Between the Meryl Streep feud, the ethically dicey cabinet nominees, that no-holds-barred press conference last week, and the MLK weekend flap surrounding congressman/civil-rights hero Representative John Lewis, it’s almost easy to lose sight of one of the main subplots of Donald J. Trump’s impending inauguration as 45th President of the United States: what a dud his Presidential Inaugural Committee’s official public concert is shaping up to be.
Dubbed the “Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration,” this afternoon’s concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is scheduled to feature “God Bless the U.S.A.” singer Lee Greenwood; “Kryptonite” rockers 3 Doors Down, the top-selling artist in Mississippi history (really); Toby Keith, whose relative performing merits versus the Obama-favored Beyoncé recently spawned a hilarious CNN panel; classical-crossover YouTube stars The Piano Guys; Deliverance and Ray Donovan actor Jon Voight; and, perhaps most cringe-worthy, the “Frontmen of Country,” featuring the current or former lead singers of Little Texas, Restless Heart and Lonestar. Onetime Houstonian Jennifer Holliday, of Dreamgirls fame, was originally on the program but backed out after her fans lit her up on social media.
All of those artists have definitely sold more records than I have, and all of them have fans who are no doubt hard-working, taxpaying, voting and otherwise responsible citizens. That said, under normal circumstances this kind of bill would probably struggle to sell tickets outside of a casino or state fair, venues where, in fact, a number of the MAGA performers routinely appear. The lack of brand-name talent has become a running joke for the media, one of the rare reliable opportunities for mirth in such fraught and uncertain times. More troubling is the implication that that’s it — that’s the best talent the Presidential Inaugural Committee could come up with; or, at the least, the best people who would agree to do it.
Even for those artists, their appearance has come at a price — often a reluctance to publicly claim the president-elect. This week Newsweek reported that Keith has never identified himself as a Trump supporter, saying only (to Entertainment Weekly), “I don't apologize for performing for our country or military.” In a statement published in Billboard, The Piano Guys said, “We would have been honored at the opportunity no matter who was being sworn in.” 3 Doors Down have kept mum about it all aside from merely announcing the show on social media, sufficient reason for several fans to roast the band with comments like, “You are DEAD to me. The sane part of your fan base are going to treat you like KRYPTONITE, you pieces of crap.”
It might be easy to laugh about all this stuff until your mind wanders over to how all this might be playing to the rest of the world, to whom America has given so much musical inspiration. Other observers, like The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, see prominent musicians’ rejection of the Inaugural Committee’s overtures as evidence that the incoming president effectively has no soul.
“And so the inability, so far, of Donald Trump to get any significant musicians from any [American] traditions, rock or country or blues or Broadway, to sing at his Inauguration is not a small comic detail but a significant reflection of this moment in history,” he wrote last Friday. “It reminds us of just how aberrant Trump and Trumpism is.”
When the Rockettes have to be coerced to appear at your show—or you’re left to boast of the military bands, directly under your orders, who are playing—one is witnessing not just some snobbish hostility on the part of “Hollywood” entertainers but a deeper abyss between the man about to assume power and the shared traditions of the country he represents. There is no music in this man.
So the official inaugural concert is a bust, and the dozens of other balls and galas scattered around D.C.’s hotel ballrooms this week offer pretty slim pickings as well. The Garden State Inaugural Gala showed some promise until the B-Street Band pulled out over their concerns of offending The Boss. Blues Traveler will jam out at The Creative Coalition’s Inaugural Ball For the Arts, but poor Arkansas’s ball was canceled altogether. And besides a standard society orchestra, the Illinois State Society of Washington D.C.’s 2017 Inaugural Heartland Ball is advertising an appearance by the “Abraham Lincoln” mascot who runs around the ballpark at Nationals games, so there’s that.
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This is not often said in the political corridors of our nation’s capital, but here Texas is starting to look pretty good. As it does every four years, tonight the Texas State Society of Washington, D.C. will throw its Black Tie & Boots Ball, the self-proclaimed “most popular inaugural ball in town” with an expected attendance north of 10,000. True, some performers are a little on the cheesy side — those Frontmen of Country will be headed over from the Lincoln Memorial — but there’s also Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers Band; country-soul singer Bonnie Bishop, who released the outstanding 2016 album Ain’t Who I Was; and both Kevin Fowler and Cody Canada & the Departed on hand to shoot out the lights. The great Gary P. Nunn is as Texas country as they come.
Wednesday, The Dallas Morning News also threw Tanya Tucker, Wade Bowen and the Beach Boys in the mix. And though his name is curiously absent from the official list of entertainers on the ball's website, multiple media outlets have put Randy Rogers there too. When word got out last month, the story quickly got twisted around to put him at an official Inaugural event. (The TSS is a 501[c]4, classified by the IRS as a nonprofit social-welfare organization.) Soon he was getting the kind of social-media backlash 3 Doors Down would recognize, prompting Rogers to clarify things on Twitter: “Calm down, everybody. We are playing an event for the Texas State Society in DC. It’s grand, historic and an honor.”
Calm down, everybody. We are playing an event for the Texas State Society in DC. It’s grand, historic and an honor. https://t.co/84GkyfZRWx— Randy Rogers Band (@rrbchoir) December 21, 2016
Rogers deserves a lot of credit here. In correcting the erroneous reports that put him performing at a Trump-sanctioned event, he was also standing up for his constitutionally protected right to sing, and the Black Tie & Boots patrons’ constitutionally protected right to dance (known as “assembly” to the founders), in an environment free of the political rancor that has gripped our nation lately. A simple act, but an important statement. We’d all do well to remember that the next four years.