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Redneck Renaissance

Gretchen Wilsonís return to town makes us wonder, Whatís really behind all these songs about Wal-Mart, cheap beer and NASCAR?

Don't look now, but in Nashville, there's a new moon (pie) on the rise. The big-city glitz and suburban kitchen-sink melodrama of Shania Twain and all those sensitive hot-tub and sippy-cup milquetoast wusses are out, and rollicking tunes about Busch beer, four-wheeling down at the mudhole in your honkin' new Chevy 4X4 and dipping Copenhagen are in.

Or so the bevy of redneck-themed songs on the charts would lead Racket to believe. This week, as the Muzik Mafia -- Big & Rich, Cowboy Troy and Gretchen Wilson, the "Redneck Woman" whose monster hit jump-started the whole shebang -- comes to town (see "Bling Twango," page 64), the Billboard country singles chart also sports Craig Morgan's "Redneck Yacht Club" in the two-hole and Jason Aldean's "Hicktown" at No. 11. Not to mention such redneck-simpatico songs as Neal McCoy's "Billy's Got His Beer Goggles On," Little Big Town's "Boondocks" and Joe Nichols's "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off," all of which are also in the Top 20.

Country is no longer about domestic, suburban tranquillity, as it was just a couple of years ago. Today, it's all hard-drinking women and no-bullshit men. And no longer are rednecks painted as villains, as they often were in such 1970s songs as "Redneck Mother," or as critters only to be tolerated when they were modified somehow -- by the fact that they had long hair or smoked pot, say -- as they were in 1970s classics by Charlie Daniels, Hank Jr. and David Allan Coe.

Though rednecks have been a stock figure of country music since at least 1970, and there was a peak of Redneck Chic around the time Jimmy Carter was president and Burt Reynolds was still a matinee idol, they have never truly been celebrated just as they are, in all their barefoot, Mountain Dew-swilling, NASCAR-watching glory.

Or at least that's the way the people who write these songs would have you believe rednecks are. Some are better at it than others. "Boondocks" -- the super-smarmy Little Big Town hit -- is god-awful. It's a standard "I'm proud of where I come from" statement, but it's absolutely rife with clichés -- there's "muddy water in my veins," a midnight train, fishin' in the crawfish hole, a tin roof, a gravel road and, of course, a front porch. Gretchen Wilson, on the other hand, nailed it on "Redneck Woman" -- right down to claiming an encyclopedic knowledge of Tanya Tucker, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Hank Jr. Likewise, her delivery is convincing and infectious. And that's because Wilson was, in fact, raised as a redneck, just like she sang in the song.

Leslie Lindley, of traditionalist honky-tonk group Miss Leslie & Her Juke Jointers, has a background that is not too dissimilar to that of Wilson. Though she admits she grew up in suburbia, she says she knows her roots: "My dad's family picked cotton in Tennessee. My mom grew up eating the fish for supper that they caught that day."

I asked her what she thought of the current redneck craze on country radio. "I can have an appreciation for Big & Rich and Gretchen Wilson -- while I'm not a fan of their music -- for being themselves and true to who they are. But when you take an artist who grew up in the suburbs of a big city, was the high school cheerleader and has never knocked on the door of a trailer house, let alone lived in one, and have them sing a song about the good ol' days at the trailer park with a six-pack of Schlitz…I hate that."

And why would someone want to do something like that? You could argue that it's for authenticity's sake -- that it is as important for country singers to be perceived as rednecks as it is for gangsta rappers to be seen as "real-ass niggas." Neither wants to be seen as suburbanites -- the former has to be from a trailer park in Possumneck, Mississippi, while the latter has to be from the deadliest corner of the worst ghetto in their hometown.

Historian Thomas Sowell recently posited in The Wall Street Journalthat black ghetto culture is identical to redneck culture, that the same code prevails in both the projects and the trailer park. As Sowell points out, the ancestors of the rednecks hailed from the poorest, most ignorant and most violent regions of the British Isles, and it was from them that black slaves picked up hair-trigger violence, intemperance and sexual promiscuity as well as a knack for pyrotechnic oratory, which was employed by both white segregationists and Martin Luther King. (And, debatably, today's rappers.) Sowell cites as proof the fact that during World War I, Northern blacks scored higher on IQ tests than Deep South whites. (Intriguingly, there are musical odes to Patrón tequila on both country and rap radio right now.)

But I believe there's more to it -- both in country and in hip-hop -- than a mere quest for authenticity. Otherwise, why would so many white suburban kids listen to hip-hop? They're not validating themselves as white people; what, then, are they doing? And why are so many morally upright, McMansion-dwelling, Tahoe-driving, Applebee's-eating suburban, professional college graduates reveling in songs about the joys of abject rural poverty and getting plastered?

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