Starring Michelle Obama and Kellie Pickler? Casting the first lady in a television cameo with the country music singer may at first sound odd. But since her appearance on ABC’s “Nashville,” is to support military families, it’s all for a good cause. The setting of the episode, scheduled to broadcast May 7, is Fort Campbell, Ky., where, as part of the third anniversary of their Joining Forces initiative, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden were scheduled to speak Wednesday.
There may be upsides for all: more attention to those who serve and to their families and some buzz for a television show that hasn’t exactly been a breakout hit.
The “Nashville” appearance is also a chance for some curious speculation, and not just because the juxtaposition of a first lady with actors and singers on a scripted nighttime soap is hard to picture.
The country’s first African American first lady is going country, a genre not usually seen as particularly integrated among its practitioners and fans. And she’s doing it in a Southern setting that lives and embraces the music – if not the Obama administration. Although politics is part of it, racial rhetoric can be found in some signs – literal and otherwise — of that rejection.
The relationship between race and country music has always been complicated. The music, with its distinctive regional appeal, has been characterized, along with NASCAR, as divided along racial lines. Yet African Americans have always been part of the genre, long before former Hootie & the Blowfish front man Darius Rucker headed up the country charts a few years ago. It takes only a brief listen to hear influences of blues and gospel in tales of love and hard luck that know no boundaries. The influences flowed both ways, as much of rock-and-roll pioneer Chuck Berry’s playlist would sound right at home on a country station.
But there are obvious reasons for the discomfort; there are reasons why I have felt a little lonely in the audience for Willie Nelson, Doc Watson or Johnny Cash. I was not surprised when, on a visit to Robert’s Western World to hear some traditional country music during a break in a Nashville business trip, a stranger – both friendly and astonished — sent over a drink.
When I was growing up, you could not escape country music in my house. My father’s favorite was “music that told a story,” which often meant country. I can’t be sure but it’s possible the first words I spoke were “out in the West Texas town of El Paso,” the start of the Marty Robbins country-Western blockbuster that my father played dozens of times in a row.
Robbins was well known for that classic, and slightly less known for conservative politics that had him supporting George Wallace in the 1968 presidential campaign and writing “Ain’t I Right,” which attacked unnamed marchers who “came down to this Southern town last summer, to show the folks a brand new way of life, but all you’ve shown the folks around here is trouble.” The song accused protesters of having communist ties, a common claim waged against civil rights activists by opponents. Cue the waving of Confederate flags.
Manifestation of a certain kind of patriotism could often turn into defensiveness about racist institutions that permeated every part of life in places where country music ruled. That legends such as Hank Williams credited black teachers and influences didn’t matter. There was a long drought between pioneer Grand Ole Opry harmonica player DeFord Bailey, a pre-World War II star, and the mid-1960s Opry stints of “Country” Charley Pride, who was virtually incognito at the beginning of his career, until his label was sure his face wouldn’t hurt sales and air play.
However, artists and the public could appreciate what was true. When another of dad’s favorites, Ray Charles, ignored his advisers to record “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” that included the chart-topping “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” he scored a crossover smash.
I never understood when people said they could not stand hip-hop or country or classical or opera since there’s quality and emotional resonance to be found everywhere. When my oldest brother first played me a sample of the otherworldly yodeling of Jimmie Rodgers, with hints of the blues and life on the railroad, it sounded so uniquely American and modern, although it hailed from the early 20th century. I was hooked.
But separating the best of the music, whatever the genre, from the trappings that have come to define it can be tough. Offerings that purport to bridge the divide, such as last year’s clumsy Brad Paisley-LL Cool J duet “Accidental Racist” – history made simple and simpleminded — hardly help the cause.
Better suited, perhaps, are performers such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops – playing roots music in a rollicking package. Its members drop some history into the fun, reclaiming the African lineage of the banjo and coaxing mesmerizing rhythms from the bones and a jug.
The group’s youthful members’ repertoire of old-time Americana is more traditional than anything you might hear on “Nashville,” but I’m a fan of both. The meandering plot devices on that show sometimes serve as mere breaks between moments of beautiful music and harmonies, and that’s fine. A friend, an African American woman from Anson County, N. C., watches without apology, because, she told me, it’s the music she grew up with.
Michelle Obama’s brief swing by may bring new viewers who might feel more kindly for a show with an unfamiliar sound track. On the other hand, she may make some faithful fans tune out.
Intricate harmonies are tough to hit in communities with so much history to overcome.