My husband often cracks jokes about the country music I listen to. The twang of it. Song after song about trucks, mud, creeks, hometowns, backroads, dirtroads, fields, tailgates, etc. When I listen to songs like “Back Where I Come From” or “Somethin Bout a Truck,” I’m taken home to Clanton, circa 1995. I’m back at the Flatlands, Wallwood Fields, The Quary, The 80. Where I grew up, the main activity for a friday or saturday night was riding a dirt road with a case of beer and taking the occasional cruise through town to see who else you might recruit to go with you. If it was a particularly eventful weekend, several people might be gathering in a field on somebody’s daddy’s land and building a bonfire – that constituted a party. During the summers we often migrated to “the river” which was actually a lake but saying you were “going to the lake” was too “city-fied” – we preferred to say we were “going to the river.” At the river we got into all sorts of shenanigans such as frog giggin’. During this time in my life I also did my fair share of tipping cows (or attempting to), stealing street signs, rolling yards, and seeing how accurate I could get at hitting a road sign with a beer bottle while driving 50 miles an hour down a back road. This was my adolescence. And while it sounds a bit wild, it wasn’t. It was the norm in my town and pretty much everyone knew what we were up to. And whether you had money or you didn’t, you were pretty much doing the same thing on the weekends – that was the beauty of it. Everyone knew everyone. We watched out for each other. There was a simplicity to life that made it feel very free. The most important thing you’d hear all week was the score of the high school football game and the biggest stressor in my life was the paper I had due for Wayne Porter’s english class on monday. Those songs take me back to that time.
All that to say…something hit me recently. Eric makes fun of country songs about these things because, to him, it’s just a story. It’s a bunch of songs all about the same thing. But for me, it was my life and it makes me happy to think about it. He can’t relate to one bit of it so it doesn’t have the same meaning for him. Country artists write songs like these because we southern-small-town-folk like to identify ourselves. We like to declare “this is where I’m from and I’m proud of it.” There are so many songs in country music that aim to identify this concept of “home”…
Where I’m From – Jason Michael Carroll
Back Where I Come From – Kenny Chesney
My Town – Montgomery Gentry
Where I Come From – Alan Jackson
Down Home – Alabama
Country by The Grace of God – Chris Cagle
I could go on and on with this list but you get my point. So..when I hit a certain age I began wearing clothing that also identified where I was from and that I was proud of it. I started wearing Dixie Outfitters t-shirts or similar clothing with the confederate flag on it. To me, the confederate flag meant NOTHING about racism – it represented the south, my home, the place that I love. And wearing the confederate flag was a way to identify that. If you’re reading this and you aren’t from the south, you have to understand that my education about slavery and the civil rights movement was a bit romanticized. I never really learned about the confederate flag being a representation of slavery or hate. We learned the basics of what happened and that was it. I don’t remember one single discussion about the confederate flag. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen – I just don’t recall being a focal point at all. I can tell you that when I visited the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham at the age of 27 I was BLOWN AWAY by all of the things I DIDN’T know about the civil rights movement – even though Birmingham was on the forefront of it. And I was an excellent, straight A student. But I just didn’t learn exactly how brutal and horrific it was until I was much older. I honestly didn’t. That’s not at all a knock on my education here…I just don’t remember it being a focal point.
Despite going around wearing my confederate flag tshirts and blaring my country music, I was the least judgmental or racist person you’d find in the town of Clanton, Alabama. I also worshiped 2Pac and Elton John. I still spun my mom’s old Neil Diamond albums and I wrote poetry about how we should all be able to love who we choose – no matter their skin color or gender. I was actually criticized for my liberal leanings throughout my life by family and friends – still am and don’t care. All that to say, the thought of wearing those tshirts to say “I support racism” or “I support slavery” was unfathomable to me. It was simply saying “I love the south.”
