Way back in 1994, Cecelia Tichi wrote in High Lonesome: The American Culture of Country Music: “Country music puts home’s enveloping love and kindness against materialism, social status, hurdles of hierarchy, and all sorts of false value systems. These are focused on the city. Repeatedly, country music positions the home directly against the opposing values represented by urbanism, itself an un-American artifice.” She was right then, of course, just like she would have been right had she written the same words in 1954, or 1974. And she is still right. In fact she may be more right than ever. Country music’s restless obsession with its own identity, its ceaseless quest to define itself against competing cultural ideologies, has peaked in recent years with the ubiquity of defiant, we-are-from-the-country anthems. They are songs fundamentally about themselves, sounding the warning that modern country music is in danger of collapsing inwards.
Current Nashville country largely props up one-dimensional notions of what, exactly, the genre is; who its fans are; who performs it; where it enjoys the most cultural resonance. A cursory look at top-ten country songs from the past few months includes hits such as Jason Aldean’s “Fly-Over States” (Where is country music popular?), Kip Moore’s “Something ’Bout A Truck” (What is the lifestyle apparatus of a country fan?), Montgomery Gentry’s “Where I Come From” (What are the cultural values of country folks?), and Aldean’s “Tattoos on This Town” (All of the above rolled into one epic musical statement). These songs take aim at a mythological set of social norms linked to the “un-American artifice” of the city, implying or declaring that rural folkways are under assault from the evils of urban existence.
One of the easiest ways to set about explaining who you are is to explain who you are not. As Tichi noted, for country music, this enterprise has historically taken the shape of positioning rural social values against urban mores. What intensifies this longstanding tradition, however, is a pattern I noticed about five years ago. A lot of popular country songs that valorize rural life do so, somewhat improbably, by appropriating elements of hip-hop culture and rap music — the most “urban” of all music in the American imagination. The result? In satirizing musical and lyrical gestures drawn from a genre rooted historically in African American visions of the city, the songs launch a targeted critique of urban modernity and postmodernity that inescapably, though perhaps incidentally, also targets black cultural expression. On the flip side, when pondering exactly who possesses agency in this complex transaction, one considers the perspective voiced by Michael Eric Dyson in his essay “This Dark Diction Has Become America’s Addiction.” Dyson suggests that due to the globalization of black cultural products, particularly rap music, the colonized have become the colonizer, shifting the historic balance of power towards the marginalized. So, is country music poaching, or is rap music dominating? Probably the answer is — yes.
It’s nothing new for this supposedly lily-white genre to interface with black music. Bill Malone’s book Country Music, U.S.A., documents exchanges between working-class blacks and whites in the genre’s formative years, resulting in white acceptance of “the spirituals, the blues, ragtime, jazz, rhythm-and-blues, and a whole host of dance steps, vocal shadings, and instrumental techniques.” So that’s old hat. What is new is country music’s use of black musical influences to construct a pointed critique of urban life — a critique that highlights another traditional sentiment expressed in country songs, ambivalence about the city. Malone touches on this ambivalence in the collective country consciousness: “The city has exerted a contrary pull on the rural mind…country people…have often sought the city’s advantages while at the same time attacking its values and longing for the rural life which they readily extol but to which they would not return.”
Lost Trailers – “Holler Back”
He could well have been describing the three songs that have convinced me that this is an actual trend in the country industry. The first of the three that I heard was the Lost Trailers’ 2008 hit “Holler Back”, a cutesy snapshot of urban-rural collision. The song recounts the interactions of a country narrator and his “city-folk friend in a hip-hop world” who, painfully, goes by the name of “E. Diddy”. The first verse relentlessly critiques E. Diddy’s urban stances: he cocks his hat; he drives a “ride”; he pumps bass in his car; and he uses African American vernacular English (“Dawg, are you down with that?” and “Don’t that fly girl got some back?”). Listeners are even treated to a brief burst of thumping bass, clumsily hammering home the point. This send-up of E. Diddy is sharpened by the accusation that his urban poses are adopted and inauthentic: turns out that his real name is “Earl” and that he drives his Grandma’s car. Implying a migration narrative, the overtone is that E. Diddy himself hails from the country. The song paints E. Diddy’s faux-urban image, lifestyle, and language as laughable and hollow; in contrast, the narrator describes a real, true, and meaningful rural lifestyle as a foil.
