Hoss of a Different Color 

"Hick-hopper" Cowboy Troy raps to a country beat

"Hick-hopper" Cowboy Troy raps to a country beat

Cowboy Troy only recently started doing interviews, but he can already reel off the first questions nearly every writer asks. With a chuckle, he mimics, "How did you get the idea to rap over country music? How does it feel to be a black man in country music? Have you met Charley Pride?"

The questions will increase once his debut, Loco Motive, hits stores May 17, which likely will make the Texan, whose real name is Troy Coleman, the best-selling, highest-charting African American country singer since, well, a guy named Pride.

What's remarkable about the order of questions he receives is that race is taking second billing to the controversy Coleman's stirred up by daring to call himself a country rapper. So when another inevitable question comes up, "Do you consider what you're doing country music?" he doesn't hesitate. "Absolutely, I'm a country artist. Just because I don't deliver my vocals like other artists doesn't make it any less country. It's country music, no doubt about it."

Some country music traditionalists disagree, vehemently so. What clouds the argument is the racism—sometimes open, sometimes subtle—interwoven with their criticism.

"I think this dude needs to go back to wherever he came from and get out of our country music world," reads an April post on CMT.com, where a flurry of racist remarks and quick rebuttals have kept the webmaster's delete key busy. Another says, "Cowboy Troy is to country music what Oprah Winfrey is to the Weight Watchers program. This is a big joke, just to make a quick buck." On the music industry website velvetrope.com, one post read, "This is the only board I've seen with a [Cowboy Troy] thread where no one has dropped the N-word yet."

Troy's no stranger to such comments, as he's been laying raps over country instrumentation since attending college in Austin 15 years ago. He even addresses the topic in the first stanza of "I Play Chicken With the Train," his album's leadoff cut and first single. To a fist-pumping track that sounds like Aerosmith augmented with fiddle, banjo and steel guitar, he chimes, "People said it's impossible, not probable, too radical / But I already been on the CMAs, hell Tim McGraw says he likes the change / Said he likes the way my hick-hop sounds, and the way the crowd screams when I stomp the ground / I'm big and black, clickety clack, and I make the train jump the track."

With Big & Rich offering their rockin' harmonies on the chorus, the song has all the cockeyed catchiness that made "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" such a genre-crossing hit. Only this one pulls out all the stops: it's faster and harder-rocking than any cut on Big & Rich's Horse of a Diffferent Color, and there's little attempt to filter the full effect of Coleman's rap style. His clear enunciation has more in common with pre-gangsta rappers Run D.M.C. or Sir Mix-a-Lot than with the more complex, high-speed flow of Eminem and Jay Z, and that's a good thing, because Coleman's deliberate rhythm and hyped-up Southern drawl fit well with the country-rock stomp he creates with producers Paul Worley and Big & Rich.

The rest of Troy's album leans on daffy novelties like string-band-on-meth hoedowns "Crick in my Neck" and "My Last Yee Haw." The latter includes the line, "Gotta work tomorrow, y'all, but tonight I'm going to party," thus providing a reason for accentuating mindless fun in so many songs.

That said, Troy wanders from the get-your-freak-on theme just enough to show what else he can do. "If You Don't Want to Love Me," a song about two women seeking escape from painful family situations, is a tender ballad reminiscent of LL Cool J's "I Need Love"—with as lengthy a steel guitar solo as we're likely to hear on a country record all year.

Even better are two tunes directly about working-man struggles. Set to a funky call-and-response with a fiddle break, "Ain't Broke Yet" ticks off a list of financial woes familiar to any wage worker and features the memorable line, "Livin' in a world of false pretense / If it don't make dollars then it don't make sense."

Similarly, "Somebody Smilin' on Me," a mid-tempo duet with McGraw, relates Coleman's story in a manner any middle-class dreamer facing down detractors can understand. "I'm worse than a has-been because you say I never will be? / I'm just trying to excel so you fail me," Troy sings. "Boundaries were made to be broken / And I'm leaving all my nay-sayers chokin'."

The song ends with a stanza about how Christianity gives him the strength to stay true to himself, and he ends with a spiritual, "Wrap Around the World," that finds him rhyming in English, Spanish, Mandarin, German, French and Japanese (his "Tae Kwan Flow," as he calls it) over steady-rolling steel-guitar. The song and album end with the exhortation, "Shake a hand instead of shaking a fist," and we can sure use more of that kind of thinking, in country music and everywhere else.

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