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Happy to Be a Hick: Country Music Singer Cranks Up Redneck Pride

September 22, 2004|Jeremy Lott | Jeremy Lott is a contributing editor of Books & Culture, a Christian literary review.

There's an old joke about country music. Pick a song at random and play it backward. You get your house back, your kids back, your wife back, your truck back.

Though the music became somewhat sunnier in the last decade, as "new country" stations tried to expand the genre, the core audience remained white, rural, poor, largely Southern and Midwestern: the sort of hard-luck, salt-of-the-earth types that the singers go on about.

Country artists operate in a universe parallel to the rest of the entertainment industry. Their mecca is Nashville, not Hollywood, and their audience is decidedly more "red state." At this year's Republican convention, the two types of entertainers that the organizers tapped in great numbers were country singers and evangelical Christian artists. Mainstream rockers routinely go on anti-George W. Bush rants to kill time between sets and put together lousy anti-Bush compilation CDs. When the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines made some off-the-cuff remarks about the president, country stations took the group out of their rotations. Because music tells us something about how an audience sees itself, it's worth looking at the hottest new act. Since its May release, Gretchen Wilson's debut album, "Here for the Party," has dominated the country charts. So far, fans have bought more than 2 million copies.

The song that has caught people's attention, "Redneck Woman," is interesting for sociological reasons. It may be the first really in-your-face mass expression of redneck pride. Country artists have often taken pride in their blue-collar roots, but this tune takes it to a new level. It takes the traditional outsider criticisms of rednecks -- poor, ignorant hicks without any taste -- and celebrates them instead.

"Some people look down on me, but I don't give a rip," sings Wilson. "I'll stand barefooted in my own front yard with a baby on my hip."

For what it's worth, Wilson appears sincere. Daughter of a teenage mother and an eighth-grade dropout herself, she apparently wants nothing to do with the glamour image of many country stars. She chews tobacco and says she's looking for the audience that country music has lost. In "Redneck Woman," she eschews champagne, saying, "I'd rather drink beer all night in a tavern or in a honky-tonk."

I think the hit song's popularity says something about how the redneck self-image is changing. In recent years, rednecks seem to have internalized a lot of the "poor white trash" criticisms and bought into a lot of stereotypes of the mass media. Jeff Foxworthy's "You might be a redneck if ... " shtick was enormously popular with Southerners, who enjoyed one of their own (he grew up in Decatur and Hapeville, Ga.) poking fun at them for once. Even songs like Garth Brooks' defiantly redneck "Friends in Low Places" finally accepted the sort of know-your-place stoicism that was in keeping with the tragic themes of country music.

I'm hardly the first person to believe that the popularity of old country music came from the fact that it managed to help people struggle through some very hard lives. But now something new is in the air in Nashville. It reminds me of the release of the dc Talk album "Jesus Freak," which demonstrated that the ghettoized Christian music industry finally had enough confidence to laugh at the critics. Nowadays, it's nearly impossible to browse among alternative rock radio stations without catching the spiritual stylings of some crypto-Christian group. Expect a lot of new young singers to come out of Nashville in the next few years who play up their poor-as-dirt origins.

Expect also something harder to define but potentially much more important. If Wilson's audience began thinking of itself as an interest group, the political fallout would be huge. In the enthusiastic reception of this redneck woman and those to come, we're hearing the first stirrings of what can only be described as class consciousness with a wild, two-fisted Southern drawl.

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