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August 28, 2006



My sister and brother-in-law are raising my 14 year old niece in a rural area. My niece is passionately interested in horse-riding, rodeos, and competes school rodeo queen contests. She is also wildly fond of country music. To her, country music speaks to her life in her idiom and within her cultural frame of reference –the families my niece sees in her rural community are predominantly white, predominantly nuclear.

Despite plentiful evidence to the contrary, many persons in my sister’s community perceive that their community is insulated (and has insulated itself) from the problems of modern life – drugs, gangs, crime, domestic violence, changes in sexual mores and 37behaviors. The members of her community have convinced themselves that such things only occur elsewhere. Country music is the predominant choice in this community. Adults in the community connect other types of music with “urban” problems and see in country music an expression of their worldview – one in which the hardest drug is beer, sexuality is safe and geared toward marriage, love and reproduction. Expressions of sexuality in rap feel threatening to this community because it is so brazen. Country music videos (at least those I’ve seen) express a much more traditional view of sexuality than do, for instance, rap videos. Even female rap artists express their sexuality in much more assertive ways than do female country music singers – it may not be a distinction of words it is one of imagery.

I also believe country music evokes a small town world – a world where people know one another. Country music carefully cultivates imagery of the rural, small town world. The language of country music video and song evokes a world of familiarity, trading in an easy-going stance that suggests comfortable familiarity with persons and places.

Within my niece’s community, guns are associated with hunting, with the experience of the wilderness, the national forest, camping, campfires, family outings. Guns are seen as an accessory to life. The language of violence within rap, the language of guns and death, is directed at persons. Within this community’s idiom, the language of violence found in rap music is alien. The youth in the community who listen to rap, even the Black Eyed Peas, are seen as dangerously subversive and treated appropriately. Listening to rap is an act of rebellion, an act of emotional rejection.

I see country music as a wish fulfillment fantasy. We dream of an easy going, rural, unpretentious candid bawdy and hard working world. Country music speaks to that mythical world. In my sister’s community, they believe themselves to be living that lifestyle and have convinced themselves that they are somehow safely insulated from the world evoked by rap music. For my niece, country music evokes a comfortable, safe sexuality - men who sometimes get a little but always love their woman and women who are sexy and but not overtly sexual.


Well, yes and no. You make some powerful points, Glen. But while contemporary pop country is relatively sanitized compared to rap, traditional country has some pretty dark themes. Murder, for example, shows up with remarkable frequency; heavy drug use, and chronic infidelity are easily found as themes in the nusic of artists as diverse as Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., and the inimitable David Allen Coe. "Outlaw" country, to which your niece likely doesn't listen, is the "gangsta rap" of the genre -- alas, it doesn't get much airplay.

And of course, many of my kids of color are middle-class. They don't grow up on the mean streets of South L.A.; they've grown up in bucolic Arcadia (a relatively affluent L.A. suburb adjacent to Pasadena). Guns aren't for hunting or for killing -- they don't seem to register on the radar screen. But these kids still love their urban hip-hop, and they have no interest in country.

I have some white students who wear their love of country, like their race, almost defensively -- but that's another post.


From my personal anecdote file: I found that as a young person, music choice was a vast cultural identifier. You'd suss someone out as a potential friend sometimes on nothing more than a list of music they really got into: and this makes a certain amount of sense to me. After all, music creates emotion in the listener, and finding out what emotions particular people are attached to creates a shorthand for a whole emotional language. On top of that, the lyrical

Now, I'm one of those who likes hip-hop in some forms: I'm somewhat old school, not into gangsta, and I love the passionate & thought out music of modern artists too - eg: Michael Franti, Speech, Lauren Hill, and K-Os (an amazing Canadian artist). Frankly, there's a sub-genre of hip-hop whose musical underpinnings are about creating uplift.

I'm not particularly enamoured of country, although I like where it intersects with R&B and Blues and Jazz - I've certainly listened to Bonnie Raitt in my day, and every Canadian is required to enjoy KD Lang - and there are artists and albums and songs that are country influenced or inspired which I greatly love. But generally, not so much. Good Ole Boys themselves don't bother me, but I don't identify: I don't have much identification with the style of humour or the outlook that shows up in the lyrics, and the music itself doesn't really create emotion in me.

