By Darrell Gwaltney
Paisley offers a new album filled with familiar country music topics like lost love and summer fun, but he also speaks prophetically.
Speaking prophetically means more than telling the future. It calls attention to things that need changing in our everyday lives. Listening to a prophet can be uncomfortable.
Country music carves out a well-defined identity glorifying patriotism, heritage and God. Throw in some songs about kicking back and drinking beer, bemoaning a lost love or remembering long-gone relatives and an album is complete.
Paisley is no stranger to this formula, and Wheelhouse has its drinking song and its lost-love songs. It also has songs that call into question the holy trinity of Southern life: identity, racial heritage and faith.
In the way prophetic words sometime work, these songs make the careful listener uncomfortable.
In the song “Southern Comfort Zone” Paisley reminds the listener that not everyone drives a truck, drinks sweet tea, goes to church every Sunday and knows “Amazing Grace.” One part anthem for the comforts of home, it is also about getting outside his “Southern comfort zone.”
It is only when we leave our “comfort zone” that we can say:
I know what it’s like to meet the only one like me,
To take a good hard look around and be a minority
It is good to have pride in our Southern identity, but traveling outside our comfort zone helps us see we are not the center of the universe. We can only understand ourselves by being around others who are different from us.
In the song “Accidental Racist” Paisley confronts one of the deepest wounds in Southern culture.
He sings of walking into a Starbucks store wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt with a rebel flag on it. He instantly recognizes he has offended the person behind the counter. As he reflects on what happened he sings:
’Cause I’m a white man living’ in the Southland
Just like you I’m more than what you see
I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done …
[We’re] caught between Southern pride and Southern blame
Then, strikingly, LL Cool J begins to rap:
Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood
What the world is really like when you’re livin’ in the hood …
I guess we’re both guilty of judgin’ the cover 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
As they answer each other, Paisley in country anthem mode, LL Cool J in rap, they sing back and forth expressing the tension of the South’s racial heritage.
It is difficult to hear. It is prophetic because it exposes the subtle racist attitudes simmering just below the surface of our everyday lives. It asks us to think about the racially insensitive small things we do every day. The clothes we wear, the stickers on our vehicles, the attitudes we strike may be racist, even if accidentally. That’s hard to hear.
Finally, the song “Those Crazy Christians” presents a view of Christianity through a skeptic’s eyes. He gives example after example of the crazy behavior of Christians. Consider this stanza:
Those crazy Christians, go and jump on some airplane
And fly to Africa or Haiti, risk their lives in Jesus’ name
No, they ain’t the late night party kind
They curse the devil’s whiskey while they drink the Savior’s wine
While the song ends with the skeptic’s admission he would want those “crazy Christians” around if he ever needed help, it is a wakeup call to Christians to recognize people are watching. Christian behavior defines for the skeptics what true Christianity looks like. Someone on the outside looking in may see things no Christian intends for them to see.
They are finely crafted country music songs. They have great lyrics and catchy hooks. They also confront Southerners with the way they live. Prophetic words work that way, and Paisley might make you uncomfortable if you listen closely.