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What 'Accidental Racist' says about evolution of Southern identity (+video)

The Brad Paisley song 'Accidental Racist' is an attempt to reconcile Southern pride with past racism and slavery. Southern music has returned to the theme repeatedly over the years.

By Staff writer / April 10, 2013

Brad Paisley hosts the 46th Annual Country Music Awards at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., in 2012. Mr. Paisley's collaboration with LL Cool J on 'Accidental Racist' has kicked up controversy.

Wade Payne/Invision/AP/File

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

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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 playing down 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 the Center 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.

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