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From ‘This Town’ to Music City

Singer-songwriter Canaan Smith poses with Hill staffer cum country music aficionado Kurt Bardella in Bristow, Va. (Courtesy Kurt Bardella)
Singer-songwriter Canaan Smith poses with Hill staffer cum country music aficionado Kurt Bardella in Bristow, Va. (Courtesy Kurt Bardella)

Rather than engineering the outcome of


contests scheduled to play out in Iowa and New Hampshire over the next few months, or plotting a campaign for a

congressional contender, former House Republican aide Kurt Bardella intends to spend 2016 courting what he perceives to be a terribly underserved constituency: fellow country music fans.  

“It’s refreshing to be able to do something that’s 100 percent positive — given what we do in the political space,” the one-time spokesman for Obama administration scourge Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said of his entertainment-centric tip sheet, The Morning Hangover .  

The rock star staffer crashed and burned in early 2011 after it was revealed that he was routinely feeding New York Times Magazine scribe Mark Leibovich emails from unsuspecting reporters and pols for use in formulating the resulting D.C. tell-all, “This Town.”  

Political hacks cried foul. Embarrassed lawmakers fumed. Leibovich clammed up (until he didn’t ). All of which left Issa, who was still smarting from an unflattering New Yorker profile in which Bardella basically overshadowed the boss (a cardinal sin in most workplaces), little recourse but to send his power-hungry protégé packing .  

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
On-again, off-again collaborators Issa and Bardella. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Within weeks, Bardella was shilling for Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller, signing on as communications director for the conservative media outlet. Not six months later, Issa called Bardella home — with some caveats. The one-time spokesman returned to work for the Oversight and Government Reform Committee but was barred from talking to media.  

In 2013 Bardella decamped from the Hill to set up a boutique public relations shop, Endeavor Strategies. Bardella once again found himself in the news upon hiring a pair of staffers who got caught in the wake of disgraced Florida Republican Trey Radel’s cocaine-fueled breakup with Congress.  

None of which, by the way, matters to the recording artists or musical power brokers he’s worked to surround himself with in recent months.  

“I don’t know where he comes from or how he does it … [But] this is the only thing I’ve ever seen that covers as much territory as it does,” Stan Barnett, a music vet in the Creative Artists Agency office in Nashville, Tenn., told Roll Call about Bardella’s comprehensive country music roundup. “Kurt just wraps it all up and ties a bow on it for me.”  

According to Bardella, the inspiration for the self-styled newsletter struck last summer during a swing through Nashville to see the Rolling Stones.  

While talking shop with country music insiders, Bardella said he inquired about the daily tip sheets — mentioning Politico’s Playbook, ABC News’ The Note and NBC’s First Read as examples of his media diet — he should seek out to stay abreast of musical happenings.  

Cue the crickets chirping.  

“They didn’t know what I was talking about,” Bardella said of the dead air that suddenly overtook the conversation. So he picked their brains about the viability of a “fan facing” digest.  

Members of The Cadillac Three huddle around one-time Issa spox Kurt Bardella at Jiffy Lube Live. (Courtesy Kurt Bardella)
Members of The Cadillac Three huddle around Bardella at Jiffy Lube Live. (Courtesy Kurt Bardella)

Now armed with on-the-ground intel, Bardella said he deliberated for months over the experimental publication — then raced to ensure the corresponding Twitter handle was still available. “Because that’s what you do,” he said.  

The inaugural missive was dispatched to a few hundred prospective readers in September. But it’s clear from his Twitter feed — as illustrated by the barrage of messages he loosed on reporters in the wee hours of July 11 in order to highlight the special moment he’d fortuitously captured (tour mates surprising singer Canaan Smith on stage to commemorate that his song, “Love You Like That,” had become his first number one single) just minutes earlier — that breaking into this brave new world had occupied his thoughts for quite a while.  

The end product, which Bardella said he typically composes between 10 p.m. and midnight, reads a lot like Mike Allen’s snapshot of life in the politisphere. And that’s very much by design.  

“It’s like Playbook meets theSkimm,” Bardella explained, stressing that he deliberately avoids salacious material or inside-baseball stuff.  

Instead, he trumpets celebrity birthdays, plugs buzzy musical debuts and provides a fan’s-eye-view of the various shows that continuously crop up; Bardella estimates he made it to nearly two dozen concerts (dutifully curated on his Instagram feed ) last year alone.  

“The heart of this is ultimately showcasing that live experience,” he said.  

To wit, Bardella says he  only discovered country music a few years back, at an Eric Church show.  

A memento of Bardella’s first country show. (Courtesy Kurt Bardella)
A memento of Bardella’s crash course in country music. (Courtesy Kurt Bardella)

“It was awesome. I became a country music fan that night,” he said of his

conversion in early 2011. Since then, he’s made it his business to seek out visiting country acts, ticking off Jiffy Lube Live, The Fillmore, 9:30 Club, Verizon Center and Merriweather Post Pavilion as frequent stomping grounds.  

Others seem eager to follow along on this rather unexpected journey.  

Per a promotional packet Bardella has prepared about the fledgling project, TMH already has the ears of several hundred tour promoters, record label execs, program directors, emerging artists and media outlets across the country.  

From a grassroots perspective, he’s amassed north of 14,000 Facebook followers, 3,900 Twitter fans and nearly half million views on YouTube . Bardella also personally programs a Top 20 playlist broadcast weekly on Spotify .  

This past November, he traveled to the 49th Annual Country Music Association Awards.  

Living the dream at the CMA Awards. (Courtesy Kurt Bardella)
Living the dream at the CMA Awards. (Courtesy Kurt Bardella)

How’d Music City hospitality compare to, say, Nerd Prom?  

“Well, the food was a lot better,” he joked of the grub he enjoyed in Nashville versus the pabulum doled out to attendees at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association gathering. Bardella even got a little starstruck — noting that bumping into Kiefer Sutherland and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler at an afterparty was pretty surreal.  

“You’re getting to be at arms’ length of all these amazing people,” he marveled, adding, “It’s very different from the typical congressional reception.”  

He pinged a variety of contacts just after New Year’s to see if any closet country music fans cared to come along for the ride. The fishing expedition, he said, drew out some former acquaintances that seemed intrigued by this latest development.  

Nobody is more surprised by this turn of events than Bardella.  

Bardella with America’s Morning Show co-host Chuck Wicks on November 5, 2015 in Nashville. (Courtesy Kurt Bardella)
Bardella with “America’s Morning Show” co-host Chuck Wicks on November 5, 2015 in Nashville. (Courtesy Kurt Bardella)

“I think we’re all guilty of it, you know, putting someone in a box of what you think they are or what they’re doing, and then you don’t dive any deeper than that,” he suggested.  

Not that he has any time, or burning desire, to dwell on the past.  

“I’m getting to do something that I’m such a fan of,” Bardella said, floating plans to possibly apply the TMH model to other musical genres or entertainment channels. “I think the ceiling for this is fairly limitless.”  

Contact Rojas at Follow him on Twitter at @WARojas  

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