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What ‘Accidental Racist’ says about evolution of Southern identity

Love, heartbreak, patriotism, and partying have helped make country music the top-selling genre in the US. Segregation and slavery? Not so much.

That is what would seem to make “Accidental Racist,” the new offering by country artist Brad Paisley, so unusual. The song, which has been blasted by critics as a downplaying of racism, attempts to explore the thorny question of whether Southern whites are racist if they are proud of their Confederate heritage.

Yet “Accidental Racist” fits into a long tradition of Southern musicians trying in good faith to reflect on the region’s complicated past. Whether it was the “hillbilly” music marketed to whites from Appalachia and the Ozarks in the 1920s or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s response to Neil Young in 1974’s “Sweet Home Alabama, Southern musicians have sought to address the outsider’s perspective that Southern pride is tied to the legacy of slavery and the Civil War.

That tension is only growing in country music. As the genre gains more international popularity, many musicians are doubling down on “Southern” themes in an attempt to keep their music true to its roots.

“There is a tension right now in country music between a lot of songs producing a defiant stance saying, ‘We are Southern, we are redneck’ … even though there are plenty of people who live in the South who see the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate,” says Jocelyn Neal, director of theCenter for the Study of the American South in Chapel Hill, N.C. “Those two ideas are constantly in tension of each other.”

Mr. Paisley wrote “Accidental Racist” with veteran rapper LL Cool J. In it, Paisley sings about walking into a Starbucks wearing a T-shirt brandishing the Confederate flag.

“Our generation didn’t start this nation / We’re still picking up the pieces / Walking on eggshells, fighting over yesterday and caught between Southern pride and Southern blame,” he sings.

LL Cool J, playing the role of the Starbucks barista, responds: “If you don’t trust my gold chains / I’ll forget the iron chains” and “let bygones be bygones.”

Billboard magazine called the song “a flat-footed apology for hate-induced uneasiness,” while the Atlantic said the song’s assumption that “there is no real difference among black people is exactly what racism is.”

Country musicians can feel forced to address the complexities of rebel pride in their music because it remains an indelible component to the music’s everyman identity, says Professor Neal.

“Country music as a genre carries with it this association with Southern identity, specifically the Southern white identity, even though radio surveys continue to show the country music audience is more highly educated and better paid than record company executives assume they are,” says Ms. Neal, who has written extensively about country music.

The quest to define that identity is decades old. The Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd used “Sweet Home Alabama” to respond to Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” a song that disparaged white Southerners for refusing to own up to their racial history. Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zandt juxtaposes outrage over Southern segregationist George Wallace with the Watergate scandal, suggesting Northern liberals pick and chose what burdens their conscience, and that a region should not be prejudged by the actions of others.

For some performers, this debate resulted in songs that referenced the Confederate flag as a symbol of proud generational heritage, while others, from Merle Haggard to the Drive By Truckers, acknowledged deeper complexities with the past in their music.

The Truckers, a band that emerged in the late 1990s, addressed the conflict head-on in their 2001 song “The Southern Thing”: “You think I’m dumb, maybe not too bright / You wonder how I sleep at night / Proud of the glory, stare down the shame / Duality of the Southern thing,” sings band leader Patterson Hood.

Paisley, who was born in Glen Dale, W.Va., does not appear jolted by the criticism, telling television hosts this week that the song was meant to start a discussion.

“I’m not sure if we were going to find any answers, but it was the idea we would ask the question. In the end, what I felt we had on tape was something we felt people needed to hear,” he told ABC News Tuesday.

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