The following paper was delivered at the 2016 EMP Pop Conference.
Sometime around 2008 it occurred to certain segments of the country music industry that African-Americans existed. An alert country music listener could occasionally hear what we might call reverse dog whistles – lyrical clues indicating that the singer wished to be perceived as not racist. Several country singers, in small but perceptible ways, challenged modern country radio’s implicit understanding that the Southern man is also a white man.
Mainstream country music has an uncanny knack for refracting cultural trends — or at least perceived cultural trends — through its hits, its stars, its representation of itself as an industry, operating at a point where market research feels, at times, practically indistinguishable from a kind of intuitive mass empathy. 2008 was one such time. The candidacy and eventual election of Barack Obama was clearly one impetus for Nashville’s new racial cognizance, but it was not the only one.
In August 2006, 93.9 KZLA in Los Angeles segued from Keith Urban’s “Tonight I Wanna Cry” to the Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get it Started.” With L.A’s sole remaining country station making the switch to “rhythmic pop contemporary,” you could now no longer hear country music in three of the four largest markets in the U.S. New York hadn’t had a country station since 1996; San Francisco had been country-free since 2001.
Changing demographics in the U.S. had already stoked corporate anxieties in Nashville. The percentage of Americans who were white was expected to steadily decline, a fact of particular importance to country radio because its listeners are almost exclusively white – a 2006 Arbitron report estimated that only 2.3% of country radio’s audience was black.
Radio remains an important part of breaking country stars and nurturing their careers. Gary Overton, the head of Sony Music Nashville, frequently says of country music: “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” Sometime around 2008 it occurred to certain segments of the country music industry that, in a significant portion of urban America, country music superstars did not exist.
In March 2009 Darius Rucker’s “It Won’t Be Like This For Long” became the first #1 country song by an African-American singer since Charley Pride’s final chart topper, “Night Games,” in 1983. This chart statistic became instantly totemic, indicative either of how resistant Nashville was to change or a signal of potential transformation to come, depending on your perspective. Rucker’s third country single, “It Won’t Be Like This For Long” first charted in November, the week of the 2008 election. Sometimes Nashville’s timing is so on the nose it’s embarrassing.
When Rucker who signed to Capitol Records Nashville in 2008, he was, of course, a known quantity. As the lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish, he’d been one of the biggest rock stars of the ’90s and one of the least hip. If the trajectory from aging rocker to country star was an increasingly common one, few followed it as gracefully the Charleston, South Carolina, native Rucker. He released his debut country album, Learn to Live, in September 2008 to widespread acceptance from country fans.
As a performer and as a star, Rucker was worlds different than country music’s last black hopeful.
The most recent African-American country performer to achieve any commercial success had been Cowboy Troy, a “family member” of the wild, garish Big & Rich MuzikMafia that attempted to remake Nashville in its own image in the early aughts. Troy’s debut, Loco Motive, hit #2 country in 2005, but two years later, his follow-up, Back in the Saddle, stalled in the 20s. With its heavy guitars and goofy demeanor, “I Play Chicken with the Train” announced itself as a novelty hit, hardly a way to successfully integrate country radio. Rucker, in contrast, was a southern everyman, a guy who maybe drank a little too much but loved his kids and worried about the state of the world in measured cliches on songs like “If I Had Wings.”
And yet, that track, with the anodyne line “Why do we hate?” significant recalls Rucker’s query “Why must we hate one another?” from an older, more explicitly topical song.
Hootie and the Blowfish’s 1994 song “Drowning,” was almost certainly only single by a platinum rock band of the decade to complain that the state of Carolina still flew the Confederate flag. When, in the wake of a mass shooting at black South Carolina church twenty years later, the display of that symbol became was more widely and publicly challenged, Rucker did not explicitly address the controversy. Nor was he any more obligated to do so than any other country music star. In fact, he may have been less obligated to – his new career itself was a kind of political stance.