It's probably no surprise that my favorite full "country" album is Tumbleweed Connection - filtered through the brain of an English, gay, glam pop diva. Heh.

Western, I just don't get at all. Why do the fiddles always do that sneak up thing (Raow, Raow, Raow, RAAAAAAAAOOOOOWWW)?

Pop as it plays on main-stream radio seems to be various forms of "getting ready to go out to the club" music: it's about getting 'jazzed'. All well and good when that's where you're at, but bubblegum - regardless of what genre it is.


"..On top of that, the lyrical.." ahem. Finishing the sentence...
The lyrical aspects communicate a lot about philosophy, shared fantasy and dreams, and shared perspective.


"heavy drug use, and chronic infidelity are easily found as themes in the nusic of artists as diverse as Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., and the inimitable David Allen Coe."

Just a thought: country seems both personal and seems (from an outsider) to be invested in the morality and humanity of a particular situation - Stan's gone and murdered his cheating wife; Linda's babies are cold and hungry 'cuz she's in love with the demon booze - and there's seems an acknowledgement that humans do this sort of thing but it doesn't end up well. It seems personally instructive.

However, for me at least, it seems that a lot of (non-gangsta) hip hop looks at society and the individual - from "The Message", to "Fear of a Black Planet" on down. Granted, Usher and 50Cent have the depth of a piece of paper... But what I like about hip hop is that the stories are both personal and societal: reaction and moral failure is not just about the person failing, but holds a mirror up to all of society. Even Pink's "Stupid Girl", which is getting popular play suggests it: you're not stupid just because he's a jerk who'll break your heart, you're stupid because of the system you're buying.

Also, country music seems to know its God. Are there the "where are you?" songs in country? I haven't heard any but they might be there.

Of course, I've only really heard radio country; comparing that to non-radio anything else is maybe comparing apples and oranges.

And I should also say, I'm not a hip-hop expert, and it's not my primary music listening genre.


I think shared fantasy has a lot of it. I wasn't raised a "good old boy." I was raised in a well-to-do WASPy family in Carmel by-the-Sea; I had "cowboy" fantasies based on a limited exposure to the real thing. I wrote that I love the song "Redneck Woman", even as Gretchen Wilson sings about a life of which I have no more understanding than I do when I hear 50 Cent rapping about "gettin' down in the club." I don't identify with growing up poor, white, and rural in the South; I don't identify with growing up poor and black in the inner city. But the music produced about the former experience is far more listenable to me than the latter.


Do you know of Oliver Wang, a prominent scholar of hip-hop within Asian-Am community (among other things)? He might be able to shed some light on the appeal of hip-hop, R&B, and other genres to Asian (and perhaps Latino) youth.

(Funny thing is that I was an Asian youth, and yet had no strong interest in hip-hop/R&B, let alone country music. Instead, I was (and still am) obsessed with Balinese gamelan, a decidedly Asian genre.)

As for the cross-over phenomenon, I don't have any clear or easy answers to this, but this doesn't only happen with white kids and hip-hop. I've noticed many world music groups (at least in the US) whose members are mostly white. In fact, I was only one of three Asian people (at most) within gamelan groups in the US!


Ed, thanks for the link, I'll check out his site!


As a former student of yours, I diagree. I love Bill Munroe, The Stanley Brothers and other bluegrass legends. I do think that most of my generation don't listen to music for artistic reasons. Sometimes they listen because, like hip-hop, the content (be it good or bad)is glamorized.

I do appreciate your wide range of love for music. I myself, love Jazz, hip-hop, Reggae, country/bluegrass, classical, and standards. We always speak of diversity in this and that. But I just don't see many people with a diversity in music (except for you of course).


Arwen makes an interesting point about the way in which country music sees "sin" as essentially a personal problem -- and at least the more serious forms of hip-hop see violence and drug use within a cultural context. Of course, the conservative within me worries that by emphasizing the structures that contribute to wrongdoing, hip-hop culture may (intentionally or not) de-emphasize the personal choices that are equally vital. Country music is often about bad choices.

