In 1960, country singer Johnny Horton delivered a 12-part history lesson with an LP called Johnny Horton Makes History, featuring a dozen tunes such as “The Sinking of the Ruben James” and “The Battle of Bull Run.” One of the tunes was “Young Abe Lincoln (Make a Tall Tall Man),” a depiction of the one-time prairie lawyer who would become the 16th U.S. president and make history by signing into law the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves throughout the country – a fact not actually mentioned in Horton’s song.
Lincoln would not be the only U.S. president to inspire a country song, but his legacy is certainly inexorably connected to the most recent Commander-in-Chief, whose own historic path to the White House moved Brad Paisley to pen “Welcome to the Future.”
On November 4th, 2008, Senator Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, the first African-American to hold the same office that at least 12 former slave owners had previously occupied. Paisley was a supporter of Obama’s candidacy, not an easy road for a performer in the predominately conservative landscape of country music. But, as he told CNN in 2009, “On November 4th, I felt an emotion like I haven’t felt in my entire life. I think whoever you voted for, you had to be moved.”
“Welcome to the Future,” penned with Chris DuBois, acknowledged the troubling history that made Obama’s victory even more significant, with Paisley recalling true events such as a classmate having a cross burned on his lawn because he had asked out the homecoming queen and referencing the brave actions of protestor Rosa Parks and civil-rights leader Martin Luther King. The song also marveled at modern technology, which in this year’s contentious election season has played a role both beneficial and detrimental to the two main candidates.
On July 21st, 2009, Paisley performed for the first time as part of the White House Music Series, with the President and members of Congress in attendance. Introduced by Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs, Paisley recalled in a blog post for CNN: “I got to perform four songs, and I looked down at the president – who was sitting about 10 feet away from me at the time – and I said, ‘I think about my kids and this generation, and you are the first president they’re going to remember.’ I got to say that to him. And he just nodded and sort of closed his eyes. And I said, ‘So this is a song for our times. It’s called ‘Welcome to the Future.'”
Paisley, who had broken down in tears while running through the song during soundcheck earlier that afternoon, recalled doing “everything I could do not to lose it. I had to close my eyes, or I would completely break down.” After the performance, he tipped his hat to the president, thanked him and left the stage. Paisley recalled that once he was offstage he “just started bawling,” taking in the enormity of the moment. Paisley would again perform for the President and First Lady Michelle Obama on July 4th, 2012, and in January 2013 at the inauguration concert celebrating his second term.
Whatever the future holds in store once all of today’s votes are counted, each presidential election is historic some way. As Paisley’s song notes, “Hey, look around, it’s all so clear / Hey, wherever we were going, well we’re here.”