Brad Paisley’s ‘Accidental Racist’ And The History Of White Southern Musical Identity

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From NPR:

Brad Paisley is a sly country singer, a slick electric guitarist and a sometimes repentant West Virginian. “Accidental Racist,” off his newest album, Wheelhouse (you may have read about this song a hundred times in the past 24 hours), begins with Paisley thinking about telling his Starbucks barista that really, the T-shirt he’s wearing with the stars and bars of the Confederate battle flag just means he’s a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan, “caught between southern pride and southern blame.” By the end, LL Cool J has been dragged in to rap a reconciliation as treacly as Paisley’s melody: “If you don’t judge my do-rag / I won’t judge your red flag / If you don’t judge my gold chains / I’ll forget the iron chains.” But nobody is pretending there’s a true end in sight. As Paisley notes himself, Reconstruction was more than a day ago: “We’re still siftin’ through the rubble after a hundred-fifty years.”

Ever since white Northerners started putting out their records, Southern whites have represented a backward rural mindset in a national culture of jazzy modernity. Black Southerners, by contrast, were jazz itself: urbanely looking forward, the cradle of hot rhythm. The contrast is evident in the records that launched the hillbilly/country and race/R&B categories. Georgia mill worker Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane,” released in 1923 but almost as old as Carson (born 1868), was an 1871 lament for the slave life by a protagonist clutching his dog. Whereas Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds’ brassy 1920 “Crazy Blues,” written by an Atlantan, featured a narrator scoring drugs and shooting a cop. Variety loved jazz but scorned the hillbilly in 1926 as ” ‘poor white trash’ genera. The great majority, probably 95 percent, can neither read nor write English. Theirs is a community all to themselves. [They are] illiterate and ignorant, with the intelligence of morons.”

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