The song’s meaning turns on the narrator’s mockery of E. Diddy’s citified slang. When E. Diddy instructs the narrator to “holler back when you get back home,” the response is a resounding chorus declaring that “the only ‘holler back’ that I know is that holler, back in the woods, where the country folks got it good.” The meaning of “holler back” (call me) is flipped on its head to refer to that most rural of all geographical formations, the “holler” (hollow). At the very moment that the chorus trumpets the glories country life (replete with hedonistic references to “cowgirls shakin’ their sassafras”), the arrangement borrows a well-known device from rap music: a crowd in the background alternates chanting “hey” and “ho” in a call-and-response dialogue with the lead singer.
Although entries from the Lost Trailers’ MySpace page in June 2009 show the song to have been inspired by the lead singer’s childhood in rural Georgia, the lyrics are location neutral. In this way its sentiments form a flattened, anonymous, city-vs.-country smackdown. The reception of this smackdown was mixed. The Lost Trailers posted on MySpace on June 30, 2009 that fan enthusiasm ran high, regardless of geographic affiliation: “People from the most rural parts of the country to folks who live downtown in big cities like Chicago have all been calling in and requesting this song.” The band admits in the same posting that not all reaction was positive: “Some reviewers have suggested that this song is a slam on urban slang, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth.” According to co-writer and band member Stokes Nielson, their intent was instead to create a “modern country song”. The group went “modern” a second time on the album Holler Back, in a song called “Gravy”, a profoundly awkward country-rap number. To the Lost Trailers, modern equals urban. Modern equals rap music. Modern equals hip-hop slang. Modern equals black. Modern equals cool and exotic and appealing and distasteful all at the same time.
And modern ultimately equals separation from an unreachable past, according to Jason Aldean’s wistful 2010 homage to cruising country backroads. In my inner ear, Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” forms an unspoken dialogue with Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice”, and not just because Aldean actually raps(!) the verses. The song also begins with hip-hop slang, jarring in the context of a country song: “Yeah, I’m chillin’ on a dirt road / Laid-back, swerving like I’m George Jones / Smoke rollin’ out the window / An ice-cold beer sittin’ in the console.” The iconic rap tropes of car-cruising, smoking, drinking, and swerving coalesce to contrast weirdly with the story’s rural setting. Like “Holler Back”, the song laments a lost youth of partying, bonfires, girls, cigarettes, and run-ins with the cops. Although Aldean’s critique of urban life is much milder than the Lost Trailers’, he clearly believes that the best part of his life elapsed “where the blacktop ends.” Hints of rural superiority simmer under the surface too when he raps “we do it different ‘round here, that’s right / But we sure do it good, and we do it all night.”
Jason Aldean, featuring Ludacris – “Dirt Road Anthem” (live)
Like the Lost Trailers, Aldean conjures bygone rurality by (counterintuitively) drawing on rap music, from rapped verses to slang terms — the final verse concludes with Aldean urging folks to go “down to my hood, back in them woods.” The chagrin of some country critics and fans at Aldean’s flirtations with rap music intensified when he performed with Ludacris in the 2011 Grammy nominations concert. Blistering user comments on the YouTube video and reviews at the polemical blog SavingCountryMusic.com give some sense of the vitriol leveled at Aldean for “mixing” musical genres. Many of these comments also accuse Aldean of mixing value systems and racialized categories of entertainment that ought to be kept separate. In an interview with The Tennessean in July 2011, Aldean feigned innocence of the charge of musical miscegenation, insisting that “the song is a country song, I don’t care how you slice it. The basis of the song is the exact same thing I talk about in a lot of my songs, it’s just a different way of delivering it.” Later in the interview he sagely admits, though, that “what I think country music is may not be what everyone else thinks it is.” His remarks index both country music’s ongoing fixation with self-definition and the ultimate folly of this enterprise.
Eric Church’s 2011 “Homeboy” intensified the urban-vs.-rural polemics with a direct hit on supposedly destructive hip-hop values and fashions. The song’s caricature of urban living veers close to a slam on stereotypical black urban living, inaugurated in the gauntlet-flinging rhymes of the first lines: “You were too bad for a little square town / With your hip-hop hat and your pants on the ground / Heard you cussed out mamma, pushed daddy around… / Here you are runnin’ these dirty old streets / Tattoo on your neck, fake gold on your teeth / Got the hood here snowed, but you can’t fool me, we both know who you are.” Here, aberrant urban clothing symbolizes aberrant urban behavior, something nobody in the rural hood wants. Like the Lost Trailers, Church builds his anti-city chorus around deformed urban/black slang, admonishing this lost “homeboy” to “come on home, boy.”
