Saunders: A little bit country, a little bit rap, a lot to talk over

barry.saunders@newsobserver.comApril 14, 2013 

It is a touchy subject few want to touch.

Those who do touch upon race provoke either the Wrath of Yawn — oh no, not that again — or get blasted from both sides.

That’s why Brad Paisley’s vilified duet with LL Cool J actually deserves a tip of the 10-gallon hat.

In their song “Accidental Racist,” the rapper and the country singer tackle – no, make that address – the issue of race and the misperceptions many of us have. It’s just two dudes talking about what many of us think but leave unsaid:

I’m just a white man

Coming to you from the southland.

And this, from the other side:

If you don’t judge my do-rag

I won’t judge your red flag.

Granted, it’s not as poetical as “He Stopped Loving Her Today” or “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” but in the duet partners’ own clunky way, they’re addressing an issue that’s as universal as heartbreak.

As sure as you’re born, though, critics lambasted LL Cool J for not being a “real” rapper, Paisley as a racist, and both for being naive.

Buffalo chips. As Jocelyn Neal, an associate professor of music at UNC-Chapel Hill noted, anyone who thinks Paisley’s a racist need only look at some of his earlier work, most notably “Welcome to the Future.” He’s not lamenting or dreading a multicultural world, he’s – yep – welcoming it.

It’s all so clear.

“Wherever we’re going we’re here.

Many of today’s little pretty male country music singers are “all hat and no horse.” Likewise, you’ve got rappers and hip-hoppers still spouting nonsense about the size of the rims on their Bentleys – often leased for the photo shoot – and their prowess with the ladies, some of whom are also leased for the photo shoot.

That sort of intellectual barrenness should make us want to celebrate performers who are willing to introduce uncomfortable topics into their music.

Neal agrees. “I think that music and art of any ilk should provoke conversation, and Paisley has succeeded in doing that. He’s gotten a lot of people to pay attention to the music and the meanings it can have. That is unquestionably a good thing.”

When it comes to country-music scholarship, Neal is the real thing. She is the author of the award-winning book “Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Legacy in Country Music.”

“No one,” she said, likes talking about country music more than I do.”

Following a tradition

She also mentioned that other country music singers – for instance, Cowboy Troy and Darius Rucker – have addressed race in their songs.

When I mentioned to Neal that it’s too bad “Accidental Racist” isn’t a better song musically, she agreed: “The consensus is that the song itself is not very pleasing. I think a lot of people wish it had been a better song.”

Rat on. The lyrics aren’t as offensive as the outcry against it would have one believe.

The good, the bad, the …

I’ll tell you what. These demure souls whose tender sensibilities are offended by the Paisley-Cool J duet would have their wigs blown completely if they ever heard Sly & the Family Stone’s 1960s non-PC take on the same topic: “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey. (Don’t Call Me Whitey, Nigger).”

Duke Ellington supposedly said there are only two kinds of music – good and bad.

Sorry, Duke, but there’s now a third category because “Accidental Racist” isn’t good, and despite what many critics say, it isn’t bad.

It is, however, important.

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