LC Van Savage
This article is kind of a cheat because in part I’m going to be using someone else’s words. I had to. Dana Jennings, the author of the treatise below on country music so exactly nailed my thoughts on this subject, I had to use his words. He said them a lot better than I. Google him. He’s amazing, the writer we all wish we could be.
An editor at the New York Times, an American journalist, a hugely prolific author, Jennings has an enormous resume filled from bottom to top with amazing titles, amongst them “Sing Me Back Home; Love, Death and Country Music,” my subject of today’s column. I shamelessly copied all of his words on the subject of country music from a daily free send-over called “DelanceyPlace.” You should consider signing on.
I wanted to write... about country music and how I feel about it, and on the very day I began to plan it, like magic or fate or Karma, up came Dana Jennings’s feelings about it too. You see, I confess that I have always been a closet country music lover. In my circle (I have a circle??), to like country music means you’re one of several things; redneck, musical moron, or worst of all, a, “You like what?? What is wrong with you??” person. And so I stopped telling people how much I liked that musical genre. I’d listen in my car with the windows down, and when I pulled up to a red light or had to stop for any reason, I’d quickly switch the dial to the classical station and blast it. Heaven forbid someone should hear me listening to country music. Now that’s just plain wrong and just plain snobbish and I’m not awfully proud I did that.
You see, country music (it used to be called “country and western” but the “and Western” was dropped when it was finally realized “country” meant all directions, not just west), anyway, country songs have a melody, a tune, something to remember and hum and whistle. Country music tells a real story, almost always about love, but a complete story in words I can understand, not long, screamed out phrases shrieked over and over and over. No smashing of musical equipment. Country is never full of creatively filthy language, or full of instructions on how to kill your mother or a police officer. The singers don’t appear on stage nearly naked. They do not grab their genitals, grind into each other’s bodies, shoot meaningless hand gestures at the TV camera or assume angry, dead, sullen expressions. Country singers don’t embarrass anyone.
I prefer the old and “real” country music sung by folks who’d traveled the USA maybe as a hobo in trains’ empty boxcars, maybe on foot or on a motorcycle, people who’d survived the Great Depression or injustice, who’d maybe been in jail, had been arrested and who’d suffered, been hungry, poor, scared, and scarred. I love everyone who sang and sings in the Grand ‘Ole Opry, which began in 1925 as “The WSM Barn Dance;” Woody and Arlo, Acuff, Autry, the Carters, Ritter, Tubb, Hank, and my beloved Eddy Arnold. And Loretta and Dolly, Charlie Pride, Crystal and Waylen, Reba too, and even the fabulous Sons of the Pioneers with Leonard Slye, aka Roy Rogers. And then of course there’s the sweet, sweet singing of Willie Nelson. I know I’m not even beginning to scratch the surface of the very long list of names in this remarkable American music style. And yes, they’re not all the real old timers although many are. But many of their songs give us a mini history lesson on how harsh conditions were in America not all that long ago. And conversely, many of their songs were and are just plain funny!
But, today’s country music simply isn’t country. It’s all glitz and noise, sex and showbiz, smooth and on key, although the singers do wear expensive cowboy hats. Many true country singers have crossed over, and one can hardly blame them, really. The money is just too good. I can only hope that their hearts are still country.
I mean, flying around on a rope over a stage, gigantic orchestras with countless stringed instruments, trombones and saxophones, sexy undulating backup singers doesn’t much tell me about the trials and tribs of making a life for one’s family by scratching in the dirt of some old farm somewhere, of sitting in a honky-tonk lamenting the death or departure of one who’d been loved, singing about tears on their pillows, and putting their sweet lips a little closer to the phone, about melting your cold, cold heart. Today’s “country music” is none of that. It’s great fun, but it does not tug at one’s heart. Not even slightly.
Below are the words of Mr. Dana Jennings and they express the feelings I have for country music but don’t have the words as he has. It was all lifted from Delancey Place.
“In today's excerpt--country music was an oral history of the urban poor from California to New England, argues author Dana Jennings, not just the South-- especially in the pivotal period from 1950 to 1970. These were the years of Hank Williams, Sr., Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and many more now legendary performers:
"Country music for decades was poor-people music, made by poor people, and bought by poor people. It sprang from the heart and the gut, and, like R&B and soul, it was the music of exile, meant to make being banished to the margins, if not a matter of pride, then at least more tolerable. It never surprised anyone that the original Carter Family came from Poor Valley. In a sense, that's where we all came from. ... People forget, or never knew, the poverty that once suffused country music. There are the songs that are explicitly about being poor, like [Merle] Haggard's 'Hungry Eyes' and Harlan Howard's 'Busted,' but poverty is also the silent pillar of lots of other country songs. In America, it's poor boys who most often wind up in prison, and it's among the poor that alcoholism is an epidemic. When you're poor, cheatin' isn't just adultery, it's stealin'. ...
"Which brings me to 'The Myth.' The myth, perpetuated these days by Nashville music executives who probably believe that Garth Brooks represents 'classic country,' is that country music is purely a white, rural, and Southern art. ... There's no question that the South is vital to country music and its history. But the scholar D.K. Wilgus reminds us that while country music's manifestation was Southern, 'its essence was of rural America.’... Country musicians come from all over: Hank Snow, one of the music's biggest postwar stars, was from Nova Scotia; Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, who owned the charts in the 1960s, defined the Bakersfield, California sound; Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings?-Texans through and through; and heck, Dick ('A Tombstone Every Mile') Curless hailed from Fort Fairfield, Maine.
"And the African-American influence runs strong and deep in musicians as diverse as Bill Monroe, Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Elvis Presley, whose first hits came on the country charts. Hank's breakthrough, 'Lovesick Blues' (1949), was written by a vaudeville piano player and a Russian-born Jew and popularized in the 1920s in the 1920s by minstrel Emmitt Miller. So much for regional purity."
Dana Jennings, Sing Me Back Home, Faber and Faber, Copyright 2008 by Dana Jennings, pp. 19-24.
Thank you Dana Jennings. I am finally out of the country music closet and now I proudly blast this music through my car’s open windows. And, while I’m at it, I’m also preparing to step out of the blue grass closet. Free at last!
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