BOOK REVIEW/Heather Seggel

Is Country Music Big Enough for Rednecks and Gays?

Let’s play a game. We’re friends, right? We’re progressives, whether Democratic or Green, drinking fair trade coffee and smoothing the “Coexist” stickers on our Volvo bumpers. So when I say “redneck,” what’s the first thing you think of? Maybe comedian Dan Whitney, who you know (if you know him at all) as Larry the Cable Guy. Or possibly the old TV show Hee-Haw, which combined great music with the corniest gags imaginable. It’s possible you have a darker association, with the xenophobic, homophobic, right-wing NASCAR dads who ruin everything for everybody. Author Nadine Hubbs encourages readers to examine those assumptions in Rednecks, Queers, & Country Music (University of California Press, 225 pages). If you think those ideas can’t coexist in a title, think again.

Hubbs, a Professor of Women’s Studies and Music and Director of the Lesbian-Gay-Queer Research Initiative, among other assignments at the University of Michigan, does talk about “queers” in the book, looking at mainstream artist Chely Wright’s coming out and her longstanding relationship with the USO, which suffered as a result. Underground country artist David Allan Coe released an album in the 1970s that took on celebrity homophobe Anita Bryant by extolling the virtues of the “faggots” he’d met while in and out of prison, and is generally a fascinating character. But the book is much more focused on white liberal bias against the white working class, who are easily scapegoated for everything from voting “wrong” to being whatever’s the matter with Kansas, then turned into gross caricature when we need a few laughs.

The book spends significant time on public reaction to a Foo Fighters video wherein the band play redneck truckers dressed in what Hubbs calls “Jed-face”: Corncob pipes, overalls, floppy hats. Eating in a truck stop, they proceed to the bathroom, which turns out to be a bathhouse, and act out faux-gay erotic follies. The video got lots of YouTube hits, but later on the band played the song as a counter-protest, across the street from a demonstration by Westboro Baptist Church, and the video of that performance went viral. Foo Fighters were hailed by GLBT rights organizations for being models of justice and tolerance, but nobody pointed out that they did so by mocking a largely inaccurate stereotype. Working-class whites don’t have much more political agency than racial minorities, they are largely Democratic voters and tend to favor policy that leans toward tolerance. So why is it so easy to blame them for everything?

As with country music, there’s an ease with which liberals dismiss working class people that feels almost born of a desire not to catch poverty cooties. Critics of the music attack country for being “inauthentic,” as if a song not penned in the minutes after emerging from a coal mine lacks credibility, when as an art form country is free to create as it pleases. And for moneyed whites, it must feel good to know that their views on race are above reproach, an attitude that can only exist with an easy target to blame. It must be those simple folk who don’t know any better, right? As if the working class control any purse strings or policy decisions.

An academic text, “Rednecks” features the requisite lengthy introduction and tons of footnotes, which make it somewhat slow going for readers. If the book ranges far and wide to prove its thesis, Hubbs brings it succinctly home in an afterword: “(M)iddle-class liberals and progressives would rather maintain moral and cultural superiority over the white working class than build alliances with them.” She goes on to accuse liberals of preferring to vent their anger over protecting their own interests, a complaint you more typically hear being lobbed in the opposite direction.

Oh wait, we were playing a game, right? I forgot to tell you my answer. “Redneck” reminds me of my childhood; by age 13 I’d worn a Skoal ring into the seat of my husky jeans. Country was compulsory listening on the 45-minute ride from my tiny logging town to school. And while I may have a foot in multiple worlds now, those experiences die hard and inform who I am today. “Rednecks, Queers, & Country Music” may be uncomfortable reading, but it opens up a conversation about class that’s long overdue.

Heather Seggel is a freelance writer currently couch-surfing in Northern California. Can she come live with you? See www.heatherlseggel

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2014

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