But country is closely linked to white folk music, which from at least Woody Guthrie onward (Pete Seeger, etc.) was a powerful form of social protest against injustices.


[why are] so few kids of color drawn to country?

the inimitable David Allen Coe.

Um. Okay. I know he's only one singer, but since you mentioned him.


[WARNING: these lyrics are as offensive as you can possibly imagine.]

Now, I've never heard these songs sung, so it may be that they are "ironic" or intended as social commentary or something like that. But the only way you'd know that coming to them cold would be to make a giant leap of logic and decide that nothing so offensive could be meant seriously (and plenty of people do say such things seriously.) You certainly can't tell it from the lyrics.

Is there still a legacy of racism around country music,

Well, yeah. You say country has failed at attracting young people of color; this is the first I've heard of it trying.

From http://arts.guardian.co.uk/features/story/0,,1820860,00.html:

"I love my country music. But I feel like the country music industry never asked us to come to the party,' she says. 'I mean, what the hell is wrong here? Every type of music is integrated but country. They call it America's music, but it don't look like America.'

[Charley Pride] remains the only black country singer signed to a major label - not, says Frankie, because there are no others out there, but because a combination of reflexive racism and commercial timidity has kept black performers offstage."

It's a really good article.


Well, Sophonisba, I've known of those David Allen Coe songs. They are unfortunate, and I ought to have left his name off my list. He's better known, however, for the song he wrote that Johnny Paycheck made a hit: "Take this job and shove it."

Thanks for the link to the article. There are a few Latinos in country: the wonderful Raul Malo, lead singer of the Mavericks, and up-and-comer Rick Trevino.



I wouldn't worry too much about Hip Hop not being individually instructive. That's true of the glamour stuff on MTV - but the songs on MTV, even of the more serious artists, tend to be the most silly of the lot! Although the social and the personal are often juxtaposed, there are certainly lots and lots of individual choices which are critiqued. The stuff I listen to tends to show how your individual choices are part of a societal trend, and tends to suggest that you are responsible for making a change. Hell, "
The Message
", (Grandmaster Flash), which started all the mainstream play, is an acknowledgement of all of the hope for possibility that leads young black folks to crime and desperation and addiction, but after exploring it all suggests that that way lies prison, rape, and ultimately death. It's sympathetic, yes. But far from permissive or utterly accepting.


Move to Virginia - then you can have 27 country stations, one top 40 station, 2 easy listening stations, and one hip-hop station. Oh, and then NRN, which is actually awesome, but you must be close enough to Charlottesville to pick it up.

Oh, and kids around here tend to listen to country and hip hop in about equal measure.


Arwen, I accept your clarification.

Lorie, I've seen that fusing of country and hip-hop in Virginia. Then again, at the risk of opening up a huge can of worms, I see more cultural integration in Virginia than I do in many parts of Southern California... a topic for another post.

Amanda Marcotte

If you like country, check out the show Folkways here on our NPR station. I hear you about the old stuff. A year ago I wrote about liking older stuff and got accused of harboring a hipster fixation and upon revealing that I learned to two-step when I was 6, that disappeared. Interesting.


It’s a perfect time for this question. This weekend I was back in Richmond, and had a good visit with a friend there. He’s from DC, but of Valley black background—quite a good spoken word and blues musician—and we were talking about the various musical traditions here in the South. (Hugo probably knows this, but for the rest of you—the Shenandoah Valley is demographically and culturally distinct from the rest of Virginia—most Virginians, black and white, can identify someone from the Valley.)

The thing he pointed out—which I tend to agree with—is that there is really no clear color line in Southern culture. From English church music (motets and anthems and chant), to Scottish pipes/fiddle/guitar progressions, through Sacred Harp with its odd minor keys, to the drum and bass rhythms of blues—Southern white (country and gospel) and Southern black (blues and gospel) music share the same ancestry. Hip-hop is not that different; it’s rebellious, angry music—it’s considered distinctively black—but that chanted-word type of story-telling showed up in country long ago (think of Tex Williams 1947 hit Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette) or CW McCall’s Convoy) and still does (think of Toby Keith’s I Want to Talk about Me or Confederate Railroad’s I Hate Rap).

