30 November 2007

Conservative Country?

Satire: The sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own.
Jonathan Swift

First Box

Rock music is for liberals, and Country is for conservatives. We all know that, and it helps us understand why no one we knew listened to Country in the 1970s, but some of our friends started doing so secretly in the 1980s and more overtly in the 1990s every time Billy opened his fly.

The Box Inside

The recent Country Music Awards was one of the dullest shows on record, perhaps because they've retreated from airing their politics after the flap over the Country "Southern Rock Tribute" during the Grammys of 2005. See Jeanne Fury's review or the complete line up if you've forgotten. Thrasher's Wheat--a Neil Young fan's blog--offers a bit of useful history challenging the assumptions that erupted in controversy.

And Inside That Box...

In 2005, Tim McGraw's "Live Like You Were Dying" earned Best Male Country Vocal Performance. This song is on the same album that includes "Back When," with catchy lyrics that seem upon first hearing to be making fun of street slang, often associated with Black America, while celebrating icons of rural whiteness: "A fried bologna sandwich / With mayo and tomato."

...Another Box

Of course, there's plenty of God-talk in "Live Like You Were Dying," in many of the songs perfomed at this year's awards, in the thank you speeches, and so on. God-talk, we all know, is conservative because Jesus (if he were alive today and living in America) would vote for Ron Paul or Mitt Romney. Jim Wallis, author of God's Politics, has another view about God-talk and politics, if not about the ideology of Country music.

A Razor Along the Seam

"Back When" is not so simple. The lines, "Sittin' round the table / Don't happen much anymore," are conservative only in the most generic sense, and could just as well be taken as a veiled reference to Joy Harjo's poem "Perhaps the World Ends Here" as to anything else. I'll leave for another day my discussion of McGraw's first hit, "Indian Outlaw," and what it says about stereotypes and making a travesty of history.

The heart of "Back When" is a celebration of radio that wasn't as broken down by genres and styles as today: "I had my favorite stations / The ones that played them all." Likewise, Lynyrd Skynyrd's allegedly racist song celebrates a mix of styles: "Now muscle shoals has got the swampers / And they’ve been known to pick a song or two." Imagine Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, and GZA on the same station and you get the idea, but for now Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) is the closest we'll get to that.

Looking at Cardboard, and the Cut on my Hand

There are conservatives that think they own Country music to be sure, and some of them, such as Jake Easton, harassed the Dixie Chicks after they had the courage to say something intelligent about Texas patriotism and the invasion of Iraq. The longer Bush stays in office, however, the more often folks that listen to Country say they've always liked the Dixie Chicks.

The Jewel Inside

The roots of Country music go way back: back to a time when Country was indistinguishable from Folk, back to a time when Woody Guthrie was writing songs that everyone in America knows. The Country Music Hall of Fame, the Country Music Awards, and Country music fans everywhere may not yet acknowledge all of their history, but Peter La Chapelle thinks they should, as he argues in his essay "Is Country Music Inherently Conservative?" at the History News Network.

[Postscript 18 December 2007: As a few gentle readers missed the gist of "Conservative Country?" in light of expectations created by the Blog Focus, I've added an epigraph and section headings as a roadmap of sorts.]



doghouse riley said...

I'm completely innocent of Big Hat country music, at least as much as humanly possible--is McGraw the lyricist for "Back When"? What a load of artificial sentiment (overlooking the gratuitous racism, which might be the one authentic thing about the song, Tim McGraw was born in 1967. He does not remember a time "when the radio played everything"--the radio was Balkanized in the early 1970s, with Album Oriented Rock, Urban Soul, and aggressively-marketed Country. Was ten-year-old Timmy listening to a station that played George Jones followed by "Boogie Oogie Oogie?" Sure he was. A "screw" has been a "fuck" since the late 18th century, and it's referred to female as well as male copulation since before McGraw was wiping his own ass. I know, I know: it's just show biz).

Anyway, that's a perfect metaphor for Country itself, a genre built on the conceit that its 19th century Tin Pan Alley and minstrel show borrowings were authentic old-timey backwoods Americana.

The Yodelin' Zeke school held sway from the late 30s to the late 50s, when a genius named Owen Bradley brought it some musical sophistication. The Beatles rendered The Nashville Sound instantly old-fashioned, like they did everything else. (Still, Patsy Cline, Eddie Arnold, Buck Owens, Tammy Wynette, and Roger Miller came out of my Top 40 transistor in those days, right alongside James Brown and Jackie Wilson.)

Country remained terminally middling, terminally middle-aged music for the decade, with only "Okie from Muskogee" and Hee-Haw giving it any national traction. Well, and Johnny Cash, but The Man in Black is an anomaly in a lot of ways.

Real country music was rescued by rock and roll's curiosity and search for authenticity. Rock fans didn't burn Haggard records; he was celebrated in Rolling Stone back when that meant something. The Byrds met Graham Parsons, and spun off The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jerry Garcia picked up a banjo, John Hartford was on the Glenn Campbell show every week. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band went from novelty act to the hitmakers who introduced Vassar Clements and Doc Watson, among others, to a wider audience. It wasn't Nashville that embraced Willie Nelson.

The "conservatism" of country music is a record-shilling pose. It may also be genuine; after all, it's made by a lot of nouveau riche white people. And the lynching of the Dixie Chicks was more authentically Southern than anything Jimmy Rodgers ever sang, excepting the stuff he stole from black folks.

technoidiot said...

So who exactly are the "we all" in "we all know?" That is a dangerous assertion for an historian who believes that truths are partial and always rooted in a point of view. I find it interesting that those who have no interest in Jesus as more than an historical figure would claim to know what he would do in any situation. If Jesus were living in America today, he would probably be reluctant to vote at all, given the choice between the lesser of how many evils? Of course, if Jesus had been living in America when Joseph Smith claimed he was, he would know that Mitt Romney is the only choice, but lack of evidence of such a presence in America at that time leads me to believe that Smith wrote his blog under the influence of some sort of liquor. I am proud to be conservative, and yet amazingly, I don't listen to country music (too depressing). I am reasonably intelligent (even by the standards of my liberal friends), and yet I am not crazy about the Dixie Chicks, nor am I impressed with their message. It would seem that not all lines are drawn where some think they are.

James Stripes said...

A relative of mine that was listening to country music in the 1970s (and I knew it, too) emailed to point out:

"Country stations nationwide banned the Dixie Chicks rather promptly after Natalie ran her mouth out of country and I find it doubtful that the unknown columnist JD mentioned had anything to do with it. Most listeners have never even heard of this guy and it was the outrage of fans that likely led to them being dropped. Toby Keith played a much larger part."

I appreciate the criticism.

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