I’d rather hear both sides of the tale. See, it’s not about races, just faces, places; Where your blood comes from is where your space is. — Michael Jackson
For country music fans, talk these days is not so much about the latest hits by superstars like Tim McGraw, Jason Aldean, Eric Church, Florida Georgia Line, Darius Rucker, Blake Shelton, Lady Antebellum and Luke Bryan, or even when everyone’s going to catch on to the fact that Taylor Swift doesn’t really sing country music.
It seems the whole world — even folks who wouldn’t know The Band Perry from William “The Refrigerator” Perry — can’t say enough about country star Brad Paisley’s new song “Accidental Racist,” which features rapper-turned-actor LL Cool J.
The song, which brings to mind one of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lesser post-Ronnie Van Zant ballads, has been pretty universally panned by critics, who’ve avoided talking about the message of the song’s lyrics by taking snarky shots at its supposed inferior quality. But whether you’re a country, Paisley or even LL Cool J fan, you have to at least give the pair points for offering up a dialogue that most artists — heck, most people — avoid altogether.
It’s easy to understand why “Accidental Racist” is drawing such heat from mostly Southern country music fans. Paisley pulls no punches in the often biting lyrics, which describe a chance meeting between the song’s Rebel flag T-shirt-wearing narrator after he is waited on in a Starbucks by a black barista.
“When I put on that T-shirt, the only thing I want to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan,” Paisley sings, noting later that the encounter had left him “caught between Southern pride and Southern blame.”
Other lyrics touch on the same theme:
“I’m proud of where I’m from, but not everything we’ve done” ... “It ain’t like you and me can rewrite history” ... “It ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin” ... and perhaps the most biting, “We’re still paying for the mistakes that a bunch of folks made long before we came.”
Rapper Cool J, best-known for some of the harder-core lyrics of his earlier songs, doesn’t exactly get a lot to work with in his “Accidental Racist” verse: “I guess we’re both guilty of judging the cover, not the book,” he raps after making note of the narrator’s white cowboy hat and Rebel flag T-shirt.
He then offers the lightweight “RIP Robert E. Lee, but I gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me” as the song fades.
The firestorm surrounding “Accidental Racist” has surpassed the attention paid much more meaningful country songs, garnering Paisley and Cool J guest spots on some of the nation’s “serious” TV news shows. And, as is the custom, the dialogue has included the impact of the few black artists who have made their respective marks on country music, artists like Ray Charles, Charley Pride and former Hootie and the Blowfish frontman Rucker, whose “Wagon Wheel” is currently at No. 3 on the country charts.
Cynics everywhere have accused Paisley and Cool J of pandering, of trivializing one of the country’s most troubling issues with a middling song that barely scratches the surface of the racial divide. Indignantly, they accuse the pair of avoiding much deeper concerns that might have had a greater impact.
To which I say: It’s a country song, get over it. If your delicate sensibilities kick into overdrive because Brad Paisely and LL Cool J don’t sing/rap about institutionalized racism, about prison sentencing, about hiring inequities, about government-sponsored entitlement programs ... well, let me just say that you’re asking a little much of a medium that may never have even addressed the issue in its long history.
I can’t imagine “Accidental Racist” will ever make my abridged Top 500 list, but I will give the two artists who perform it credit for at least generating dialogue. That’s a heck of a lot more than most of their peers would even attempt.
Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org