Brad Paisley is among the biggest stars in the present-day country-music firmament, and his songs generally deal with such innocuous issues as partying, the Internet and drinking.
But with his newest song, Paisley has inserted himself into a racial debate.
“Accidental Racist,” a collaboration with the rapper LL Cool J, begins with Paisley’s apology to an unnamed Starbucks employee for wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the Confederate flag. “When I put on that T-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan.”
The apology is deeply conditional, though: Paisley calls himself a “proud rebel son” in the first verse, and feels as though he’s being “blamed” for what he considers ancient history. Why isn’t it OK to wear a Confederate flag without getting blamed, anyhow?
I’m just a white man comin’ to you from the southland Tryin’ to understand what it’s like not to be I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done And it ain’t like you and me can re-write history Our generation didn’t start this nation We’re still pickin’ up the pieces, walkin’ on eggshells, fightin’ over yesterday And caught between southern pride and southern blame
The song implies that Reconstruction was a failure (“They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried some tears / We’re still siftin’ through the rubble after a hundred-fifty years”), while LL Cool J’s verse further muddies the water. Maybe people who judge those in “rebel” garb are the real racists: “So when I see that white cowboy hat, I’m thinkin’ it’s not all good / I guess we’re both guilty of judgin’ the cover not the book.”
The two parties come to a delicate accord, with LL Cool J rapping: “If you don’t judge my do-rag / I won’t judge your red flag / If you don’t judge my gold chains / I’ll forget the iron chains … Let bygones be bygones.”
The Confederate flag remains a popular symbol of Southern pride even while stirring controversy among those who see it as a symbol glorifying slavery in the antebellum South. The singer Trace Adkins wore a Confederate flag earpiece at a nationally televised performance in 2012. Adkins wrote at the time: “As a proud American I object to oppression of any kind. To me, the battle flag represents remembrance of my Southern lineage – I am a descendant of Confederate soldiers who followed that flag into battle. I advocate for the preservation of America’s battlefields and honest conversation about our Country’s history. To those who view the flag as a symbol of racism, that was not my message and I did not intend offense.”
Members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the band name-checked in “Accidental Racist,” used similar language in defending their use of the flag in live shows: “Myself, the past and present members (that are from the South), are all extremely proud of our heritage and being from the South. We know what the Dixie flag represents and its heritage; the Civil War was fought over States rights.” Though not associated with the flag, the band Lady Antebellum has come in for criticism for a name that references the slave-holding South pre-Civil War.
And the idea that racism can be accidental and unknowing, the product of minority hypersensitivity of the sort LL Cool J disavows in the song (“I won’t judge your red flag”), has gained currency during the Obama administration. A CPAC panel called ”Trump the Race Card: Are You Sick and Tired of Being Called a Racist and You Know You’re Not One?” went badly awry this year.
The song, which claims a lack of knowledge as to why black people might be offended by the Confederate flag (hey, Skynyrd uses it!), is something of a mixed message for Paisley, too. The country star’s 2009 single “Welcome to the Future” name-checks Martin Luther King Jr. and was inspired by the election of Barack Obama. Paisley performed the song at the White House that year, wearing a white cowboy hat but no Confederate flag.
Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_