Playing Chicken with the Train Cowboy Troy's Hick-Hop and the Transracial Country West

Article excerpt

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"[S]uch fiddling and dancing nobody ever before saw in this world. I thought they were the true 'heaven-borns.' Black and white, white and black, all hugemsnug together; happy as lords and ladies, sitting sometimes round in a ring, with a jug of liquor between them ..."

--Davy Crockett (1834)

"There ain't nothing like a good, solid ride. I don't care where you are or who you are. It 's just like music--smooth and perfect if you do it right."

--bull rider Alonzo Pettie (1910-2003), "America's oldest black cowboy" at the time of his death

"My belt buckle is my bling-bling. It's just going to keep getting bigger."

--Cowboy Troy (2005)'

BLACK HILLBILLIES AND BLACKNECKS

There was no necessary reason why Cowboy Troy's country-rap single, "I Play Chicken With the Train," should have caused such an uproar among country music fans when it was released in the spring of 2005. The song itself is a sonic Rorschach test: not so singular a curiosity as many might think, but still a challenge to what passes for common knowledge in the music business. It is animated by a sound and a lyric stance that might strike us, in a receptive mood, as uncanny--at once unfamiliar, a half-and-half blend of two musical idioms that rarely find themselves so jarringly conflated, and strangely familiar, as though the song has distilled the sound of ten-year-old boys filled with limitless bravado, jumping up and down and hollering into the summer afternoon. Compared with other country-rap hybrids, "I Play Chicken With the Train" contains surprisingly few sonic signifiers of hip-hop: no breakbeats, no samples, no drum machines, no scratching. The full burden of audible blackness is carried by Cowboy Troy's decidedly old-school rap, with its square phrasing, tame syncopations, and echoes of Run-DMC. One hears white voices framing, doubling, responding to, supporting, that black voice; simultaneously, one senses that somebody has torn down the wall that is supposed to demarcate firmly the boundary between twanging redneck euphoria--the lynch-mob's fiddle-driven rebel yell--and rap's exaggerated self-projections of urban black masculinity?

The song scans, to receptive ears, as a particularly boisterous example of the male-bonded American pastoral articulated by Leslie Fiedler in Love and Death in the American Novel, a transracial masculine idyll stretching its unencumbered limbs across some country & western frontier, "civilized" men throwing off their generic shackles and reinventing themselves as a fraternity of fearless young warriors out to revitalize the world. Or else--to the unreceptive--it is monstrous, and must be treated as monsters are treated. In The Philosophy of Horror, Noel Carroll defines monsters as entities that are "un-natural relative to a culture's conceptual scheme of nature. They do not fit the scheme; they violate it. Thus, monsters are not only physically threatening; they are cognitively threatening. They are threats to common knowledge." The email blast that alerted potential purchasers to the recording's release fused a kind of King-Kong sensationalism with an assertion of scandalous, unprecedented hybridity: Cowboy Troy, we were informed, is "the world's only six-foot, five-inch, 250-pound black cowboy rapper." Was that a threat, a brag, or a promise? (3)

In his follow-up album of 2007, Black in the Saddle, Cowboy Troy referenced the antipathy with which some whites and blacks greeted the song and, by extension, his highly conspicuous presence in the country music world. "People I've never met wanna take me body surfing behind a pickup," he sang in "How Can You Hate Me," referencing the infamous dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, at the hands of two white men. As for the black response to his hick-hop persona: the silence from hip-hop precincts, at least publicly, has been deafening, although Vibe magazine did take note of Black in the Saddle long enough to sneer at Coleman's presumptive audience: "Troy and his twang trust are keen to serve two masters: game exurban blacks steeped in country grammar and white fans of post-redneck rock. …