The rise of the 'redneck' stirs up country music
In the lyrics of some of today's most popular country songs, the party boats are strung together like a floating trailer park, barefoot women carry babies on their hips, and country boys and redneck girls celebrate the weekend by hitting the mud hole in their 4 x 4s.
The latest people to trade in such images aren't found at snide cocktail parties on the Upper East Side. It's Nashville songwriters who are embracing these stereotypes about rural white Southerners and pushing cultural boundaries in lyrical leaps - from Gretchen Wilson's female anthem "Redneck Woman" to Jason Aldean's paean to small town life, "Hicktown."
This bevy of new anthems about "Picassos with a pool stick," as John Michael Montgomery sings in "Paint the Town Redneck," pick up on a spirit of rebellion, brashness, and humor - crossing musical divides, pleasing country fans, and winning new converts as they climb the charts.
Some critics say the lyrics only serve to polarize a deeply divided culture. Songwriters and fans, however, see the lyrics as an empowering image and a longing, in difficult times, of simpler days. In some ways, these good-humored songs, flying in the face of the political correctness of the 1990s, are simply part of a trend in a country that seems to take more of its cultural and political heft from south of the Mason-Dixon line.
"Like ["I Fall to Pieces" songwriter] Harlan Howard said, 'Country music is three chords and the truth.' It's just that some country music today tells the truth a little harder," says Ben Bowling, a Nashville songwriter.
As with David Allan Coe's trailblazing 1976 album, "Longhaired Redneck," today's hits combine wit, sleight of phrase, and a romanticization of crooked front porches - all tied to a word that is a reference to the sunburned necks of Southern farmers and which has come to mean, as comedian Jeff Foxworthy has said, "a glorious absence of sophistication."
But while embracing the idea of "down home" in uncertain times, and playing off a strong working-class identity, this sudden redneck relevance is also part of what author Michael Graham argued in his 2003 book, "Redneck Nation": While often looking down its nose at country brethren, urban elites are in many ways mimicking their antics. Graham writes that the most cosmopolitan show on TV, "Sex and the City," is really all about low-class adventures in high-rent neighborhoods, a kind of skyscraper trailer park.
"It's partly the Southernization of America, in that the Southern working-class version of redneck is becoming the national version, and it's good-natured, it has humor and, in some ways, it's a performance," says Charles Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at University of Mississippi in Oxford.
Nashville singer Craig Morgan, whose "Redneck Yacht Club" is No. 3 on the charts, says his fans see themselves in his songs, and that the lyrics touch on a common experience among Americans, many of whom have country roots.
"You don't have to be a redneck to be a member of a redneck yacht club," says Mr. Morgan. "It's a term that in the past has been a stigma or a stereotype, but songs like this and other various songs, even though they talk about the very things that people imagine rednecks doing or being, they're realizing that a redneck is more of a lifestyle than a person or a people."
Yet the stereotypes, no matter who's dishing them out, can be hurtful, says University of Virginia senior Maggie Bowden, a big country music fan.
"My family's from [the South]. That's hilarious to people, and they ask me when me and my brother are going to start dating," says Ms. Bowden, who sees her own teenage life in a small Virginia town reflected in Aldean's "Hicktown." "But I think it's when the Southern stereotypes leak into hurtful things, like in classes when we talk about what's going on in New Orleans and people say ... 'What else do you expect from the South, everybody down here is racist.' That's when it makes me wary to have anybody promote a certain image of an entire region."
The new attitude may seem popular - but for the wrong reasons, some critics say. "It runs the risk of being sort of a redneck minstrel show, taking the stereotypes, same as African-American artists used to have to do shuffling and tap dancing, to please audiences paying money," says native Alabamian Steve Persall, a film critic at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. "Part of the appeal may be, especially in urban markets, it sort of justifies what they've thought about the South."
But in this newest Nashville permutation, Southerners, as they often do, may have the last laugh.
"Dolly Parton may be the ultimate example of this," says Mr. Wilson at Ole Miss. "It's an aesthetic that's in your face: big hair, short dresses, an emphasis on her physique, and she's making lots of money in the process. Like her, [today's singers] take demeaning images in Southern culture, turn it all on its head, and say, 'I'm really outsmarting you.' "