David Allan Coe, the N-Word and The Meaning of “Country”

I’ll be away from the internet all week, so perhaps it’s time to post something long, meandering and potentially offensive. Full disclosure: this post features discussion which may offend some people; however, any offense is completely unintentional, as this blog is meant to foster an open and respectful discourse, etc.

While there may be strange things done in the midnight sun, the strangest biography you’ll likely read on allmusic.com belongs to David Allan Coe. What follows is a list of some of the highlights of Sandra Brennan’s allmusic.com biography of Coe. Best known for penning the 1977 Johnny Paycheck hit “Take This Job and Shove It,” Coe “never spent more than a handful of months outside of a correctional facility” for twenty years following his being sent to a reform school at age nine. After his release from the Ohio State Penitentiary in 1967 Coe moved to Nashville and lived in a hearse parked in front of the Grand Ole Opry, while struggling as a songwriter. Though his stage show often featured Coe riding “on-stage astride his enormous Harley, [and] swearing at the audience,” Brennan expresses seeming astonishment that Coe “couldn’t break into the mainstream.” Later, after Coe acheived some degree of success and/or noteriety, the IRS seized his Key West home, and Coe lived in a Tennessee cave for a time. (Read the article in its entirety here.)

David Allan Coe, “If That Ain’t Country” (1977)

One of the highlights of Coe’s songwriting career, “If That Ain’t Country” is also one of his most controversial. The song starts out as a fairly catchy portrait of the rural working class reminiscent of the Shel Silverstein penned “Boy Named Sue” in both tone and rhythm. But then the chorus hits, and Coe drops an n-bomb. Through the casual use of that single word my relationship to this song is completely altered. Viewing this (or nearly any) of Coe’s songs on YouTube, you are subjected to a slew of racist comments and opinions. Songs such as this seemingly designate a rallying point for racist opinions, so why give the song (or Coe) any credit? Though I am morally repulsed by the use of this word for any purpose other than deconstructing its violent history, the use of the word rings true within the context of the rural working class that this song depicts. In the town where I grew up, and in the town I live now, I’ve heard plenty of white working class people use that word, reprehensible as it is. If nothing else, this song is a paean to the rural working class, and the casual use of that word sounds in that register.

In the song itself, the word plays very little part. (Which might not be said about some of Coe’s disgusting “novelty” songs.) “If That Ain’t Country” relies on the conceit that Coe’s poverty-stricken childhood is a badge of honour, and that the signifier of this honour is the word “country.” The word “country” connects Coe to a geography of dispossession. Coe is in a sense calling upon the connotation of the word “country” in which it specifically means “South.” This is the sense in which country music, which originated in the American South and West, was originally known as country-western music, wherein “country” signifies Southern-ness. Being that Coe is originally from Akron, Ohio, it is possible to suggest that Coe is attempting to extend the positivist identity nurtured in the pride of Southern exceptionalism to other regions of rural dispossession, aligning both against the metropoles of the North. In this sense, it is perhaps significant that Akron has been a site of Appalachian immigration during economic hardships from the industrial revolution to the present.

Much like the use of the word “ghetto” in hip-hop, here the use of “country” suggests that country music can only be legitimately performed by an artist who has experienced the particular hardship of rural dispossession. But, by citing his own meeting with Johnny Cash alongside the assertions of his poverty, followed by the lines “If that ain’t country/You can kiss my ass,” Coe constructs country not simply as the product of disenfranchisement, but as a part of a legitimate musical tradition. In the same sense that hip-hop is celebrated as a way to transcend urban poverty, this musical tradition becomes both a way of honouring and escaping rural dispossession. Prior to the coda, which traces the history of country music, this transcendence of disenfranchisement is alluded to in the conclusion of the song proper in a single line that makes the song less of a celebration of poverty and more of an indictment of the system that enables the creation and continuation of poverty: “Me and my family we was livin’ proof/The people who forgot about poor white trash/And if that ain’t country I’ll kiss your ass.” The song, in its gut-punch willingness to casually offend, intends itself as a reminder of economic disparity and the necessary construction of regimes of (sometimes violently) embittered survival that attend it.

