When I was younger, I thought country music was beneath me: I didn’t listen to it much and felt contempt for the idea of it.
One day, I was in a convenience store buying some smokes for the road, and I happened to pick up a Brooks & Dunn CD, having no idea how famous they were or, indeed, who they were at all. For some mysterious reason — or was it just serendipity at work — I figured the CD might give me a few ideas for my own songs.
I was immediately hooked. What I came to like in Brooks & Dunn, and in other country singers I have learned to admire — George Jones, George Strait, Alan Jackson, Jimmy Buffett, Tim McGraw, and many more — are the following:
1. Country music is not obsessed with the new, continually declaring a previous generation “dead.” Instead, it honors its ancestors and traditions.
There has developed, to be sure, some conflict between “Traditional” and “Bro,” the latter preoccupied with girls, trucks, high fives and six packs, but the root note of the country chord, so to speak, remains inheritance and customary usage. Songs like Brooks and Dunn’s “Johnny Cash Junkie (Buck Owens Freak)” comprise a joyful pastiche of country songs and motifs, affirming pride in roots (appropriately rhyming with “boots”) that go back at least fifty years.
The greats who established country’s traditions are both a source of solace (as for Alan Jackson in “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” whose sore heart needs George Jones rather than the Rolling Stones) and an ever-present reminder of the past (as for Jackson, again, when he encounters the ghost of Hank Williams, with his “haunting haunted eyes,” and declares him “always singing there” in “Midnight in Montgomery”).
There is none of the sense of needing to disavow and declare outmoded those singers who “walked the line” before. Country singers do not appear to suffer — as do their literary counterparts — from what Harold Bloom has called “The Anxiety of Influence.” They are not invested in recovering, as Bloom phrases it, “the prestige of origins [to] open the possibility of one’s own sublimity” so much as in celebrating their precursors and elaborating what they have contributed to the great library of themes and melodies. In the Bloomian context, we might say that the difference between the writer and the singer is the difference between resentment and gratitude, between intimidation and respect. Innovation, when it happens, need not supplant country’s forefathers.
2. Far from what I once thought, country music lyrics are not stodgy and sentimental: though they give the sentimental its due, they are often sharp, pungent, profound, and — perhaps most surprising to me — witty and tongue-in-cheek.
I think of Tim McGraw singing “The Cowboy in Me” in which the persona is confronted with “the face that’s in the mirror / when I don’t like what I see …” or the high-spirited nostalgia of “Back When,” recalling a more decorous time when “a screw was a screw and the wind was all that blew.”
Consider also Brooks & Dunn’s evocation of a place both magically “North of Heaven” and geographically “South of Santa Fe,” with its combination of dreamy romanticism and piquant irony. Anyone who has ever been hopelessly tongue-tied by desire appreciates the perfectly articulated chagrin of the Zac Brown Band line, “my heart won’t tell my mind to tell my mouth what it should say” (“As She’s Walking Away”).
And who couldn’t love Jimmy Buffet’s alcohol-fueled befuddlement as he wastes away in “Margaritaville,” searching “for my lost shaker of salt,” or the on-the-rebound bravura of Brooks & Dunn’s “We’ll Burn that Bridge” (“when we get there”). Best of all, perhaps, is the poignant irony of George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today” — by some accounts, the greatest country song of all time — which is both devastating and wry. Country musicians take their audience and their subject seriously enough to write about what is perennially meaningful — emotional crises, sorrow and joy, the redemption of love, the value of hard work and faith — while rarely taking themselves too seriously.
3. Most importantly, country music loves America and cares about those Americans in fly-over country whom sophisticated New Yorkers, west coast freaks and MSNBC listeners love to hate, such as the farmers, ranchers, truck drivers, housewives, soldiers, mechanics, pastors, shopkeepers, carpenters, waitresses, and, of course, cowboys who still build and repair and work the land.
Not to mention raising families, and going to church, and fighting the wars that keep other Americans safe (at least for now). “Love your country and live with pride/And don’t forget those who died/America can’t you see?/All gave some and some gave all,” sings Billy Ray Cyrus in “Some Gave All.” Merle Haggard goes even further, warning those who “love our milk an’ honey [but] preach about some other way of livin’ …and runnin’ down my country” that “they’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me” (“The Fightin’ Side of Me”).
In “Small Town Southern Man,”Alan Jackson pays tribute to generations of simple people for whom “calloused hands told the story.” Bucky Covington’s “A Different World” is a wistful reminiscence of a time when “school always started the same everyday/the pledge of allegiance, then someone would pray.” (It should come as no surprise that Democraticundergound.com appraises it as “the worst country song ever.”) Country music honors parents and the generations that came before. It believes there are still American values worth fighting for. And it makes beautiful, memorable music out of its faith in those people and that land.
In this regard, country music is a welcome antitoxin to the malignant spirit of decay and subversion that has permeated the cultural, political and institutional life of America today. Country music is a gift that America has given itself. It is a kind of anthem of the Republic. May it continue to work its power.