fallon cracked that the title character in the film “Florence Foster Jenkins” was the world’s worst opera singer “and even she wouldn’t perform at Trump’s inauguration.”

Entertainment analysts say the industry’s snubbing of Trump is unprecedented.

President Barack Obama’s star-studded inaugurations have featured Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, Beyonce, James Taylor, Yo-Yo Ma, Stevie Wonder and Brad Paisley. Before him, President George W. Bush’s entertainment included ZZ Top, Wayne Newton, Ricky Martin and Jessica Simpson.

It might seem understandable that performers of color would refuse to participate this year, given Trump’s remarks on the campaign trail disparaging Latinos, African-Americans, immigrants and Muslims. But what about the chilly response from the overwhelmingly white and Republican-leaning country music world?

While many of country’s biggest stars have tacitly or overtly backed Trump, almost nobody has agreed to play for him.

Powerhouse Garth Brooks, who once left open the idea of appearing for the inauguration, offered a master class in the artful dodge. Three newly added tour dates now make it impossible for him to play in Washington this week. On Monday, Brooks released a video message that simultaneously quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., and offered prayers for Trump, steering clear of any political stance.

“I’m going to tell you, with this whole presidential thing: We’ve got one going out, pray for him and his family. And for the president going in, pray for him and his family to guide this nation,” Brooks said. “Let’s stay together. Love, unity, that’s what it’s all about.”

Trump’s modest country lineup – including Lee Greenwood and Larry Gatlin – is missing the star power of names like Reba, Dolly, Willie or Blake. Chris Willman, an L.A.-based entertainment journalist and author of “Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music,” said it was the “lamest lineup” he could recall.

“It used to be beyond safe for any country artist to play for a Republican candidate, and certainly a Republican president,” Willman said. “So, what’s different this time? I think it’s clear we haven’t seen a Republican president as polarizing even to Republicans as Trump. There are a lot of country fans who, like a lot of Americans, voted for Trump only because they couldn’t stomach the alternative.”

While celebrities have managers and publicists to advise them on the Trump question, that’s not the case for the grass-roots acts whose participation in inauguration has thrust them into an uncomfortable limelight. Previously unknown dance troupes and school bands already struggling to come up with thousands of dollars for their travel and lodging suddenly face the added burden of publicly defending their decision to accept the invitation in the first place.

The backlash comes from people like Shirley Ferrill. In explaining why she’s so upset about her university’s marching band playing for Trump, she begins in 1865.

That was the year two freed slaves with dreams of educating black children in the segregated south scraped together what they could for a project that eventually became Talladega College, established in 1867, Alabama’s oldest black university.

“It’s operated continuously for almost 150 years – a school started by slaves because their children couldn’t go anywhere else,” said Ferrill, who graduated in 1974. “And here we got a man who doesn’t care whether any of our children even go to kindergarten.”

Incensed by the decision to play for Trump, Ferrill started a petition calling on the Marching Tornadoes to withdraw; it’s drawn nearly 3,000 signatures. The sons of a Jewish couple that taught at the university in the Jim Crow era returned their late parents’ honorary doctorates, saying that Trump stands against values the family holds dear. Across social media, the band is accused of “selling out” or “shucking and jiving” for Trump.

Sticking by their decision to go, administrators and band leaders called it a civics exercise, not a political stance, and stressed that their application was submitted before the election. Supporters of the trip to Washington started an online fundraiser that’s now passed the $600,000 mark, thanks in large part to exposure on the Fox News Channel.

In news reports and online postings, administrators have said that most band members had never visited Washington and were excited despite the backlash.

But the thrill comes with a cost. The damage to alumni relations and Talladega’s stature among the nation’s HBCUs – historically black colleges and universities – will outlast Trump’s parade, Ferrill said.

“We’re talking 1867,” Ferrill said, underlining the college’s history. “We’re talking people who had very little money, but they thought enough of the need for education for their children to fund this college based on fairness and integrity. And these are not things Donald Trump stands for at all.”

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam