Phil Valentine should probably have taken the vaccine. Though his family has released little information about his medical history after he passed last Saturday at 61, his age and the health issues that come with senior status put him in a vulnerable position. To establishment press outlets and their imitators, Uncle Phil was getting his just desserts. The Wrap called Valentine an anti-vaxxer though he spent four hours a day five days a week for nine months detailing how government and media entities ignored documented vaccine risk and effectiveness issues. Rolling Stone deemed him a “vaccine skeptic” for rightfully pointing out that COVID poses a small risk to most of the population. The Daily Beast accused him of mocking vaccines on air when he claimed he had a low chance of dying from COVID and was more concerned about heart-related side effects. The mantras of liberal political junkies and micro-influencers that the radio host should die or suffer irreparable harm reached such a fever pitch that The Tennessean devoted an article to admonishing such discourse. Valentine was once again capturing national attention as the press gloated about his hospitalization and eventual death, failing to note the irony of publicizing an outlying example to express the danger of a disease with a 99.7% survival rate. In the end, Phil was right. He did have a low chance of dying from COVID. Yet, in the days before that off chance became a reality for the Valentine family, Phil demonstrated for a final time the trait that made him such a behemoth of talk radio both in Nashville and in national syndication: his advocation of personal responsibility.
The news of Phil Valentine’s death came wedged between Joe Biden’s surrogates insisting their Afghanistan withdrawal was a success and Andrew Cuomo dutifully packing up the governor’s mansion while breathing a sigh of relief that he could evade culpability for his nursing-home genocide campaign with a nod to his irrepressible Italian libido. Compared to such wanton denials of truth, Phil’s turnaround on vaccination via missives through his brother deserved much more than published schadenfreude. In his nearly four-decade radio career in Nashville, Phil Valentine was rarely wrong. He led a successful revolt against a state income tax when Republican governor Don Sundquist insisted it was vital to Tennessee’s financial future, a claim our current $2.1 billion budget surplus has proven ludicrous. He pushed Tennessee and the rest of the nation toward immigration reform before Trump’s economic nationalism made it mainstream to such an extent that The Nation commissioned a hit piece on him in 2006. He foresaw Trump’s ascendancy while his competitors dismissed the then-reality star’s appeal. He dissected fellow Tennessean Al Gore’s PowerPoint presentation turned Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth with 2012’s An Inconsistent Truth, a film that, despite its workmanlike aesthetics, exposes Gore’s inaccuracies and embellishments while doing its own small part in ensuring the former Veep’s 2017 sequel earned 90% less at the box office than its predecessor.
Phil wrote the handbook on conservatism, but his greatest career accomplishment stems not from his political rhetoric but in espousing a distinctly regional brand of conservative thought that held a national appeal. In contrast to Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck’s self-fashioning as Right renegades in the liberal bastion of New York City or the late Rush Limbaugh’s self-exile to his own Xanadu in Florida, Phil possessed an unparalleled talent for covering local news stories and applying them to the country’s broader political concerns. The Phil Valentine Show broadcasted from the capital of cognitive dissonance, a blue city with enough cultural clout to merit a branch of William Morris Endeavor and a food scene with a litany of James Beard Awards that simultaneously serves as the personification of Red America’s ideals. Unlike other Third-Coast talk-radio hosts who denigrated their urban centers’ incongruity with the rural communities around them, Phil expressed a clear love of his hometown, touting Nashville’s multifaceted culture with the same fervor he expressed for taking out his boat and bushhogging his property outside Franklin. Phil never needed to move to a larger market to reach the big time; the brand of Nashville local color he’d developed since he first arrived in the city with radio dreams and a day job as a gym-membership salesman got him where he wanted to be.
For the last week, the national press has concocted an image of Phil Valentine as a victim of his own ignorant politics—a man on par with a minister telling his congregation God’s chosen don’t get COVID before succumbing to the disease. But Phil had so many lessons for the self-important practitioners of a certain brand of media if only they had listened (and from their assessments of Phil, it’s clear they didn’t). He was a defender of the free-market faith, chiding Trump for his tariff policies with the detail of a think-tanker one minute and leaping into a gospel-song parody with a like-minded caller the next. While he tapped into listeners’ anger, he also made their education a priority by sharing the articles he read for his show prep every day, a rarity in the world of politics as entertainment. When other hosts faced boycotts, he was unafraid of extreme political incorrectness whether repeatedly referring to school-shooting survivor cum activist and failed pillow salesman David Hogg as “Camera Hogg” or telling his audience to “Wake up and smell the tacos” when discussing immigration reform. His loyalty to his family and coworkers was unwavering, clearly on display in his career-long working relationship with producer Johnny B and Phil’s run as the co-host of the history podcast PodGOATs with one of the three Valentine sons. Most of all, he was a voice of reason for Nashville and the country who showed us that our local actions have consequences and our personal responsibility is the bedrock on which to build a better political future.