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Why Inauguration Performer Tim Rushlow Said Yes to Donald Trump

Tim Rushlow is the ex-lead singer of Little Texas, a band that was omnipresent on country radio in the 90s. Tonight, he will perform at the president-elect’s Make American Great Again! Welcome Celebration as part of Frontmen of Country, a supergroup of sorts that also includes Lonestar’s Richie McDonald and Restless Heart’s Larry Stewart. On Friday night, Rushlow will then lead his jazz band (named Tim Rushlow & His Big Band) as they play Donald and Melania Trump’s first dance as First Couple. (He won’t discuss his inauguration ball setlist, other than to say it includes jazz standards popularized by people like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Cole Porter, and Bobby Darin.)

Along with headliners like Toby Keith, Lee Greenwood, and 3 Doors Down, Rushlow is one of only a handfuls of acts to agree to play an official Trump inauguration event, putting him in stark contrast to the dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of artists who reportedly turned the incoming administration down. We’ve heard a lot from artists who said no to Trump, but less so from those who said yes.

This morning, SPIN reached Rushlow by phone in Washington, D.C. to ask why he wanted the gig so many other artists declined. He was an affable, practiced talker who stayed pointedly on-message. Playing the inauguration represents a service to his country, he said, and if that seems like a tacit endorsement of Trump, so be it. Rushlow said he isn’t one to disrespect the office.

What’s the message you want to share [by performing at the inauguration]?
Honestly, I didn’t come here to D.C. as a Republican or as a Democrat, or liberal or conservative, I came here as an American. First and foremost, I think it’s time for us to unite as a country and go, “Okay, look president-elect Trump is going to be our president, so we need to get behind him, behind this and move forward.” We’ve got the greatest country in the world and we don’t always act like it, but we do and I think it’s time we do. I don’t come here with any hate. Haters are gonna hate and there’s people that are probably gonna be angry with me. And that’s fine, they have that right, I think it’s just time to get past that. To me, it just takes to be cool and have grace and to hear the other person.

You know, I have a ton of friends who liked the other person or didn’t vote how I voted. I had some friends call me straight-up on the phone and go, “Tim, man, dude, I’m disappointed!” And I’m like, “Man, I get it. I’m sorry you feel that way, but you know I gotta do this, I’m an American and I’m a performer and I’ve been asked to serve my country and I’m gonna do it.” And they’re like, “Yeah, I know, I get it, man—Okay, bro, see you next week!” [Laughs.] And that’s how it should be, y’know, that’s how the script should play out. That’s called healthy. When we start just always name-calling and hurling stones at each other, it’s just unhealthy. I think we’ve gotta find a way to get our health back. I come here as someone who really wants to see our country unite and so that’s really my message overall. I don’t have a political angle to play—I’ve got great friends that are black, great friends that are white, great friends that are gay, great friends that are straight, and the last time I checked, the biggest commandment for us was to love each other well. And so I think we just have to start there. That’s my statement and I’m gonna stick with it.

Do you believe that the inauguration and its celebrations will help unite the country?
Y’know, I don’t know. You have to start there, though. This has been going on for hundreds of years and it’s an amazing opportunity. I mean, I’ve played for our troops around the world. This time last year, I was on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf and two weeks after that I was in Afghanistan on a forward operating base playing for a field team that hadn’t seen anybody that was an American in six months. So whether I’m asked to do that, or whether I’m asked to perform at an inaugural, I look at exactly the same: It’s serving my country. I didn’t join the military. I come from a military family, and so this is my way of giving back. … I’d say it’s about ninety percent positive and about ten percent negative [feedback]. I’m okay with those odds.

Though you say it’s like ninety percent/ten percent, does it not feel like you’re in a minority opinion, given that so many artists have said that they don’t want to be a part of this inauguration?
I think part of that could be true, but to be honest, I think a lot of that is just sort of a smokescreen. I was asked to be a part of the inauguration back in mid-December and I know that there were a bunch of other artists that were asked too. And I happen to know from an inside scoop, because I was involved in some of the talks, that Mr. Trump was really looking for “Celebrating America” and celebrating the country and diversity and the music and the arts, and he didn’t really want A-listers. He really didn’t want this to be about celebrity appearance, he wanted this to be about normal people. Some would look at that with me and go, “Well, when’s the last time Tim had a hit?” or “Gosh, he’s not Beyoncé,” but no I’m not. [Laughs.] I am not an A-lister, but I’m an American and I think he loves the fact that I was doing some country.

