The Living Bubba
Let me tell you about a song I love.
It begins with a banjo. Then comes a high, winsome wail singing, “To see you coming round the bend/I just can’t think of anything that can make me smile like you can.” And then the main vocalist enters over a four-string reel, promising “a portrait of the South in the spirit of a song/Keep following the fiddle, it’ll never steer you wrong.”
But the vocalist isn’t singing, he’s rapping. And the song’s beat, a herky-jerky stutter-step, sounds like some kind of urban belly dance. The man at the mike is Bubba Sparxxx, a hulking white MC from rural Georgia. The tabla rhythm is courtesy his producer Timbaland, as are the synthy whooshes and Prince-like keyboard run that decorate the track. The chorus, complete with banjo and fiddle, is a sample from the Yonder Mountain String Band.
Now, I know a lot of country music fans, and a lot of alt-country fans in particular — but I don’t know very many of them who are familiar with “Comin’ Round” or the mostly great 2003 album it came from, Deliverance. And I wonder why.
As the subtitle of this periodical acknowledges, trying to define the parameters of “alternative country” is a sucker’s game. Sometimes it really means “classic country.” Or new music that sounds like classic country. Sometimes it means folk-rock. Or folk-rock played by punk rockers. Or punk rock played on fiddles. Sometimes it just means whatever Jeff Tweedy’s doing this year.
But one thing it usually means is “different from commercial country.” Explicit in the idea of “alternative country” is that it is an alternative to something — the mainstream, to put it politely. Which is understandable, to a point. As a fan of pop music, I reserve the right to appreciate both Gillian Welch and Shania Twain, but the sins of the industry in general and Music Row in particular are amply documented.
What does it mean, though, when the mainstream is more adventurous, more progressive even, than the alternative?
I’m not just talking about Bubba Sparxxx here. Hip-hop and country music have been dallying with each other for a while, obviously. Malcolm McLaren did it first, way back in 1982, when he layered square-dance calls over breakbeats on “Buffalo Girls”. But in the last few years, crossovers have become more common, particularly as hip-hop has shifted toward its southern axis.
Not all of them have been worth a fuss. Kid Rock didn’t bring much besides a shaky bar-band voice to his collaborations with Hank Williams Jr. It was something, though, to hear Nelly and Tim McGraw duetting on last year’s “Over And Over”, and something else again for it to be a big hit. It helped, probably, that Nelly didn’t actually rap on the song, but its sinuous groove — unlike anything else in the McGraw canon, for sure — made it a bona fide hybrid. Less ferocious than Run-DMC’s pairing with Aerosmith, which claimed rock for rap and vice versa, “Over And Over” suggests an easy affinity between current country music and modern R&B and hip-hop.
For some sense of how that affinity might play out, Exhibit A is obviously Nashville’s widely praised and scorned Muzik Mafia clique, whose mizzpelled name, collaborative recordings and group tours are modeled on any number of hip-hop posses. Ringleaders Big & Rich seem especially determined to make the point: Their 2004 debut included guest spots by twangy rapper Cowboy Dan, and their lyrics and sometimes even show plenty of hip-hop savvy. In concert, they splice bits of Nelly’s “Hot In Herre” into their biggest hit, “Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy)”.
Granted, Big & Rich’s rock-candy aesthetic can tread close to cutesy novelty, and their motto — “Country Without Prejudice” — is a tad self-congratulatory even if you admire the sentiment. But they know what they’re doing. There are plenty of SUVs out there with Ludacris in the CD changer next to Lee Ann Womack. Anyone who thinks Big & Rich will be the last Nashville platinum-sellers to engage hip-hop head-on is betting the wrong way. And however ham-handed or dollar-driven some of the conflations will be, the crossovers at their best sound like something new (and even, in an era of Red State/Blue State stereotypes, radical).
Yet all of this activity barely registers in the realms of alt-country. One of the oddities of the subgenre is that while the audience tends to be socially and politically progressive, its taste in music is often cautiously conservative. Nothing on the allegedly “experimental” Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, for example, is anywhere near as musically or sonically interesting as that Bubba Sparxxx track.
And speaking of Bubba Sparxxx, “Comin’ Round” is not even the best song on Deliverance. Although the album ranges through Muscle Shoals funk, blues, and even a new-wave rock rave-up, its high point is a soulful bit of fiddle-driven country called “She Tried”. With baby-faced Oklahoma crooner Ryan Tedder providing the chorus, Bubba drawls his way through the stuff of a thousand honky-tonk laments: He had a woman, he done her wrong, he learned too late and now she’s gone.
The song inverts one of the standard formulas of alt-country: Instead of new music that sounds like classic country, it is classic country that sounds like something new. It is “alternative country” in the best possible sense — true to its roots, but alive to the present and thinking of the future. Any definition of alt-country that doesn’t have room for “She Tried” is conceiving its borders much too narrowly — and, more to the point, missing out on some great music.