I was focused on becoming a radio disc jockey. That’s all I really wanted when I was in high school. I managed to land my first job at a country-and-western station in Sacramento. I did a show on Saturdays and Sundays, midnight to 6 a.m. I didn’t know much about country music, frankly, but I learned some appreciation. Later in life, especially during my years at the Today show, I was able to do a lot of stories with country artists and really became a fan.
An important part of what we do in the news business is stories that people can relate to. Country music also taps into something inside us that will ring familiar about our lives and how we see the world. —As told to Alanna Nash
Lester Holt, 63, is the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News and the anchor of Dateline NBC. He also plays bass.
Growing up in Texas, I was exposed to progressive country like Jerry Jeff Walker and Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. The ’60s and ’70s were so rich for all kinds of music, and I dabbled in all of it. But I was naive about the roots of country music. It wasn’t until I met Loretta [Lynn] and started to work with her and go to the Grand Ole Opry that I really listened to country music.
Country music is a melting pot. It comes from all over. Its influence is deep, and it’s so American. I believe that we need it to bring our country together. —A.N.
Sissy Spacek, 72, won an Oscar for her portrayal of Loretta Lynn in the 1980 film Coal Miner’s Daughter and recorded the album Hangin’ Up My Heart in 1983. Her next projects are the Prime Video series Night Sky and the movie Sam & Kate.
Celebrating Country Music
I have a deep connection with Toby Keith’s “American Soldier” because that was the song that was played when I got back home from my deployment as I led my company into Red Oak High School in Montgomery County. We were in formation. Children were running down onto the floor to hug their moms and dads. This song was playing, and I will remember that time forever.
I feel that country music is probably the one genre that has really spoken to those that have served. There are songs that make me want to pull off on the side of the road sometimes and cry because they talk about love of country, and sometimes they speak to the incredible loss that families have gone through. I don’t know of any other genres that really talk about the patriotism and the pain that go with wearing a uniform. —As told to Jim Lenahan
Senator Joni Ernst, who turns 52 in July, is a Republican from Iowa. She also served as a company commander for the Iowa National Guard in Kuwait and Iraq during the Iraq War.
My earliest recollection of music is when we went to my mother’s parents’ home, which was a farm in Holsum, Louisiana. We had a battery-operated radio, and on Saturday nights we would all gather in this little den. I would lie on the floor at my grandfather’s feet and use his leg as a pillow, and we would listen to the Grand Ole Opry.
Sometimes on Saturdays us boys would climb in the wagon, and the horses would take us on a gravel road or a dirt road, and we’d go to Slim’s Barbershop — everybody, all the kids, the uncles, we’d all pile in there — and they would have the Grand Ole Opry on in there and there would always be discussions, like, “Man, that guy can sing.”
You know what? I’ve been asked this a few times: If I could switch my life, what would I be? I’d want to write songs and perform, because that’s something you can do your entire life. —As told to Jeffrey Lee Puckett
Former NFL quarterback Terry Bradshaw, 73, has recorded country albums and continues to tour and perform. He’s also an NFL analyst for Fox Sports and a cohost of Fox NFL Sunday, and appears on the reality show The Bradshaw Bunch on E!
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SENATOR TIM KAINE
I grew up in Kansas City and taught myself to play the harmonica when I was about 13. In high school, a friend was really into Doc Watson. Mostly I was listening to the Who and the Rolling Stones and groups like that, but we used to go to his house and listen to Doc Watson records. You don’t have to be an operatic-quality singer to convey emotion, and Doc’s voice does that. It’s just beautiful, and his playing is sort of mind-blowing.
Now I play with bluegrass bands all around Virginia. Last year, I cowrote my first song and recorded it with some Nashville musicians, with me doing the harmonica track. The group calls itself the Wahoo Springs Band, just for this one song. It’s a modern country tune called “Self-Unemployed.” A friend and I wrote it together, so I got my first songwriting credit at age 64. —J.L.