Are you concerned at all that your performance will be read as—construed as—an endorsement of Donald Trump and his policies?
If that’s the way people want to see it, that’s okay. I’m actually here, like I said, as an American. If people want to think that I’m here because I want to support Donald Trump, that’s fine. The truth is I do support Donald Trump, he’s our president and whoever’s our president, I’m gonna support them. I supported Barack Obama, I played at the National Democratic Convention with Little Texas in 1994, so I’ve been all over the spectrum. And again, I’m not here as a political figure or as religious slant, I’m here as a total, straight-out American who’s trying to do his patriotic duty for his country, just like I do when I do one of the 14 tours I do for the troops overseas in the last 12 years.

I think a lot of people feel that this election is different somehow, that there’s less room for bipartisanship. Do you feel that way at all?
I don’t. I think that we all need to take a deep breath, step away from the table, and realize that there’s a lot more great things to talk about than bad things to talk about. And we can fix the bad things, it just takes a little effort. But if we just want to sit around and magnify the bad stuff, then you can’t ever really see what’s great out there and I see a lot of great stuff in our country. Take a trip to Djibouti, Africa and play on a base there, and you come home and you walk through customs and you want to kiss the ground, like, “I am so happy I live here.” I’ve seen more things as a civilian, militarily, than most have, so I probably have a different perspective because my vision’s pretty crystal-clear on that.

But I don’t know—again, I just focus on what’s positive. I’m not just Joe Neutral, though I’ve been called that these last couple days and I guess that’s fine. If I’m gonna be anything it’s a Constitutionalist, if you want to get down to the brass-tacks of it. I just believe that the Constitution’s great and we need to uphold it and we need to move forward and find a way to all get along and I do think it’s possible.

What are you being paid for your performance?
That’s not even something I’m going to talk about, but I will tell you that when they called me the first time and asked me if I would play the inaugural, I said absolutely and there was no mention of money. It’s not been something I’ve talked to them about. My musicians are all union players, so I assume the union’s going to pay them something. If it airs on TV then I guess someone will send me a check or something, but past that, that has not been my discussion with them. It’s funny because that topic comes up a lot. I don’t mind it coming up, it’s just one of those things that I wish I had a juicy answer for. [laughs] But I don’t.

Are you being paid directly from the inaugural planning committee, or are you only looking for those union and television checks?
To be really straight with you, I don’t know. The minute they said they wanted me to do this, I got online and booked a ticket. I don’t need to get paid to do this show—not at all. I did plenty of this in the past where I’ve never been paid anything … [if] I’m passionate about that person or passionate about a cause, I have no problem spending my own money to do it. I never have, and it’s just silly to let that stop you if you really believe in it. If I didn’t believe in my country like I tell you that I do, then I’d just be totally just blowing steam right now.

I read that Mark Burnett, [creator] of NBC’s The Apprentice, reached out to secure this booking. Is that true?
Yeah, it is true. Mark had hired a music supervisor who was aware of my PBS TV special and then showed him and the Trump family and they went, “This is great. This is the Great American Songbook, the guy’s brand—he’s already been successful once in country, now he’s doing this in jazz. He’s authentic. This is really great. Call him up, alright?” So I got the music supervisor on the phone with Mark Burnett and the Trump family. It’s been in the works since mid-December.

Final question: Who did you vote for in the most recent presidential election?
That is off-limits.

I’m going to keep it off limits, but I’ll tell you this much: I love the fact that in my country, we get to vote with our conscience. I think it’s a blessing and an honor. No matter who the president is, I’m going to support ‘em. So if it swung my way, yeehaw; if it didn’t swing my way, I’m still gonna be prayerful and hoping for great things from our country. I’m very excited about it and look forward to the next four years. I’ve got to, we’ve all got to.