"Brothers and sisters we are here for one reason and one reason alone, to share our love of music," shouts the church schooled tenor. "I present to you COUNTRY MUSIC WITHOUT PREJUDICE!" Thus begins the CD "Horse of a Different Color" by Big and Rich. It is without a doubt, the most hopeful sign yet, that contrary to what Johnny-One-Note says, the world is getting better and better.
It's no secret that the rise of the New South over the last fifty years or so has led to a Southernization of American politics and culture. On the cultural side, the transformations are shocking. Despite it's inherent inferiority to the open-wheel variant, NASCAR dominates the US racing scene. (And if you don't think NASCAR is inferior, ask yourself why so many of the top drivers including Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Robbie Gordon come from the open wheel ranks). Garth Brooks dominated the pop charts in a way that hadn't been done since the Beatles and was followed by the likes of the Dixie Chicks and Shania Twain who took country music to places that old time cross-over artists like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton couldn't imagine. The O Brother soundtrack was a surprise hit to everybody including string music advocates.
But this success has happened in ways that replicates much of the history of segregation of the South. The embrace of NASCAR and country have gone hand in hand with the rise of the peculiar variant of Southern Republicanism of Bill Frist et. al.. What is really shocking is how hard Nashville and NASCAR worked to obscure their mixed race origins. As NASCAR grew, black drivers were pushed out and as Nashville took over country-music it hid much of the early African-American influence such as the African-American Western Swing bands (okay, Charlie Pride succeeded but he had been a football player first and he stuck very close to the Nashville script.)
Nashville's domination of country has led to revolts in the past. There was the outlaw movement based in Texas, Jimmy Buffett in the Florida Keys, and the alt.country (I actually prefer the term y'allternative but it never caught on) movement of the 90s anchored by Whiskeytown and Uncle Tupelo. Even the Chicks and Shania had very public spats with the Nashville crowd. But these were not really movements for social change. Only Buck Owens' cover of Johnny B. Good released immediately after his full page ad declaring that he would only play country music attempted to blur the color line and that was about 30 years ago.
So what is different about Big and Rich and why are they such a hopeful sign? Well, it has to do with who they bring to the party. Big and Rich may be duo (Big Kenny and Lonestar alum John Rich) but their supporting cast features among others, Cowboy Troy a six foot four inch African American from Texas with an MA in economics who also raps bilinguallyon the album. "Este music es para toda la gente. Es muy importante a usar su mente/ So let go of all your preconceived notions/ get up on your feet and put your body in motion!" Cowboy Troy calls it "hick hop," but not since Sly and the Family Stone has anyone so self-consciously messed with the color line in music. It helps, of course, that the music kicks ass. They don't care about your color, place of origin, political affiliation, religion, or who want to have sex with. This is one party I'm prepared to join. The fact that I had to try three record stores to find the CD indicates that a lot of other people already have embraced the Big and Rich philosophy. And that's why the world is getting better and better.