Two fresh new country albums, Hot Apple Pie's eponymous disc on Dreamworks Records and Billy Currington's Mercury Nashville Records release, Doin' Somethin' Right, serve up one song each for hillbillies and rednecks. Or so it would seem, from the number of times they call out those names. I like to think the hillbillies have won, or at least that they're catching up. It's about time. To paraphrase Waylon Jennings (using proper tongue-in-chic dialect), "Don't yew thank this redneck thang's done got out o' hand?"
The equation of "redneck" with "red white and blue" has about ridden its sincere-to-opportunistic ('scuse me, that's patriotic-to-free-enterprise!) bandwagon into a rut, along with the war and the economy. But the Ironic Appreciation of Rednecks isn't faring much better.
Of course, irony brings a nice tang to the New Earthiness of recent country, which is a healthy countertrend to the anxieties of life during wartime. (And now floodtime, and so on.) So, with CMT cornpone-playa Jason Aldean bringing the sight of "the neighbor's butt crack, as he's nailin' up the shin-gles" to the New Earthy party on his hit video "Hicktown," sure, I'll salute it. But Aldean's music reminds me of driving a pickup truck over railroad ties and bad roads, just for the heck and the habit of it. Which can be fun, like the song. Yet even before the price of gas went up so much, it was kinda dumb to drive around like that just for the heck of it -- and obstinately so.
And that -- whether it's self-mocking or self-righteous or surrogate-seeking or mostly commercial -- is what representations of "redneckism" come down to, most of the time: that 'necks are dumb and obstinate.
Hillbillies, on the other hand, are more likely to be crazy and sexy. You might look perfectly normal, but if you have a recessive 'billy gene in there somewhere, one of these days you're just gonna jump out the window and go whoopin' 'round the mountain with Bugs Bunny and Dolly Parton.
Which is just the appeal of Hot Apple Pie's shimmying "Hillbillies" and Billy Currington's curly "I Wanna Be a Hillbilly." Yes, friends, in these troubled times, what better way to send all your hopes and fears -- especially about yourself, especially if you're Southern -- right up the crick? So jump on outta your rode-hard "Hicktown" pickup, kick off your shoes, and dance to Billy and the Pie. "Lay me down-n-n, in a bed of gold," them Pie boys harmonize -- and not through their noses, so they're not too hillbilly. They can pick the bluegrass, though, while launching into the chorus: "Hey! Hill-bill-ies" not unlike "Hey! Bo Didd-ley!" Fact is, bluegrass and blues licks are catnip to Pie leader Brady Seals and his merry men. Wittingly or not, they emulate Bill Monroe, who was equally inspired by the Anglo-Irish tunes of his Uncle Pen and the blues of neighboring African American guitarist Arnold Shultz to go travelling with his Bluegrass Boys.
The Pie is a true band, and they always leave their music plenty of room to breathe and travel, stylistically and emotionally. "Easy Does It" has a guy telling a girl to control herself. The song's chorus is like that of the robust but suave Commodores' hit "Easy." And even though the lyrics "I'm a re-al, re-luc-tant Romeo" play hard to get, the sound is pretty close to Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On!" These resourceful, hipster hillbillies invite Willie Nelson to duet on "Slowin' Down The Fall," but Willie seems to have a really bad cold. So singer Brady Seals figures out how to match Nelson's timing, working around the redheaded icon's hoarseness rather than trying for a smooth harmony as he would with his own bandmates.
With regard to the group's take on the aforementioned "redneck" in "Redneck Revolution" -- the tune isn't as "yee-haw" as you might think from the title. It actually rocks steady (and reminds me of Bad Company's "Rock Steady"), with a confidence that grows and gets more expansive: "We don't give a damn what religion or race, we don't hate." So it's not stereotypically "redneck," even though the title "Redneck Revolution" would be a good name for a nightclub.
Billy Currington's "I Wish I Was A Hillbilly" ("prayin' fer rain!") is as lanky and sexy as a 'billy is expected to be: limber enough to adapt to life and loves craziness, with just a touch of his own strange magic. Young Billy knows that when a lady with "Hollywood" license plates drives up and sees him "sellin' turnips on a flatbed truck, crunchin' on a pork rind," she must be thinking, "This is where rednecks come from." (Ya don't say!) But, even though Billy obediently gives her directions, the lovely traveler still turns right around and comes back to him. Currington's grateful for this, but doesn't sound very surprised. Nor should he be. As long as he keeps his reassuring faith in womanly wisdom moving to a smooth, new-cut groove, this CMT beefcake's modest crop of memorable melodies should make for a real nice diet of midnight snacks. And, judging by the tastes of our local, WSOC-sponsored Redneck Yachting crowd, Currington's going down easier than Pie.
Billy Currington plays at Coyote Joe's on Friday, Oct. 28, at 7pm, with openers Hot Apple Pie and house band Out of the Blue. Tickets are $15 at the door; $17.50 by charge at 704-399-4946 or www.coyote-joes.com.