Southern cultural exchange

Posted by R. Neal

Bands with ironic names like Southern Culture on the Skids notwithstanding (check out their "Dirt Track Date" CD if you haven't already - trust me), Southern pop culture continues to break new ground. Southern art, literature, and music (the genuine variety, not the abominable "Dukes of Hazard" Hollywood style interpretations) have had a profound influence on American culture over the years. This week, a couple of Southern icons remind us why.

First, Dolly Parton's new CD "Those Were the Days" is already being hailed one of the best new albums of the year. No, seriously. Don't laugh. Dolly Parton is the real deal. If you're familiar with her background you know it is a classic "rags to riches" story - literally. She is a charismatic, genuine, high-energy performer who connects with her audience. (I call her the "Hillbilly Elvis".) She's also a successful businesswoman who hasn't forgotten her roots. She generously gives back to the community here in East Tennessee with scholarship programs, and her Imagination Library inspired the Books from Birth program which has been adopted by several states including Tennessee.

The new CD is just being released today, so I haven't heard it yet but I know it will be excellent. The twist is her song selection. She covers 60s and 70s folk/pop and even protest standards with an all-star lineup of guest artists. I'm looking forward to "Me and Bobby McGee" with Kris Kristofferson, "The Cruel War" with Alison Krauss, and "Turn, Turn, Turn" with Roger McGuinn and "Both Sides Now" with Judy Collins. Other interesting choices include "Crimson and Clover" with Tommy James and "Where do the Children Play" with Cat Stevens. Norah Jones even makes an appearance. There's also a cover of John Lennon's "Imagine" that should be interesting, although Amazon calls it "over the top."

Something else that came on to my rusty, stuck-in-1972 pop culture radar this week is NASCAR. (OK, once again don't laugh. Have you ever been to a NASCAR race? Trust me, there's no other spectacle quite like it, especially at the World Shrine of Racing in Daytona.) This past Sunday, CBS 60 Minutes had an interesting profile of Brian France, the third generation CEO of NASCAR, and the France family racing empire.

It appears France is on a mission to give NASCAR an "extreme makeover". Already one of the world's most successful entertainment/sports franchises, France intends to expand NASCAR's appeal beyond the South and attract a wider audience. They now have a track in Los Angeles, and they've even acquired property on Staten Island to bring NASCAR to New York. That should be interesting.

France also dropped big tobacco as the major sponsor of NASCAR championships, and there's a special focus on attracting more minorities. When asked how that squared with the rebel-flag-waving crowds at NASCAR races, France said:

"I think it's a fading image," France said. "Well, look. I can't - these are massive facilities. And I can't tell people what flag to fly. I can tell you the flag we get behind. It's the American flag."

France would love to tell fans not to fly the Confederate flag if he could. "It's not a flag I look at with anything favorable. That's for sure."

I was a little surprised that he would risk alienating the traditional NASCAR base with such remarks, but someone pointed out that they probably aren't watching 60 Minutes anyway.

With all this you might get the idea that Brian France is a progressive sort of guy, and maybe he is. Except he's also a huge contributor to the Florida Republican Party, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, George W. Bush, and even Rick Santorum. But he's first and foremost a businessman, and it's interesting that he perceives value in marketing Southern culture to a wider, more sophisticated and more diverse audience.

Anyway, it's nice to see Southern icons and institutions reaching out across cultural divides - exporting Southern pop culture to our Blue State brethren as a sort of cultural exchange program. It's a first step towards understanding, and the least we can do after helping put the current crop of corrupt clowns in power. Let the healing begin.

OK, then.