When he rose to fame in the early ’90s, Tim McGraw did not always display a keen sensitivity to the complex and often tragic role race played in American history.
“Indian Outlaw” was, we can hope, the closest we’ll ever come to hearing a 12-inch dance remix of the Atlanta Braves’ tomahawk chop on the radio. Lyrically, its redsploitation cliches are made more offensive by a last-minute bid for liberal redemption: For a coda, it tacks on the chorus of John D. Loudermilk’s “Indian Reservation,” a pop cry against the mistreatment of native Americans, best known as a hit for Paul Revere and the Raiders.
But McGraw’s position, as they say, evolved. He duetted with Nelly in 2004 on “Over and Over.” (“It ain’t nothin’ country about this song,” McGraw half-apologized to fans at the time.) By that point McGraw had became one of country music’s most prominent Democrats. A longtime Bill Clinton fan, he voiced his support for Obama in People in September 2008, identifying as a “Blue Dog Democrat” and saying he liked “the statement he would make for our country to the world.” At that time, McGraw also had an album in the can, Southern Voice, that, to his vocal consternation, would be delayed for a year because Curb Records chose to release McGraw’s compilation, Greatest Hits 3.
Nearly a year later, McGraw released the title track from that album as a single. Written by Bob DiPiero and Tom Douglas, “Southern Voice” lists prominent historical figures who in some way typify a regional ideal – hardly a groundbreaking lyrical conceit. Yet the list is racially integrated in a manner that no country hit would achieve by accident.
Six of the sixteen southern voices named in the verses are African-American, though the overall racial percentage of the song is skewed slightly more toward the Caucasian side of the ledger by the mention of Allman Brothers and Charlie Daniels t-shirts in the chorus, and passing mentions in the bridge to Jerry Lee Lewis. (The bridge also mentions Jesus but, this paper will assume that He is invoked in his non-corporeal form so as to avoid speculation on his racial identity.) (Also appearing is Pocahontas, who I suppose technically lived in what would become the American “south,” but, I mean, still, come on.)
The song’s insistence on a racially composite southern heritage would be more exciting if the writing was a little better. But though a bit hacky, the writers create interesting comparisons almost in spite of themselves.
The first line pairs off Hank Williams and Dale Earnhart – gotta get them out of the way, right? But then it gets interesting: Linguistic innovators Chuck Berry and “Will” Faulkner are set beside one another, followed by powerhouse vocalists Aretha Franklin and Dolly Parton. Then, weirdly and with no audible irony, Rosa Parks and Scarlett O’Hara. I do like how Martin Luther King and Billy Graham are nearly side by side the second verse.
Through representation and inclusion, the song insists everyone mentioned is a southerner despite his or her skin color. That makes for glib history and thin politics, maybe, but there’s something redeeming about the focus on the voice – that though divided by their appearance, there is nonetheless, through voice, a material manifestation of self that all these figures share.
The writer Choire Sicha once suggested that every mayor of New York City gets the Yankee superstar he deserves, and the same could be said of U.S. Presidents and country music stars. Sometimes the correlation is one-to-one: Garth Brooks’ frank commercial triangulation made him a Clintonian country singer just as Bill Clinton’s gargantuan offer to feel our pain made him a Garthian president. George W. Bush, an aging frat boy called upon to talk tough, was a Toby Keith who wished he could be a Kenny Chesney, or maybe vice versa.
The shadow president of Nashville in Barack Obama’s first term was not fellow color-bar-breaker Rucker, but a singer who displayed the theoretical strengths and stark limitations of white America’s good intentions: Brad Paisley. At the time Obama was elected, each of Paisley’s last nine singles had been number one country hits, and in 2009, the savvy West Virginian set a new record with his tenth chart topper, “Then.” But the album that launched that single, American Saturday Night, suggested that Paisley was ready to gamble with his commercial capital and nudge listeners into a new era post-racial country music cosmopolitanism.
