NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Cowboy Troy gets that look a lot.
He'll be hanging around an arena before a show and see a black person who works there.
"You can feel the look they give you - 'So that's the ONE guy in country music.' You can feel it, that there's this sense of hope sometimes," said the former shoe salesman from Dallas, born Troy Coleman.
Coleman, 34, is a double anomaly in country music: not only is he black (try naming another black country artists besides Charley Pride), he's also a rapper.
His major-label debut, "Loco Motive," features fiddle and banjo, but it fits more comfortably with Nelly and the Black Eyed Peas than with Toby Keith or Alan Jackson.
The first single, "I Play Chicken With The Train," uses machine-gun beats and rhymes to defend what he calls "hick-hop": "People said it's impossible, not probable, too radical / But I already been on the CMA's / hell, Tim McGraw said he like 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..."
Coleman says the marriage of country and rap isn't as far out as it might seem.
The talking-blues style of records like Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" and Jerry Reed's "Amos Moses" laid the groundwork. A few rappers have spun their lyrics over the twang of country guitars. And last year, Big & Rich - "Big" Kenny Alphin and John Rich, who co-produced "Loco Motive" - showed the possibilities of hick-hop by selling more than 2 million copies of their debut album, "Horse of a Different Color."
"A lot of times the only difference is in the vernacular used to convey your thoughts and, of course, the instrumentation," Coleman said.
If the similarities seem obvious to him, it's because the two genres coexisted in his childhood. His parents played country music around the house when he was a kid. As he grew older he became interested in rock and rap. It all came together for him at the University of Texas, where he began performing at frat parties and clubs.
"I had my cowboy hat on and would rap over techno," he said. "People started remembering who I was I guess because I had the cowboy hat on everywhere I went."
It doesn't hurt either that he's 6-foot-5, 250 pounds. At a recent interview he wore the hat, a big silver belt buckle and boots.
But in person, he's nothing like the party animal persona he exudes on "Loco Motive." He has a degree in psychology, is nine credit hours short of a master's in marketing and can speak snippets of six different languages, including Mandarin Chinese.
His musical career began to spark in 1993, when he met Rich, who was with the country group Lonestar. He started coming to Nashville to hang out with Rich and Alphin, who was in a rock group at the time. He was an early member of the MuzikMafia, the loose-knit group of artists whose weekly performances led to major label record deals for Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich.
Coleman lent his rhymes to the Big & Rich song "Rollin' (The Ballad of Big & Rich)," and when the duo's album took off, he left his job as a salesman at a Foot Locker store to join them on tour with Tim McGraw.
McGraw sings on the new record, as do Big & Rich and other MuzikMafia members. The album is the first release for the new Warner Brothers Nashville imprint Raybaw Records, which is run by Rich, Alphin and fellow Mafia alums Jon Nicholson and Cory Gierman.
"Everybody in the MuzikMafia family is supportive of each other, and that familial sense allows everyone to feel more comfortable and to realize that you have friends out there hoping you do well," Coleman said.
The country rapper knows his music is unconventional. While the first single slid off Billboard's Hot Country Songs list after only four weeks, the video has been in rotation at Country Music Television since March.
The song does better in some markets than others. At contemporary country station WBVR-FM in Bowling Green, Ky., program director Myla Thomas said it isn't getting any spins. "We don't think it fits our format. We don't consider it country," Thomas said.
But at WKTYS-FM in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, it's aired every few hours.
"The response was mixed at first. People didn't know what to think of it," said operations manager Lorrin Palagi. "For some listeners who were more purists, well, they weren't quite sure how to take the song. But as they spent a little more time with it they've become comfortable with it and have seemed to embrace it."
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