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November 22, 2012 12:10 am

ACOLLEGE professor once asked my class what it meant to be Southern. The class responded by shouting out stereotypical foods. Apparently, being Southern meant little more than having a taste for too much sugar in everything. William Faulkner did corkscrews in his grave.

Certain popular country songs remind me of that moment. There are tunes that seem like a desperate attempt at establishing country credentials, only to miss the point entirely. It's like the songwriter took that list from my college class and used the words to write a song in the style of Magnetic Poetry.

Record executive: "I need a country song."

Nashville songwriter, who probably grew up in Los Angeles: "Country song. Hmmm. Country, like beer?"

Record executive: "Exactly!"

Nashville songwriter, who is more of a Chardonnay guy: "And trucks?"

Record executive: "Perfect! They love trucks!"

Nashville songwriter, who commutes on a Vespa: "I've got it! Pecan Pie!"

Record executive: "Nailed it!"

The result of that meeting of the minds is a song like "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" by Kip Moore. Sample lyric:

What burns me up about a song like that is its total lack of imagination. It's patronizing and bland. It's like Brad Paisley's "Ticks" without brains or humor.

Many recent country hits are little more than a list of signifiers: cold beer, pickup truck, dirt road, farm. The familiar tropes make for an easy connection with the audience.

But it wasn't until a colleague and his wife (thanks, Kurt and Elizabeth!) recently compared country to hip-hop that it hit me. These songs are nothing more than country posturing, and reflect the way popular hip-hop music has evolved into a rote exercise of listing the well-worn trappings of fame: racks and stacks of cash, jewelry, expensive cars, private jets, expensive women.

The apotheosis of this trend is probably Rick Ross' Maybach Music Group, a record label named after a pricey automobile. The word has become hip-hop shorthand--a rapper can simply use "Maybach" in a rhyme to establish himself as a person who lives and parties on a nearly unattainable plane.

Likewise, a country singer can say "cold beer" and he's suddenly Hank Williams Jr. and Sr. put together. Or it at least alerts the listener that he's listening to a country song and not a Train tune.

The connection between country and hip-hop unifies a particular frustration I have with both genres. Each of them prides itself on being "real," and yet their current popular incarnations can be anything but.

Country and hip-hop, two genres that sell a lifestyle, require their stars to engage in a little prestidigitation to maintain the illusion of gritty reality. I'm sure Jay-Z still loves to stand on a street corner in Brooklyn, but we all know he has more in common with Warren Buffett than a teenager struggling to make ends meet. Ditto for Brad Paisley, who still loves fishing, but is much more likely to do it with Steve Martin than you are.

So, when a rapper or a country singer uses these loaded signifiers to establish credibility or gravitas, I have to chalk it up to laziness and insecurity. They doth protest too much, methinks.

None of this is to say that these songs are bad, or don't hit the spot when you need a lightweight sing-along in the car. But if you're looking for real art--music that deals with reality, be it on the street or in a field--you'll have to dig a little deeper in each genre. It's out there, and some of it is incredible.

It's not too much to ask for something a little more meaningful from our music.

Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036

JONAS' IN-TOWN PICK: TJ Morgan & The Mason Branch Bluegrass Band at The Recreation Center. Friday at 8 p.m. OUT-OF-TOWN PICK: B.B. King at The Howard Theater in Washington. The first concert I ever saw was the Blues Boy at Dodd Auditorium. Thirty years later, the legend keeps rolling. Saturday at 8 p.m. LISTENING TO: "The Thanks I Get" by Wilco.

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