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Keith Harris

Keith Harris is a music critic and immigration attorney who lives in Minneapolis. These days he mostly writes for Rolling Stone and City Pages. He also tweets as @useful_noise and blogs at usefulnoise.wordpress.com.

“Accidental Post-Racism in a Southern Voice: What Country Music Did and Didn't Say as the Age of Obama Began”
In 2008, Barack Obama was elected president and Darius Rucker became the first African American singer to top the Billboard country charts in 25 years. A year later, Tim McGraw hit number one with “Southern Voice,” its lyrics a catalog of Southern-bred heroes that went out of its way to be racially inclusive, while Brad Paisley performed a #2 country song for the Obamas at the White House called “Welcome to the Future,” which celebrated the progress of race relations in the United States. Each of these singers, in a small but notable way, challenged modern country radio's implicit understanding that the Southern man is also a white man. This paper will address the limitations of what could be said about race on country radio when the conversation involved only white voices (Rucker, working to establish an everyman persona, understandably took no part) and addressed white listeners, and was invested in a narrative of progress and integration that was soon at odds with the uglifying political mood. To what extent did this moment reflect not just the optimism of Obama's election but the corporate anxieties of an industry whose audience a 2006 Arbitron report estimated to be only 2.3% Black? And how did the collapse of country's liberal discussion of race contribute to the rise of younger country acts that were integrating hip-hop slang, references to rap and R&B performers, and second-hand beats? (Note: Although some discussion of Paisley's “Accidental Racist” may be unavoidable, conference attendees will not be forced to listen to the song itself.)

“Vocalizing Race and Religion”
Musical voices have played a crucial and contested role in the historical construction of American identity. The belief in clear sonic markers of things like “Blackness,” “Southern-ness” or “American-ness” has been central to the notion that such categories are fixed and even natural. At the same time, musicians have consistently resisted this essentialism and—through their work –have blurred and transgressed these seemingly discrete categories and their broader social implications. This panel will focus on the disruptions, spotlighting three contemporary musicians—each using a different musical “voice” (accordion, guitar, and vocals) and each based in a different region—who offer alternative visions. Tyina Steptoe will discuss Tejano accordion player Mingo Saldivar, whose musical hybridity illuminates the racial and ethnic complexity of the “western South.” David Gilbert will explore how session musicians like acclaimed guitarist Marc Ribot create “aesthetic identities” that reconstruct musical history and re-envision its cultural meaning even as they mostly work behind the scenes. Finally, Charles L. Hughes will look at how the singing of Brittany Howard—leader of Alabama Shakes and Thunderbitch—offers a “disruptive” vision of musical Black Southern-ness. Through close listening and interdisciplinary analysis, the panelists will use their subjects to offer larger comments on the close and shifting relationship between musical voice and American identities in the past, present, and future.

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