As a teenager I worked as an announcer at a small country radio station, and though I was still a dyed-in-the-wool rock fan, I developed a taste for older country music, the really twangy honky-tonk stuff. Since artists like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain replaced pedal steels and twin fiddles with electric guitars and slick pop production, there’s been a dearth of that twang-and-moan style on country radio. There are only a handful of artists that currently make what I would call true country music, and of these artists Brad Paisley ranks as one of my favorites. An accomplished musician and songwriter, he effectively combines country ballads with fun, lighthearted fare. His musical mastery shines on the instrumental compositions he includes on every album, and listening to his tracks featuring classic country stars under the name The Kung Pao Buckaroos, you can tell he spent many a Saturday night as a kid watching “Hee Haw” like I did (though in his case, it was probably willingly). Paisley’s latest effort is his most ambitious to date, as he attempts to tackle a subject that most Southerners would rather avoid: racism.
This video was removed from YouTube due to a copyright claim by SME. We’ve replaced it for now, with a Brad Paisley interview with Ellen DeGeneres, which has bee been broadcast since Shannon wrote this post.
The song Accidental Racist pairs Paisley with rapper LL Cool J, each describing racism from their viewpoint and the stigma each carries in the other’s world, simply because of where they’re from, the way they look, and how they speak.
First let’s focus on the song itself; it’s terrible. Clunky and cloyingly saccharine, this is not Paisley’s best work, and that’s being kind. As bad as Paisley’s part is, LL Cool J’s lyrics are even worse. I think both artists are going to look back on this and realize what an incredible misstep it was on a purely musical level. The subject matter is something else entirely.
As a Southerner who has had to battle the preconceived notion of what it is to be Southern, I can understand where Brad Paisley is coming from. I’ve had to explain more times than I can recall or care to, that underneath this accent is an educated, articulate, politically progressive woman who deeply opposes racism in all its forms. I also have the majority of my teeth, have never eaten a squirrel, and have never had intimate relations with my cousins. And I don’t wave red flags — or Confederate flags — in people’s faces and then expect them to take my word that I’m not the stereotypical redneck.
In the desert southwest, the Swastika was once prominently displayed in Navajo and Hopi arts and crafts, but it’s hard to find that motif anymore. They acknowledged that their ancient symbol of good luck had been tainted by the atrocities of the Third Reich. Unlike the Swastika, however, the Confederate flag was born of bigotry, a symbol of a South fighting to preserve slavery.
As proud as most Southerners are of their homeland, they must recognize that what they may view as a symbol of Southern pride is a reminder to African-Americans of centuries of oppression, bloodshed, and death. A Skynyrd fan you may be, Brad, but there has to be better ways to show it. You may be proud of your Southern heritage, but wearing the Stars and Bars across your chest is the worst way to display that pride. You’ve already shown that you’re an open- and fair-minded Southern Democrat by supporting and performing for President Obama; was this heavy-handed bit of musical mawkishness really necessary?
Do I think “Accidental Racist” is a woe-is-me, pity-the-poor-misunderstood-white-guy lament? No. It’s just a really bad country ballad. Do I think it was a stunt? A ploy for publicity? I really don’t. I don’t think Brad Paisley is that kind of artist, or that kind of man. I think his concerns on this subject are sincere. Do I think his approach is hopelessly naive and misguided? Without a doubt. But he has managed to start a dialog on racism among Southerners and Yankees alike. He may have been wide of the mark, but he still hit the target.