I may not believe in God, but I go to church every Sunday. It is a church filled with idols but with no altar, save perhaps a turntable. It is a church made not with stone and glass but airwaves and music notes. This church is called country music, my priest is 89.9 WKCR, the sermon is the Tennessee Border Show, and my cathedral is the radio.
When you are sad and lonely and have no place to go/Come and see me baby, and bring along some dough/And we’ll go honky tonkin’, honky tonkin’/We’ll go Honky tonkin’, Honkie Tonkin/We’ll go honky tonkin’ ’round this town.
No matter how late my Saturday night, no matter how bleary my eyes, I will leap out of bed as if with wings to rest my head near a radio and listen to hours of old-timey country music. It is amazing that the act of essentially doing nothing has taken on the weight of ritual. I cannot bring myself to shower, I cannot even dress myself until the country prayer has passed.
Well, I used to walk stooped from the weight of my tears/ But I just started laying my burdens down/I used to duck bullets from the rifle of fear/ I just started laying my burdens down
My faith is one, fortunately, which allows for doubt. Every Sunday I look into my impure soul and ask “Why, oh why, Lindsey, do you love this country music so?” There is a gnawing sense that this is not my music, that I am akin to the kids who wore Blink 182 shirts and thought they were true punks. In short, that I am a poser. On top of that anxiety is the glaring question asked by many, why would I even want to be a country music follower?
It is a music dominated by white voices, co-opted by the Republican party, and capable of morphing into the most ridiculously bad songs ever heard and the worse haircuts ever seen. At its worst, it can be abrasive, offensive or just plain dumb. Yet, it is also music imbued with the voices of poor souls, adopted by working folks and lonely hearts of every overlooked corner of this nation, capable of making a grown man weep and a broken women burn the bed. At its best it is a universal language of longing, defeat and pride.
Livin’ is full of misery and pain/Somebody called you a dirty name/Keep on walkin’/Keep on walkin’
There aren’t many people my age who have faith in old-timey country. Most of the young folks who claim allegiance to the genre have a strange blindness when it comes to the age before Country Music TV. But, for me, it all started with Hank Williams. Hank is perhaps the Shakespeare of country, not in the sense of being a revered figure of the ivy tower but in the sense of the visionary wordsmith who revealed the human soul to itself. Hank did so, but not through the stories of kingdoms and rich merchants. Rather, he told the the stories of smokey honkytonks and family farms, places at the heart of American mythologies.
If Hank can be said to be the bard, country music is most definitely the poetry of America (just exactly whose America that is we will to approach later.) It is an efficient poetry that depends on using the simplest of statements in the most clever and heart wrenching ways. It is also a form that demands a sense of humor. Country people know how to make a joke, and often at their own expense. Take these words from the Man in Black which cleverly twist the pathos of a spurned lover into a satire of the too-cute metaphor-sodden country tune:
From the backdoor of your life you swept me out dear/ In the bread line of your dreams I lost my place/At the table of your love I got the brush off/At the Indianapolis of your heart I lost the race
Perhaps it is this ability to speak of hardship and loss with tears in your bear and a wry grin on your mug that speaks to the soul of Indian Country, where country music is immensely popular. When I learned my grandfather loved Hank Williams and Creedence Clearwater, I felt only too pleased to claim I was carrying on a Navajo tradition. It’s curious that music so closely associated with the white working class of “America’s heartland” also speaks to those whom America has sought to destroy. Summing it up to internal colonization, or more lightly assimilation, would be wrong. We would do better to point to the ways in which country music has been whitewashed just as the country it stands for has. When people think of country they might think only of that rugged, white American individual, but I know that is so much more than that. And people may conflate country music with some pure idea of America, but I only have faith in the former:
This desire to define country music as America’ s music through the lens of whiteness is also tied to define what makes a country (American) man. These days the image of a country man is cut from the same cloth as Toby Keith: aggressive, angry, obsessed with Ford diesel engines and George Bush. Much like the idea that country music is white music overlooks the contributions of black musicians and non-white fans everywhere, the country image of masculinity overlooks the men of country who deny macho expectations. These men dress up in sparkly costumes and sing openly about their feelings. You will find them crying, crumpled in the corner burning love letters with grain alcohol, tortured over the question of how to be a better man. What is so piercing about this country man is his vulnerability, the quiver in the yodel rather than the graveling grunts that pass for singing today.
My sweetheart is gone and I’m so lonesome/She said that she and I were through/So I started out drinkin’ for pastime/Drivin’ nails in my coffin over you
But more than the soul-baring, sensitivity of country crooners, it is the serious ass-kicking ladies of country who really get me going. Some literally kick ass, such as Loretta Lynn who once punched her husband’s two front teeth out after he got rough with her. Her and Dolly Parton embody for me what it means to be sassy, a fierce mix of femininity, smarts and toughness. Men may break their hearts but they’re strong enough to get over it and get their revenge. Though there are a number of “woe is me” tunes, country women refuse to play victims for long. They speak honestly of how it feels to be a woman, specifically a poor woman with few opportunities outside of child-rearing and husband-pleasing. In doing so they show a model for refusing to live a lie.
When you left you thought I’d sit /An’ you thought I’d wait/An’ you thought I’d cry/You called me a dumb blonde/Ah, but somehow I lived through it
While Loretta and Dolly twist expectations by singing tough words with sweet voices, Wanda Jackson and Lucinda Williams completely obliterate the constraints of being a saccharine-soaked female singer. Jackson, often called The Rockabilly Queen, was a devilish fox who took the stage with scandalizing hip swinging, masculine swagger and a deep growl of a voice. Williams, one of the most woefully under-recognized performers today, also challenges the pretty woman model with her songs of hard traveling told in a voice that reeks of smoke and drink. Their songs are full of gravel and velvet, anger and tenderness, grit and grace.
Both these artists also show how difficult it can be to talk about blues, folk, country and rock n roll as if they were completely separate entities. For me to love country is to love what made it possible and what it made possible. Most importantly for me to love country is to be constantly alert to its paradoxes and its problems. Despite all of the ones I find, I am still a follower. If you don’t know why yet, no words can explain. You just have to hear those sounds and understand. Listen, really listen to the bent steel guitar note like tear drops in a glass of whiskey, and the drawn out fiddle in the middle of a song like a horsehair saw slicing away the splinters of a broken heart, the hard-drivin’ lead guitar like crazy blood coursin’ through your veins and of course the bared voice of a soul who knows joy and sadness are two sides of the same song.
Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery/Make me a poster of an old rodeo/Just give me one thing that I can hold onto/To believe in this livin’ is just a hard way to go
Afterword: Week before last I had the chance to make the pilgrimage required by followers of my religion: a trip to Nashville, Tennessee and naturally to the Country Hall of Fame and Museum. A lot of what I have written here was inspired by that grand ole’ place, a true monument not only to the most beautiful music ever made but to the power of monuments in general. While there were noticeable gaps in the history as it was laid out in displays, placards, archival films and old 45’s, it accomplished what most museums attempt to do and fail: a true feeling of having accessed the inside of something and an unquenchable desire to learn more. I recommend a visit to the fan and foe alike. And keep it country, ya’ll.