Senator Tim Kaine, 64, is a Democrat from Virginia.
I love country music because of where I came from in Liverpool. To this day it is known as the country music capital of England. A lot of lads in my neighborhood who were in the Merchant Navy would go on the ships to America and bring back country-and-western records and blues records. When I heard Hank Williams, I just loved his presence on the records. He started the ball rolling for me. I’m an emotional person, and there is a lot of emotion in country music. That’s what got me hooked.
In the Beatles days, I had to find songs to sing because I wasn’t writing songs in the beginning. How great is “Act Naturally”? Buck Owens did it, I did it, and then we did it together in 1989. Buck was rock-country. He was a forward guy. I just love that song. —As told to A.N.
Ringo Starr, who turns 82 in July, sang a cover of the country song “Act Naturally” while with the Beatles. He also wrote the country-tinged Beatles song “Don’t Pass Me By.” This summer he is touring with his All Starr Band.
SENATOR JON TESTER
I think country music is important for getting your mind in the right spot — at least it is for me. You can be stressed-out; you turn on some country and it tends to settle you right down.
There are plenty of things in agriculture these days that could stress you out, from weather to bad crop prices. I think country music has some therapeutic value for folks in agriculture.
But I’m not sure that country music doesn’t have therapeutic value for folks all over. We in rural areas don’t own the store on anxiety, for sure. —J.L.
Senator Jon Tester, 65, is a Democrat from Montana. He also runs his family’s farm.
What I understood from country music was that there is only “us.” There is no “them.” We are all in this together. None of us get out of this alive. And we need each other, and we need the music that we sing to each other to survive. —A.N.
Filmmaker Ken Burns, 68, released his eight-part series Country Music in 2019.
SENATOR MIKE CRAPO
Country music became comforting music for me, especially in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. While our nation faced its worst terrorist attack on American soil, Americans united together and lifted each other up in unprecedented ways. The song that has stuck with me since is Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” The themes of that song resonate broadly for any number of issues, including now, as we watch Russia’s barbaric attacks on Ukraine. —J.L.
Senator Mike Crapo, 71, is a Republican from Idaho.
My father is from Texas, and he listened to country music, so when I was 3 or 4 years old, riding in the car, he had the radio on and he’d be whistling or he’d be yodeling. He was listening to Gene Autry, Hank Snow and Hank Williams. I would sing along to those songs. That’s how I became a singer.
I’ve just recorded a rock record at the old RCA Studio in Nashville. Every time we took a break, I went out into the lobby and looked at the pictures on the wall. I saw Dolly Parton with Porter Wagoner, and I saw Johnny Cash. I was just mesmerized by that. I wasn’t going around seeing if Judas Priest was there. —J.L.P.
Sammy Hagar, 74, has a new album, These Crazy Times, planned for release this year.
SENATOR MARSHA BLACKBURN
One of my favorite moments in Washington was having Garth Brooks come to accept the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Capitol Hill can be a real circus, but when Garth walks into a room, you forget all that and focus on the great time you’re about to have. As Americans, we are bound by common values — faith, family, freedom, hope and opportunity — and it’s those deeply human moments that help us find deeper connections that transcend geography. There’s no such thing as “flyover country” when a music lover in New York or L.A. can hit play on a Jason Aldean song and suddenly find solace on a back road they didn’t know existed. There’s your common ground. —J.L.
Senator Marsha Blackburn, 70, is a Republican from Tennessee.
I remember in a time of my life suffering through panic attacks at the start of newscasts, when I was a news anchor in Chicago. I’d spend so much time off the air worrying about whether I’d be racked with jagged breath and a palpitating heart. To keep my brain in the moment, I listened to Faith Hill’s Faith album. It’s hard to feel anxious when you’re singing “This Kiss.” —A.N.
Robin Meade, 53, is the anchor of HLN’s Morning Express. She has also recorded two country albums.