The title track is a blithe ode to globalization that explicitly rejects golden age traditionalism. But it was “Welcome to the Future,” written as an immediate response to Obama’s election, that made Paisley catnip to northern urban liberals like myself,many of whom had already been impressed by Paisley’s songwriting wit and fluent guitar, and who now sought reassurance that they had weren’t wholly alienated from their fellow Americans.
The song’s final verse in particular encapsulated the mood of hope for the future of race relations in the U.S. that was widespread following Obama’s election:
I had a friend in school
Running back on the football team
They burned a cross in his front yard
For asking out the homecoming queen
I thought about him today
And everybody who’d seen what he’d seen
From a woman on a bus
To a man with a dream
Paisley would go on to perform at the White House. Still, as he told Country Aircheck in 2009: “I caught a little bit of flack from some people that didn’t quite understand, that thought for a second that maybe I was getting political with this song.” Then something terrible happened.
“Accidental Racist” is what happens when you let two professional awards show hosts try to sort out America’s tangled racial history together. You know the story: Paisley’s narrator wears a flag with the Confederate flag on, L.L. Cool J is the offended black barista he encounters. But though it’s Paisley’s character who’s in need of education, it’s L.L. who supposedly learns a lesson: “If you don’t judge my do-rag/ I won’t judge your red flag.”
Paisley’s knack for embodying the southern naif who hopes to decipher the changing world has never tripped him up so disastrously as that again. But even on “Southern Comfort Zone,” which argues that travel broadens a southern man’s mind, Paisley assays a presumptuous: “I know what it’s like to be the only one like me/ To take a good hard look around and be a minority.” Paisley has endeavored to nudge his audience forward, but the process often pulled him backward artistically. “Welcome to the Future” culminated with a “glory, glory hallelujah”; at the climax of “Southern Comfort Zone,” a chorus launches into “Dixie.”
Anyway, by 2013, country music had already expanded far beyond any southern comfort zone.
That’s Nelly again. (Why always Nelly?) In 2012 Florida-Georgia Line, the straw that breaks the poptimist back, released a new version of their crossover hit “Cruise,” featuring an appearance by the previously misplaced St. Louis rapper, and it went top ten.
The wooshy synthesizers of Paisley’s “Welcome to Future” suggested a kitschy, wide-eyed ’70s kid’s dream of Tomorrowland. Glossy, rhythmic, slick, impossible to imagine without contemporary non-country pop music, “Cruise” was what the actual future sounded like, the culmination of a reworking of mainstream country that had begun with Jason Aldean’s 2010 version of the Colt Ford/Brantley Gilbert song “Dirt Road Anthem,” which featured a straight-up rap break.
Rucker, McGraw, Paisley – each wondered, or allowed listeners to wonder, who or what a Southerner was. As rap and pop began to inflect country production and singing, a different question arose, and not for the first time: whether these new-fanged sounds were “country.” “You know, nobody grew up more countrier than me,” Luke Bryan would say when defending the sound of his music.
When Bryan sings that he bumps “A little Conway, a little T-Pain,” on “That’s My Kinda Night” or Florida Georgia Line pull out a mixtape on “This Is How We Roll” that’s “got a little Hank, little Drake,” it’s superficially similar to what McGraw and Paisley were up to. But the racially integrated consumption celebrated in these new songs-that-I’m-trying-really-hard-not-to-call-bro-country leapfrog over Paisley’s concerns about the modern south. They’re not explicitly re-imagining a regional heritage the way “Southern Voice” had. And, of course, the singers are not black like Darius Rucker.
Country returned quickly to Los Angeles with KKGO Go Country 105 in 2007. By 2013, New York even City had a country music station again – the Cumulus-owned Nash FM. A 2014 New York Times story noted that country “has displaced Top 40 as America’s most popular musical format with an audience that has grown stronger, wider and younger.”
No less white, of course. In 2008, country radio faced a test. Within a few years it had found a way, at least in the short term, to dodge the questions that racial identity posed – simply by peeking over and copying pop music’s answers.