And radio country isn’t the same thing as country—it’s the most pop-like section of country. Country talks about systematic injustice (Sixteen Tons—“You load sixteen tons and what do you get/ Another day older and deeper in debt” or Take me Back to Tulsa—“The poor man picks the cotton/ The rich man gets the money”); it talks about miserable choices (Reba McEntire’s “Fancy”). There are songs about attempted rape (Gillian Welch’s “Caleb Myer”), about abortion (Tim McGraw’s “Red Ragtop”), plenty about murder, and an infinite variety of songs about drunkenness. There are mourning songs like “Go Rest High on that Mountain” and strutting songs like “Some Girls Do”; new love songs like “Daddy’s Money” and lost love songs like “Digging up Bones” and history songs like “Song of the South” and fight songs like “The Angry American.”

On “why does country attract so few black listeners”—I suspect the answer is a mixture of group norms (most people don’t listen to music their friends don’t listen to), danceableness (country is danceable, but the dancing is a different style), and history/familiarity (blues fits the same social niche as country—music for surviving to). Also, that is probably more an LA phenomenon—I’d say that in VA, both blacks and whites listen to both country and hip-hop. (But, to loop back to the beginning—black and white cultures are not that distinct in the rural South).


Why are so many young people of all races attracted to rap and rhythmic pop, and so few kids of color drawn to country?

To me, it seems that this is because rap and rhythmic pop are going after both whites and people of color in their marketing, while country music is ignoring people of color entirely.

What do you expect an urban person of color to get out of a song like "Redneck Woman"?


The end of country radio in LA? Never! Not as long as I have a beat-up pick-up truck, a shotgun and a dawg!


danceableness (country is danceable, but the dancing is a different style)

There is not really "a" style of hip-hop dancing; hip-hop dance draws from everything, including styles associated with country, like line dancing.

I think the reason young people of all backgrounds feel hip-hop is that that is where the most innovation is happening in American pop music. I know contemporary country artists will talk about partying and having sex or whatnot, and that sort of sets it apart from what came before, but it is still essentially standing still as an art form. Relative to hip-hop anyway, which seems to sprout new sub-genres and regional variations on an annual basis: hardcore, g-funk, Miami bass, crunk, chopped and screwed...it just keeps coming, and it's exciting as hell.

Everyone can be drawn to that kind of phenomenon, regardless of background. What attracts people, young or old, to country is something else, something much more reliant on cultural identification, which is I think why you don't see the same kind of broad appeal for it.


crunk, chopped and screwed...it just keeps coming, and it's exciting as hell.

Hmm. We're talking about music here?

Sigh. The depths of my unhipness have yet to be fully fathomed.


SamChevre, those aren't the original lyrics to Take Me Back to Tulsa. The original goes “Dark man picks the cotton, white man gets the money.”

I dated Bob Wills' grandson very briefly.

Anyway, Hugo, check out Cowboy Troy


hmm. I guess I'm in the 2% minority of non-Caucasians that listen to country (but never country radio). I also listen to hip-hop. I've been wondering for years how people can get their panties in a wad about violence in rap music and yet never say a word about all the murder in country. I'm gonna take a wild guess that it has something to do with the race of the listeners of those genres.

I don't think white adoption of hip-hop vs. black non-adoption of country are actually comparable. It's one thing for a privileged class of people to adopt the trappings of a relatively oppressed class. This is done all the time and it rarely seems to be very controversial for very long. But I think it's a wholly different thing for an oppressed class to start taking on the culture of their oppressors. It's also done, but it seems more problematic.

And, jebus, those David Allen Coe songs are just horrifying... so I'd have to say yeah there might be some lingering racism.


Veronica, thanks for the link to Cowboy Troy. Good stuff. Metamanda, you may be right. I am regretting mentioning David Allen Coe.


I just talked with my colleague, who is originally from Houston. He said (to my complete and utter surprise) that Houston no longer has a country music radio station - the present radio market there is nearly equally split between hip-hop and Tejano music (which may be crudely seen as a Mexican-American take on country music, but I don't know if that's an appropriate comparison).

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