Friday, September 21, 2007

Me & My Country

Country music is infiltrating my brain. I don't really want to listen, but like CQ, it somehow found its way onto the #3 button on my car radio. Unfortunately, my other morning options are limited to:
  1. Jay St. John, Laredo's answer to Don Imus (was there a question?), whom I recently heard claim that people like Falcon's QB Michael Vick are "the reason the N-word still exists." When not perpetuating racism, Jay loves to talk about "tax abatement."
  2. The Workz, which one of my coworkers told me is a new rock station for the kids. I didn't realize the kids listen to so much Linda Ronstadt.
  3. Five different Norteno stations. I like blazing tuba action as much as the next guy, but in the morning?
So my only option is Big Buck Country. I was never a real country fan beyond Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, but can someone tell me why today's country music sounds so...defensive? Every song seems to fit two models: a) nostalgic ("Weren't everything cool, when people prayed in school, and we could lynch a dude...") or b) proud ("I know you live in a trailer and your husband lost his job, but all you've got to do is live, and laugh, and let God").

Maybe history has been hipsterized, but didn't older country seem a little more cynical, and therefore more legitimate? American Studies Ph.Ds encouraged to chime in here.


jamie said...

Well, I don’t feel that the blog needs another whole post on country music, but I feel the need to add my two cents. Unlike JC and CQ, I’ve been listening to country music all my life. I would argue that a lot of the country themes have stayed the same. There has always been some nostalgia and longing for the simpler life of days past. There’s Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings singing about Luckenbach, Texas decades ago, and Tim McGraw singing about wanting to live “Where the Green Grass Grows” more recently. And there are definitely more tragic love songs in country than in any other genre: “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”, “I Will Always Love You”, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” And country has always been about pride, pride in living the simple life and not the high-city life. “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”, “King of the Road”, “Friends in Low Places.”

One area that there’s definitely been a change, though, is in the songs of female country singers. Once upon a time they sang songs like “Stand by Your Man” and “Crazy”. Now, women are much more empowered. There are a number of songs about domestic violence, like “Independence Day” and “Goodbye Earl”. Carrie Underwood talks of destroying a guy’s car for cheating in “Before He Cheats.” Gretchen Wilson takes pride in being a “Redneck Woman.”

And one more common thread in country music, both today and in the past, is the cowboy. Even with songs like “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” there’s generally a respect for the life of the cowboy. My favorite country song is George Strait’s “Amarillo by Morning”, which combines a lot of the above themes. It’s about a cowboy headed to his next rodeo. Rodeos have ruined the cowboy’s relationships, and he doesn’t have a lot of possessions. But it’s all good, because he’s free and doing what he loves.

As for the God references: country music is about a lifestyle, and the people that lifestyle appeals to tend to have religion as a central fixture in their life. In the picture-perfect small town America they’re singing about, the social scene is church picnics and church choir practice. I would compare many of the God and religion references in country music to the drug and sex references in rap music. They’re there because the audience expects them, and because they seem to go with the lifestyle. I suspect there’s more to living in “the hood” than doing drugs and shooting people, but rap music paints a one dimensional picture of that life. Country music is similarly one dimensional.

Chud said...

You know that there isn't a country station in New York?

I got a laugh from your characterizations of country. And shit, Toby Keith really does have a song about lynching being good.

It seems to me that there's more to country than nostalgia and pride. Country music also tells a lot of dark stories and uncategorizable stories. It has its share of love songs, "remember when" songs, and "fuck yeah" songs.

But there are also lyrics about how some asshole steals your parking spot and your tooth got pulled ("Some Beach," Blake Shelton), how a lot of musicians are opportunist fakes ("Gone Country," Alan Jackson), and black humor about execution sung live in a prison ("Joe Bean," Johnny Cash).

Country songs often tell good stories. I find that refreshing and a nice antidote to sugary pop songs about Love.

I will say this: I am not into the affected-sounding twang that is the vocal signature of much country music. It grates on me. That's why I turn the station after a while.

I might suggest to you that thinking old country was more cynical is a similar nostalgia to the one you see in country music--the old days were better.

I never use the words legitimate or illegitimate with regard to music. Those are such loaded words, and in the realm of commercial music, they make no sense. Musicians pitch to audiences if they want to work as musicians instead of being aficionados.

What about public radio or the news? Jazz station? Ipod with tape adapter? Religious station? Check out the am dial for long-distance stuff--you might get a classical station or big band from San Antonio. And you know I love that Norteno.

AC said...

Whoa, gotta disagree with you on "Gone Country" being about how a lot of musicians are opportunistic fakes. My brother's high school teacher once said that song was a discriminatory tract against non-Southerners.

I have an altogether different view: I see "Gone Coutry" as a very typical "pride song." Alan sings about how strippers, hipsters, and pop Svengalis (the big three!) are all forsakinng their paths in favor of country music. Alan, never one to showboat, delivers it as a simple narrative--but it is sure to conjure proud feelings in the "country folks" who think that, suddenly, their backward music is widely admired and copied. The purpose of the song is not to criticize fakes or non-Southerners in general. Alan is fully aware that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and--with his audience--just wants to kick back and enjoy the attention.

Of course, Alan's assertion was and is preposterous. Neither New York, nor LA, nor Las Vegas, are "going country." But pride, as expressed by the marginalized, is healthy. Country folks get to feel happy, hip urbanites get to laugh at country folks' misplaced pride, and everything goes down a little easier. We gone.