Given the parallel between the use of “ghetto” in hip-hop and “country” in this song, it should perhaps come as no surprise that in the lyrics of rural Mississippi hip-hop artist Big K.R.I.T. “country” supercedes the use of the word “ghetto.” The best example, though others exist, of this tendency in K.R.I.T.’s music is the stand-out track “Country Shit” from the excellent album K.R.I.T. Wuz Here. Much in the same way that Coe seems to use “country” to identify a stable identity to signify rural dispossession as opposed to the Northern metropole, K.R.I.T. often labels his own music as “Third Coast.” The use of “third coast” not only opens up a new and vibrant space of creativity outside of the typical East Coast/West Coast binary, but sets itself in direct opposition to that urban-centric binary. Personally, I find it significant that K.R.I.T. uses “Third Coast,” rather than, say, “South Coast” or “Gulf Coast,” to identify this movement, considering the use of the phrase “Third Space” in Feminist and Queer Theory.

Nonetheless, it’s about time for “Less Talk, More Rock,” so here it is, my favourite hip-hop track of 2010:

Big K.R.I.T., “Country Shit ” (2010)

For that matter, it’s probably instructional to view the official video for the remix of “Country Shit” from 2011’s Return of 4Eva. Check the signifiers of Southern identiy in this joint!

Big K.R.I.T. ft. Ludacris and Bun B, “Country Shit (Remix)” (2011)

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3 Comments

Filed under Country, Hip-Hop, Music

3 responses to “David Allan Coe, the N-Word and The Meaning of “Country”

  1. Tony

    You said “though I am repulsed by the use of the word by a white person…”
    I think you should be repulsed by the use of that word by ANY person. It shouldn’t matter what race they are or what color skin they have. Its the same word no matter who says it. And nobody should say it. It is racist to treat people differently due to their race and by saying it’s okay for one group of people to say a word but it’s not okay for another to say the same word, and the only difference between those two groups of people that would determine whether or not you think it’s okay for them to use that word being their race – that is the same thing as treating people differently based on race – which is racist – maybe not to blacks, but still a racist attitude to have in and of its self. Also consider that it is mostly black people who don’t want that word used – so why do they use it? Everybody, black people included, need to realize that the Civil War is over and put an end to that word. Period. Also, you say “though i am repulsed by the use of that word BY A WHITE PERSON..” What, so it’s okay for Asian people or Hispanic people – apparently in addition to black people – to say it, basically anybody and everybody who wants to use that word can, except for white people? So everybody except white people should have full and uncensored freedom of speech? So it’s okay to discriminate against whites that way? That sounds pretty racist to me. Or are you one of those who think that only whites can be racist and that it is impossible for anybody else to be racist, even if the attitudes of a non-white are exactly the same as a white person that you would call racist?
    Look, what I’m getting at is that nobody should use that word. Not Coe, not Fifty-Cent. Nobody, no exceptions, period. And if black people don’t want to hear that word, then they shouldn’t be saying that word either. After all, they would hear it a lot less if didn’t come out of their own months even. It is hypocritical of them to think that they can use that word and then throw a fit the moment somebody else uses the same word. So let’s be done with that word. No more. Time to move on. If you hear a black person say it, let them know it’s not okay, the same way you would anybody else. After all, what is good for the goose is good for the gander and vice versa.

  2. George

    Yeah, I agree. You said “though I am repulsed by the use of the word…” And you should have just stopped right there. It was unnecessary to add “by a white person.” Just saying.

  3. zk.

    Though this blog is, strictly speaking, dead, two comments on the same topic in the same week deserve a response.

    The internet is at its best when it comprises a dialogue, in the spirit of which, I have taken stock of your comments and edited the original post. The two comments addressing this issue with the original version will remain as documentation of the alterations.

    Thanks for reading!

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