"I think of country radio like a great lover. You were great to me. You bought me a lot of nice things, and then you dumped my ass for younger women."--Dolly Parton, at the Country Music DJ Hall of Fame dinner, held March 1 in Nashville.
"Lost generation, fast paced nation/World population confront they frustration/The principles of true hip hop have been forsaken/It's all contractual and about money makin'..."--The Roots, "What They Do"
When hip-hop pinup and abs-master Nelly recruited country music heartthrob Tim McGraw to be on "Over and Over," a track from the rapper's 2004 album Suit, it was a contrived but shrewd marketing gimmick that would eventually result in a genre-crossing hit single. Black rap stars, even the most confectionary and useless of thugs, ache to prove that they're "on some next shit," that they ain't ya average nigga in terms of influences, taste, and aesthetic. But the ambitious pop star's creative wants and needs--and Nelly is a pop star--are already deeply conditioned and insidiously co-opted by external demands and harsh business realities by the time said star is in a position to flex his more calculatedly "outlandish" impulses. They're so deeply owned they don't have to be reigned in.
Nelly may well be a huge country-music fan, casually shuffling Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose and 50 Cent's The Massacre in the CD deck of his Escalade. But what's more important for the industry suits who jizz over new ways to increase market share while pawning off boardroom schemes as personal growth for their artists is the fact that rap and country have been huge-selling, high-profile genres over the last 10 years. That reality, more than anything else, was the catalyst for the pairing. As a result, the hooking up of Nelly and McGraw was about as organic and artistically
fulfilling as a corporate merger, which is all it really was. (And yet it still trumps the recent, curdled testosterone fusion of Jay-Z and Linkin Park.) But there's a genuinely powerful undercurrent to the Nelly/McGraw duet, to the commingling of respective genres that their pairing aspires to. It's just that you have to go beyond what you've been spoon-fed to really get to it.
In the last two months, both the Roots and Dolly Parton have released concert DVDs, The Roots Present... (Image Entertainment) and Dolly Parton: Live and Well (Sugar Hill Records). Both performances capture the artists at the top of their game, at turning points in their careers. Despite the critical acclaim, assorted Grammies, and (at least in Parton's case) huge personal fortune they've amassed between them, both acts are underdogs of sorts. They've been redlined to the margins in terms of both mainstream and genre-niche visibility. Parton committed the unforgivable act of aging. That led to decreased radio airplay, slumping sales, and being dumped by her longtime label RCA before signing with the smaller Sugar Hill Records, then releasing a trio of sublime bluegrass CDs: Halos & Horns, Little Sparrow, and The Grass Is Blue. The Roots have built an almost rabid cross-colors audience on the strength of years of touring. They've also created some classic discs (Do You Want More?!!!??!, Illadelph Halflife, and Things Fall Apart) as well as more experimental fare (Phrenology) that left the devoted divided. But their label (MCA/Geffen/Interscope) has been unable to break them beyond cult status. So while their real-instruments-and-hybrid-influences impact has been significant, they don't get nearly the props they deserve.
Of the two DVDs, Parton's is the more effective showcase of her talents. Armed with a voice that can swell to arena-filling dimensions and then fall to a plaintive hush, Parton is a paradox: a beloved icon and a hugely underrated talent--top-notch musician, peerless songwriter, energetic and engaging live performer--and it's all on display here. From the tear-jerking classics ("Jolene," "Coat of Many Colors") to a jaw-dropping cover of "Stairway to Heaven," she performs with both efficiency and sincerity. There is the most gorgeous ache in her voice, cutting right through the sequins, bloodred lips, teetering high heels, and store-bought hair for a brilliant clash and then merging of artifice and authenticity.
Parton has been quoted as saying that her image (once so scandalous, now the foundation of her own family-friendly amusement park) was inspired by the ladies of the evening who took hold of her imagination when she was a young girl. Their exaggerated sexuality seemed, to her, the very definition of glamour and femininity. The harlot-as-blueprint has, of course, been the dominant model of womanhood through contemporary pop culture (rock, rap, and pop songs and videos; fashion spreads and movies) for a long while now. But few of the practitioners have had Parton's extraordinary gifts, or humor, to balance the caricatured femininity being sold. And while country music hasn't been quite as ho-fied as other musical boroughs, it's worth noting that the genre's biggest selling woman of the past decade--Shania Twain--achieved her success largely on the kind of sexually charged imagery and revealing clothing whose roots can be traced back to Parton, or even Wanda Jackson. (Twain, of course, ain't nowhere near Parton in terms of art or craft.)
