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 Journal that 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?
Let's look at some of these songs a little more closely. It's a convention of virtually every "proud to be a redneck" song that you tout simple, cheap things at the expense of anything that offers even the barest whiff of sophistication.
Here's Wilson in "Redneck Woman": "No I can't swig that sweet champagne / I'd rather drink beer all night."
Here's Aldean, in "Hicktown": "We hear folks in the city party in martini bars / And they like to show off in their fancy foreign cars / Out here in the boondocks we buy beer at Amoco / And crank our Kraco speakers with that country radio."
And here's Little Texas, with "A Redneck Like Me": "I don't need no Porsche car / No pumped-up music or a whacked-out bar / No ghost-white chicky, dressed up like a bad, black dream It don't take much to please a redneck like me."
And so on and on and on There is absolutely no limit to what they'll say is too dadgum fancy-schmancy. Hell, Billy Ray Cyrus dares to say that even God's paradise is too dang highfalutin for a good ol' boy like him. He wants -- nay, demands -- that God quit getting above His station. "You can have your streets of gold / sawdust will do just fine," he sings on "Redneck Heaven." "And about those singing angels / Just give me Patsy Cline Give me swingin' doors instead of pearly gates."
So clearly, you've got to have a couple of them-there "I don't need no fancy [insert desirable consumer item/eternal destination here]" lines.
Lindley's not buying the idea that these are genuine redneck sentiments. "If you're living in a trailer house, you're not really excited about living in a trailer house," she says.
Then who would be? Who's buying all these records?
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Who else but the grass-is-always-greener set. "I love rednecks," Lindley says. "And I'd much rather be around people that know who they are and don't apologize for it. Which is maybe what people really wish they could have. Maybe they don't really want to live in a trailer or drink cheap beer while riding an ATV, but maybe they admire the fact that there are people who do and who are able to actually find happiness in their existence. They don't need new houses filled with new furniture, a brand-new car and the latest fashions -- or they don't feel a need to make everyone think that that's what they have."
Some of these songs are fairly blatant exercises in redneckery as middle-class wish fulfillment. The protagonist in John Michael Montgomery's "Paint the Town Redneck" is an office drudge who spends his workweek "dreamin' in color but livin' in black and white." He's eagerly anticipating Friday night, when his true artistry comes to the fore and he can be "a honky-tonkin' Michelangelo" and "Picasso with a pool stick" and bring a smile to the "Mona Lisa" in his life.
And on "Just Like a Redneck," Shannon Lawson (a Muzik Mafia member not appearing on this bill) is brave or stupid enough to spell it out explicitly. "I got my favorite white cotton muscle shirt on," he sings. "I'm gonna sit around and drink all day long / In my plastic pool, that I bought from the Wal-Mart / 'Cause it's Sunday afternoon and it's time for the race / I'm waitin' for Junior to take first place / But number 30 will always be in my heart / Ain't that just like a redneck? / Just like a redneck? / Don't you wish you could be one too? / Trade in your white collar for workin' man blues "
A real, natural-born redneck like Merle Haggard -- who penned the original "Workin' Man Blues" -- would probably disagree with that sentiment. But what does he know? How many records has he sold lately?