Laurence Fishburne set it off, though...

[Neil Drumming]

I don't know a whole lot about country music. The overwhelming popularity of pop country acts like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood has done nothing to pique my interest. I'm a little too set in my ways to feel any desperate urge to understand anything the kids are singing along with these days (sorry, Lady Gaga), much less the music I associate most with the deep south, Confederate flags, and all that juicy racism I did not experience directly. Nevertheless, in the next few months, I am looking forward to gaining a greater appreciation for country. This change of heart is due entirely to American Idol contestant Haeley Vaughn.


The first time I saw this African-American teenager with the bright smile and pronounced lisp singing to Simon Cowell about Elvis and waking up in Vegas, I was struck dumb. She sings country? My wife and I looked across the couch at each other amazed. And it just got weirder. Later in the audition process, she appeared before the judges wearing a flower in her hair, strumming a guitar, and rocking an audacious pair of cowboy boots. Call me close-minded, but it all just felt so incongruous.

And that's why I'm intrigued.

Yes, yes, I'm sure there's a long and passionate discussion to be had here about the genre-stretching achievements of Charley Pride, Ray Charles and even Chuck Berry, but come on! Black folks are simply not the first people you think of when you think of six-strings, ten-gallon hats, and songs about trucks. (Not pick-up trucks, anyway.)

And the fact that Vaughn is young -- she's sixteen -- makes her choice of musical arena even more fascinating. It reminds me of the time a few years back when I found out my then-teenage niece was way into manga, Goth make-up, Hot Topic, and, raver pants. That freedom and broadening of perspective is exciting. I look forward to awkward, overly-sappy American Idol puff segments wherein Ryan Seacrest makes nice with Vaughn's family back in Fort Collins, Colorado and maybe we get a glimpse of how this young woman came to be who she is and like what she likes.

On tonight's episode, they reveal whether or not Haeley Vaughn will advance into the top twenty-four contestants and appear on subsequent episodes. I've got my fingers crossed. Of course, it's likely that Vaughn's strict adherence to her beloved country style could inhibit her singing, well, other stuff and get her bumped off the show early. That would suck. A black teen rocking out on some Dolly Parton, that could be kind of cool. But anybody mucking up Jennifer Holliday's "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" with a bad country twang, that's just sad.

It's also possible that Vaughn's country swagger is partially or completely an act, a marketing strategy played up big-time for the camera and encouraged by the show's producers. If that's the case, the truth will reveal itself eventually. Hopefully, by then, I'll have learned the words to at least one Carrie Underwood song.

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Neil Drumming is a filmmaker, screenwriter, and journalist. He is a former staff writer and editor at Entertainment Weekly, and his work has appeared in Wired, The Washington Post, Vibe, Rolling Stone, Essence, and Vanity Fair.

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