We live in an age of the mashup. Everything can be blended with something else. Is this because technology (manipulation of digital files, sampling, file sharing) has opened up a way of thinking about the world; or have we reached a particular stage in our cultural development in which everything, being equal, becomes interchangeable, and the technologies merely enable the outputs? Opportunity or ennui?
In particular, in the world of music, and beyond the ubiquity of sampling, we get the mashing up of styles, or what they call fusion genres. So it is that you get such confrontational concepts as funk metal, cowpunk, psychobilly, dubstyle, folktronica, and country rap.
I have been working on a blog post on country music, intended to be one in a series on music genres. It was while doing so that I stumbled upon the phrase ‘country rap’, which sounded either to be a joke or a truly desperate attempt to generate novelty through a shotgun marriage of opposites. But then I started listening to some of it…
You may just have to take my word for it (unless you listen to the Spotify samples given here), but country rap is one of the most exciting, revelatory and rewarding forms of modern music that I’ve heard in a long while. It is exciting not simply for the quality of the best of the music (as with any other genre there is good, bad and a substantial percentage that is merely average), but for the story of how it has arisen and for its function as social barometer.
Country rap may sound hard to take seriously, and to its detractors and even some of its practitioners, in its early stages it had a self-mocking quality, dismissed as ‘hick hop’. It was poor whites pretending to be poor blacks, mockingly matching aggressive attitudes to good ol’ bland, dumb country. But in fact its first manifestation was entirely serious, the progenitor being white hip hop artist Bubba Sparxxx from Georgia, especially his 2003 CD, Deliverance, which mixed beats with snippets of country music staples such as fiddles and harmonica to create an extraordinary alchemical mix in which opposites fed off each other.
The CD gradually inspired a whole genre that has only just started to come to the fore. It is no coincidence that such music has flourished in the age of Donald Trump. Country rap is redneck music, defiantly so. It is a music of mud parks, car rallies, monster trucks, hunting and beers. It has become the expression of an underclass that has been given its voice. Country music used to serve such a function, expressing the hardships, hopes and certainties of people who had never quite got over being on the losing side of a nineteenth century civil war. But mainstream country music has been watered down to the blandest of pop-rock. It has lost the heartbeat that animated it.
Country rap sounds like that heart beating once again. The rapping is knowing, assertive, sometimes angry, often humorous, predictably foul-mouthed, offset against music tracks of great ingenuity. On paper it doesn’t work; in practice the beats, the samples, the voices and the themes gel perfectly. Some of the music is so conventionally hip hop that there is little to distinguish it except lyrical preoccupations and the Southern twang (Moonshine Bandits, Upchurch, The Lacs). Some of it wittily plays with country music instrumentation and tropes (Bubba Sparxx, Big Smo, Redneck Souljers). Some of it edges more towards a conventional country sound, sensing a wider audience out there (Colm Ford, Lenny Cooper).
For the audience is growing, despite what seems to have been mostly indifference from the music industry. It has been a true folk music, growing out of social meeting places, shared and spread with only limited help from the Internet because the reception is so patchy in some of the areas where the music is strongest. Where you can get a reception, the music has spread particularly through YouTube videos, where the attitude is made explicit. This is the music of men (and it is mostly men) as big as the trucks they drive. Check out the Jawga Boyz’s ‘Ridin High’, for example. It puts the mud back into country (note also that the those partying along to the Boyz are not exclusively white)
It is, as said, the music of the people of Trump. There’s a revealing passage in Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury where someone asks Donald Trump what ‘white trash’ means. “They’re people just like me, only they’re poor”, he replies. It is both a rare piece of ruefulness and profoundly empathetic. And just as Trump’s core constituency has responded to someone who gives every indication of seeing and responding to the world as they do, so country rap addresses the concerns of an audience that didn’t expect anyone to understand them. Not that it is necessarily quite as political as you might expect, though there is some pro-Trump stuff, plenty on guns, and some waving of the wrong flag. A recent piece in Rolling Stone describes it thus:
Songs about jacked-up trucks, drinking, mudding and other virtues of so-called redneck life are standard, and rants extolling the virtues of the Confederate flag and the Second Amendment aren’t uncommon.
Some of it is rather more thoughtful than that might suggest. In particular The River, the latest collection from the Redneck Souljers (who reportedly started out as a spoof hick-hop act before deciding to take themselves seriously) is music of sophistication and introspection, half lost in its own darkness.
Country music has long tradition of rapping, of a kind. You could trace its roots back to the talking blues of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, or more recently to the growling Americana of James McMurty. It has always been about speaking from the heart. It’s about the power of words and a tune (or beat) to say that this is who we are, this is where you will find us, this is what only we will ever know because that is who we are. In age of progressively bland and homogenised popular music, it is quite thrilling to come across something that rediscovers what should be music’s raw power.
It is a music of defiance, that is both assertive and really quite sorrowful. After all the reception in those areas remains weak, no one understands them yet, Trump is rich and they are still poor.