The Roots' image, by contrast, has been decidedly and purposefully nondescript. They're not gangstas, they're not backpacker rap (though they often get lumped in with that subset), and they're not really boho kneegrows--though they're often tagged as such by folks who don't know either the Roots or the true meaning of the term. While some measure of Parton's success can be traced to the fact of her being a woman doing female drag, much of the failure of the Roots to connect with larger pop and even rap audiences might lie in their refusal to do the racial drag that passes for "realness." The pimps, thugs, and playas that fill radio and television airwaves do a performance of blackness that makes them easily digestible; their images and cartoonish 'hood narratives chute easily along well-worn grooves of Negro threat and menace. Their dubious triumph lies in parlaying hoary stereotype into a paycheck and calling it empowerment. The Roots, by virtue of having images and laid-back personas more in keeping with the bulk of American black men--how we dress, how we walk and talk, how we carry ourselves--and despite having paid their dues and earned their stripes, continue to be baffling commodities to the machine of popular culture.
The Roots concert DVD is less a real capture of the group at work than it is a showcase of associates, friends, and musical heroes. Jean Grae, Martin Luther, Skillz, Young Gunz, Dice Raw, and Mobb Deep all take turns on the mic, and they largely do great jobs. But a real Roots concert would have been even better. What would that have entailed? The group's patented fucking with arrangements of their (relative) hits, digging deep and giving you album cuts, acing covers of everything from the Jackson 5 and Nirvana to whatever is currently blowing up on BET's 106 and Park; the Roots in concert dazzle you with their dexterity, with the depth of their musical vocab and vision. And while they clearly intend to blow you away at every opportunity, they're not just a technically unfuckwitable entity. They have a genuine joy in what they do. They get themselves off by getting the crowd off.
Watching the two DVDs back to back, what strikes you is the similarities at work. Country is sold as all-American music, the stuff of family, morals, and old-fashioned values, tales of the way real Americans live. Rap, despite being the pop of the late 20th/early 21st century, is still perceived in many quarters as the sound of urban blight and American decay. But these two styles are more analogous than contrasting. Both forms are largely first person and narrative, filled with tales of economic struggle, the lure of escapist flights (booze- or weed-fueled) and baby-mama drama. One of the greatest cons that politicians and the culture barons of American history ever pulled (and continue to pull) was convincing poor whites that they were different from and had nothing in common with blacks, especially poor blacks. But the struggles and hard-won victories that Parton details in her lyrics echo those of 'hood reportage. The battles for respect, the gender conflicts, and the grind of daily life for working folk that the Roots talk about is paralleled in country.
An interesting aspect of both the Roots and Parton is the way they defy genre/cultural conventions and expectations of gender and sexuality. While the depiction of women in rap continues to be more than problematic, the Roots have long been non-showy supporters of strong females. They've collaborated with some of the most dynamic women in contemporary race music--Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Ursula Rucker, Jean Grae--while expressing feminist sympathies in their own work. Parton, who playfully dedicates "Jolene" to the drag queens in her concert audience, recently donated a track to the Human Rights Campaign benefit album, Love Rocks, an all-star effort in support of gay marriage. In tandem, all these shows of support complicate the easy characterizations that now pass for cultural analysis. (Red state; blue state.) They illustrate cracks in popular perception, showing how the margins of culture continue to be where meaningful, progressive political work is being done, and where common ground is being tilled.
Both the Roots and Parton powerfully embody the elements of their respective musical genres--namely the forging of self in the face of myriad obstacles. Rich sociopolitical commentary is inherent in their work due to the mere fact of them (a white woman sprung from poor mountain people; black American men articulating blackness in a way that sidesteps the cooning that is marketed as "keeping it real") giving voice to their realities, visions, and dreams. And, tellingly, their careers are testimonials to the triumphs and costs of true individuality, something Americans are deeply conflicted about. We define ourselves as a place where individual liberties and personal freedom are core ideals. Our historical heroes and cultural icons are paragons of idiosyncrasy, stubborn iconoclasm, and those who went/go against the grain. Rebels with or without causes. But in truth, we champion those who are "individual" but not "different," those whose words and actions actually reinforce the myths and lies we tell ourselves, the conventions that we cling to in order to hold at bay the imagined chaos of true democracy. We worship and elevate the ones who ride their toothless individuality all the way to the bank, not those who risk obscurity, poverty, or ridicule for the same. The soundtrack for the former is the contrived, market-driven cross-pollination of the Nellys and Tim McGraws. But Parton and the Roots are the sound of the latter--those who risk, those who genuinely inspire.
Ernest Hardy writes about film and music from his home base of Los Angeles. He's currently working on a book of criticism that will be published by Redbone Press in the fall of 2005.