TERRY GROSS, HOST:
The recent release of Brad Paisley's new album "Wheelhouse" was somewhat overshadowed by the instant controversy provoked by one of its songs, "Accidental Racist," a duet co-written and performed by Paisley and LL Cool J. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of the album and the song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "SOUTHERN COMFORT ZONE")
BRAD PAISLEY: (Singing) When you're wheelhouse is the land of cotton, the first time you leave it can be strange. It can be shocking. Not everybody drives a truck. Not everybody drinks sweet tea. Not everybody owns a gun. Where is the ball cap, boots and jeans? Not everybody goes to church or watches every NASCAR race. Not everybody knows the words to "Ring of Fire" or "Amazing Grace."
(Singing) Oh, Dixie Land...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: "Wheelhouse" is yet another very good album from a singer-guitarist-songwriter and who's made a bunch of them in a row now. It features a slew of shrewd songs about finding pleasure and comfort in a frequently unpleasant, uncomfortable world. The music includes a bone-cracking song about domestic violence written from a woman's point of view, one that praises Christian values from the point of view of a jealous skeptic, and one that samples the great Roger Miller as deftly as any hip-hop production.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUTSTANDING IN OUR FIELD")
PAISLEY: (Singing) Christina waits on tables and Clara bills cafe. Now she's waitin' on a bench for Johnny at the end of another hard day. Hey, hey, he just got paid for washing all them cars. And they ain't goin' to the movies and they ain't goin' to a bar. They gonna pick up the keg and I'm gonna pick up the ice. We're gonna show you how the experts kill us a Friday night. We drive out in the country...
TUCKER: This album "Wheelhouse" also features a song that has threatened to overshadow everything else on it: "Accidental Racist," a let's-all-get-together collaboration between Paisley and LL Cool J. Its vexed subject is, as Paisley phrases it, the feeling of being quote, "caught between Southern pride and Southern blame." LL Cool J has taken his lumps for providing lines like: now my chains are gold, but I'm still misunderstood. Those who criticize Paisley accuse him of naivete to the point of stupidity. Those who criticize LL Cool J have tended to frame it as a sign of cheerful sell-out, much like his co-starring in a mediocre yet big hit TV show, "NCIS: Los Angeles." But both accusations actually suggest the naivete of the hipper-than-thou.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ACCIDENTAL RACIST")
PAISLEY: To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main, I hope you understand. When I put on that T-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I'm a Skynyrd fan. The red flag on my chest somehow is like the elephant in the corner of the South and I just walked him right in the room. Just a proud rebel son with an old can of worms, looking like I got a lot to learn. But from my point of view, I'm just a white man coming to you from the southland. Trying 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 rewrite history.
LL COOL J: (Rapping) Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood what the world is really like when you're living in the hood. Just because my pants are sagging doesn't mean I'm up to no good. You should try to get to know me. I really wish you would. Now my chains are gold but I'm still misunderstood. I wasn't there when Sherman's march turned the South into firewood. I want you to get paid but be a slave, I never could.
(Rapping) I feel like a new fangled jangled dodging invisible white hoods. So when I see that white cowboy hat I'm thinking it's not all good. I guess we're both guilty of judging the cover and not the book. I'd love to buy you a beer, conversate and clear the air, but I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn't here.
PAISLEY: (Singing) Oh, I'm just a white man...
J: (Rapping) If you don't trust my do rag...
PAISLEY: (Singing) ...coming to you from the southland.
J: (Rapping) ...I won't just your red flag.
PAISLEY: (Singing) Trying to understand what it's like not to be. I'm proud of where I'm from...
J: (Rapping) If you don't trust my gold chains...
PAISLEY: (Singing) ...but not everything we've done.
TUCKER: "Accidental Racist"'s biggest sin is that its well meaning intentions topple over into sentimentality too easily - and that its melody, something Paisley usually constructs with a firm complexity bolstered by his superb guitar playing, is here merely a languid loop designed to let the words take precedence.
Haters probably aren't aware of what one might call other message songs of Paisley's. He's particularly good at navigating sexual politics in older songs, such as "The Pants" and "Waitin' on a Woman", as well as politics-politics such as the song "Welcome to the Future" which in 2009 reached out to country's conservative base with a full-throated argument for Barack Obama's vision of America in a way that very few artists in any genre could pull off.
So forgive me - and Paisley and LL Cool J - if we all feel that a lot of the current criticism isn't merely misplaced, but itself naïve. It's too bad Paisley felt it necessary to go on TV with Jay Leno and Ellen DeGeneres to do damage-control for "Accidental Racist." It further compounds the misguided notion that songs are primarily words set to music.
Whereas, this album as a whole, and indeed the rest of Paisley's career, does the more invigorating, valuable work of demonstrating that first-rate pop songs make those elements inextricable from each other, and yield subtleties that neither slogans nor ridicule can touch.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Brad Paisley's new album "Wheelhouse." Coming up, we talk with Amby Burfoot who won the Boston Marathon in 1968 and has run it every five years since. The bombs went off before he made it to the finish line Monday. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)