A later verse even promises salvation through agrarian life: “I can use a little help unloadin’ these bales / I can keep ya pretty busy with a hammer and a nail / Ain’t a glamorous life, but it’ll keep you outta jail.” Here the city’s dormant threats, veiled in the other two songs, are concretized starkly, stripped of humor or even satire. Church’s low, menacing twang, the song’s minor key, and its sparse instrumentation reinforce the gravity of his message; even the banjo sounds bleak. Out of the scenarios posed in the three songs, Church’s is the only one to link hip-hop imagery, symbols, and slang with crime and jail. This is no gentle nostalgia for fading folkways; this is a full-blown assault on certain flavors of contemporary urban life. Hearkening back to Bill Malone’s assertion that the city has historically held mystical sway over rural Americans, the protagonist of “Homeboy” left the family’s “blue-collar 40 [acres]” for darker pastures in an unnamed city. The old trope of the hapless rural migrant tainted by the lure of city vice undergirds the whole song.
Eric Church – “Homeboy”
Reminiscent of the Lost Trailers’ defense of “Holler Back” when it was criticized as a slam on urban slang, Eric Church was compelled to defend himself against similar charges in a Village Voice interview from June 22, 2012. (The article was actually titled “Q&A: Eric Church Talks Reaching Fans Outside Of Country, Metallica’s Influence, and the Misinterpretation of ‘Homeboy’,” foregrounding the mixed reception surrounding the song’s potential meanings.) When asked if listening to rap music informed “Homeboy,” Church replied: “You know, not really. As a songwriter, it’s important for us to paint the picture…and that’s just the brush we used…The brush that we used to create that brother, that’s where the ‘hip-hop hat’ and all that came from. Some people thought that was more racially charged than it was, but we were just painting a picture, not shying away from or worried about where that line was.” Speculating on an artist’s internal intent and ethical orientation differs sharply from assessing the actual outcome of his or her cultural products, so it is safe to observe that regardless of Church’s protestations, the song surely can sound “racially charged”. In tandem with other songs that borrow elements of rap music and hip-hop culture to glorify rural lifestyles and critique urban modes of existence, it appears emblematic of a trend in the country industry.
What do these three songs say to us? In varying degrees, they lament the losses which many white country folks feel that modernity forced upon them through unwanted confrontations with urban spaces and values. All three songs hint at the historical parameters that have framed those encounters — the sociological pattern, stretching back to the 1920s, of southern white rural folk migrating to the city. One hears in these songs echoes of the fact that these reluctant exoduses occurred because of stagnant southern and Appalachian economies. The songs also remind us that when white rural migrants headed cityward in the twentieth century, they encountered unfamiliar ways of life that prompted stubborn resistance, xenophobia even, and glowing nostalgia for what was left behind — along with a good bit of assimilation of the sounds of the city. The songs preach the sermon that city life easily corrupts pure and innocent rural folk, who at best fall into assuming a comically inauthentic identity or at worst end up in jail. When interpreted in this way, each song represents a microcosmic dialectical engagement between country music and hip-hop, and indexes cultural conflicts between the populations and lifestyles that each genre supposedly represents.
The songs stand proudly in a long lineage of country music’s efforts to define itself as a pure, rural folk product that resists the encroaching sonic and social landscapes of soulless urban modernity. But the songs at once escalate and compromise these efforts by constructing themselves on the musical and linguistic tropes of the very urbanity they seek to reject. Eric Lott’s Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class helps us to make sense of this dizzying square dance. Lott’s notion of the simultaneous “drawing up and crossing of [racial] boundaries” in American popular culture illuminates the complicated performance of working-class whiteness in these three songs, in contemporary country music, and, by extension, large chunks of our society. He argues that the relationship between African American and white cultural products in the United States has always been characterized by borrowing (or thievery), often for the purposes of critique or satire. When seen through this critical lens, a few simple country songs suddenly teach us how pop culture shapes and reflects the competing racial, class, and political ideologies that continue to produce ever-deeper schisms in the fabric of American cultural life.