September/October 2006

Cowboy Troy | Loco Motive
(RAYBAW/Warner Brothers Nashville)

Toby Keith | White Trash With Money
(Show Dog/Universal)

In an age in which technology is encouraging and enabling musical, cultural and political cominglings, it is at once strange and fitting that the tension around hybridity in most every genre of American popular music would continue to exist and exert itself. Given the reality that mash-ups of all kinds have been the rule (take hip-hop) as opposed to an exception, the issue seems to be more about the exposure of the purity myths for exactly what they are—mythology.

This dynamic is nowhere more striking than in hip-hop and country western music. The former’s tendency toward authenticity policing following the commercial breakthroughs of the last 10 years (i.e., “real” hip-hop alternately being posited as thug realness or Afrocentric Blacker-than-thou posturing), combined with the continuing internal fractures of the latter along class and aesthetic fissures (alt-country, neo-traditionalists and “young country” artists), provide a space for intentional and implicit statements on race and class ascension in a fashion not nearly as immediate in other genres.

Singer-songwriter Toby Keith’s eleventh studio album, White Trash With Money, provides a foregrounding of these dynamics in a manner dependent upon the listener’s understanding and acceptance of his title’s thesis. Through stories from his life experience as an oil rig worker in rural Oklahoma in the mid-1980s, Keith weaves grounded, hyperliteralist tales of disenfranchisement (“Get Drunk And Be Somebody”), finding bits of joy after the daily grind (“Can’t Buy You Money”) and the working-class struggle with everyday moral dilemmas (“Ain’t No Right Way”) with standard I-lost-my-house-car-wife ditties (“I Ain’t Already There”). Without once uttering the words of his album’s title (which sprung from a neighbor’s comment overheard by his wife), Keith speaks crystal-clear, un-PC volumes about the conferral of privilege and the iconography of a continually in-flux experience of contextual whiteness placed in combat with conspicuously non-white cultures.

Dallas Texas native “Cowboy” Troy Coleman’s fourth disc (and first for Warner Brothers Nashville) is at first a striking contrast to Keith’s brooding missives, opening with the raucous radio hit “I Play Chicken With A Train.” A psych grad from the University of Texas-Dallas, Troy comes from as complicated a space as Keith and has served himself as well with his refusal to be boxed into or forced to one side of an identity fence. Given the historic segregation of popular country music, its community expectations of the random Black performers who achieved success (Country Music Hall Of Famer Charley Pride’s understandable reticence at becoming a race man comes to mind), and hip-hop’s general suspicion of anything not fitting in the few spaces it has managed to carve out, Troy’s seamless blend of Will Smith-flavored party jams, bilingual tejano heaters and pop country sonics make a political statement as dense as any Master’s thesis could. Unabashedly hillbilly in a way that doesn’t fit into accepted Dirty South b-boy modalities, Troy confronts unavoidable discomfit of his racialized and class-ascendant presence head on. Even in the midst of rump-shakers like the aforementioned “Play” (“I’m big and big and Black, going clickety-clack/ and I make the train jump the track”), the tracks on Loco Motive manage to address numerous threads of Troy’s multilayered Texas upbringing with strident refusal of monolithic authenticating, insisting on bringing his multiple selves and influences (the album features numerous cameos by country superstars from Big And Rich to Tim McGraw) to the mix. Perfect in their imperfections, both Keith and Troy, in their own ways, attempt difficult conversations around the collapse of race and class experiences that many people, white and non-white, wish would go away.

Read this online at http://colorlines.com/archives/2009/11/race_records.html


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