When I got in college I quickly learned people outside of my little corner of the south viewed the confederate flag quite differently. I became more educated about our past and, as time went on, I stopped wearing the Dixie Outfitters tshirts because I didn’t want to be pigeon holed as a close-minded or uneducated southerner. My pride in my country roots hasn’t lessened but I’m more cognizant of what the confederate flag means to others. I found this quote by Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd regarding the confederate flag and I thought it was well said: “Myself, the past and present members (that are from the South), are all extremely proud of our heritage and being from the South. We know what the Dixie flag represents and its heritage; the Civil War was fought over States rights. We still utilize the Confederate (Rebel) flag on stage every night in our shows, we are and always will be a Southern American Rock band, first and foremost. We also utilize the state flag of Alabama and the American flag, ’cause at the end of the day, we are all Americans. I only stated my opinion that the Confederate flag, at times, was unfairly being used as a symbol by various hate groups, which is something that we don’t support the flag being used for. The Confederate flag means something more to us, Heritage not Hate.”
That brings me to my point of this post – the recent hullabaloo surrounding Brad Paisley’s new song “Accidental Racist.” Paisley was criticized for wearing a band tshirt bearing the confederate flag which led to the idea for this song. He has done numerous interviews on the topic this week stating simply that we need to look past the outward appearance and get to know people. And, that we shouldn’t continue to hold an entire group of people responsible for something that happened a long time ago. I believe his intention was heartfelt and good. Alot of people in the newsmedia (people with whom I usually agree) jumped on this and slammed Paisley. But I think alot of it was unfair. If you aren’t a country music fan, you probably aren’t familiar with Brad much. He’s quite openminded and has written numerous songs about our need to be more accepting. The song “Southern Comfort Zone” talks about the need to understand that there’s a great big world out there, outside of our little southern corner, and to really grow as a people we need to learn about and appreciate diversity in all forms.
Last night on All In with Chris Hayes, Chris compared Paisley’s song to Rand Paul’s attempt to reach out to young African-Americans through his poorly received speech at Howard University this week. Seriously Chris? I don’t know Brad Paisley personally but I know his politics are far from those of Rand Paul. Furthermore, Brad is a country music artist – not a politician. It’s not his job to make policy or even take a stance on it. But by bringing up these controversial topics in his music he is starting a dialog – at least he’s not riding the fence and avoiding rocking the boat. Rand Paul’s agenda is entirely different and I think that comparison was far reaching. Props to Brad for getting out there and starting a conversation in country music…maybe more artists will follow his lead and speak out about social issues.
Not all southerners are conservative and not all country music artists are either – we aren’t a mass of Hank Juniors down here. I can identify with the themes of southern pride and small town living in country music while being a fierce supporter of our black democratic president and a staunch advocate of LGBT rights. Just the same way that I can listen to and appreciate rap music without agreeing with many of the things the artists stand for. Not all rap music is spewing hatred of women and glorifying drugs and violence. The close-minded and judgmental nature of alot of southerners drives me insane. It’s one of the reasons that I ended up living in the heart of downtown Birmingham – the most liberal spot in my sweet home of Alabama. Birmingham is incredibly diverse and the neighborhood in which is live is very liberal. But I still have the option of driving 45 minutes to my wonderful home town and getting a big heapin’ helpin’ of country life. It refreshes me and rejuvenates me like nothing else. I’ll never leave Birmingham…it’s that perfect combination of understanding where we come from and appreciating alot of southern values…while embracing forward progress and diversity. Birmingham isn’t perfect – lord knows we still have our struggles – but there’s a huge group of people committed to continuing to move us forward and I choose to be on that train. I choose to embrace what is positive and healing about this place now and what I can do to be a part of that. I refuse to focus on the negatives here. What do I love about the South? Why am I so proud of being a Southerner? It’s almost something that I can’t explain. It’s the beauty here, the traditions, the food, the music, the values, the friendliness and warmth of the people everywhere you go…
Do people take things too far at times? Yes. Are there people here that just don’t get it and never will? Yes. But a new generation is taking charge and they are going to be different…very very different from their predecessors. Perhaps the best thing about our up and coming generation of southern leaders is that they are a little more removed from the guilt and the hate that colored the decisions of those before them. I sat at dinner with my husband last friday night and a group of Hoover high students were at the table next to us having their pre-prom dinner. They were decked out in their tuxes and prom gowns. The thing that made me smile the most…half of them were black and half of them were white. Headed to prom together. Just a group of friends and couples. Interracial dating was SUCH A HUGE “OH MY GOD” kinda thing when I was in high school, don’t even get me started on being gay…but today it’s rarely an issue. It was a sight that made me one happy southerner!