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For two years I worked in a bookstore. I tend to colonize social spaces well, moving in and wanting everyone to like me and pay attention to me and wanting to be, just the BEST at whatever we’re doing. I got a very big promotion about a month in, and a lot of new responsibilities. On top of school work! On top of having my very first boyfriend, who I spent my every waking moment mooning over! But not everyone in the bookstore agreed with my promotion. The woman who ran the store didn’t know me very well, worked downstairs, and our every single interaction perplexed her. She thought that I had been promoted by a cult of personality for my wackiness, and I worked very hard to show her that I was a person of character.
I mention this woman because this woman loved country music. She would play it non-stop over the loudspeakers. T-Shirt folding and reshelving books isn’t the most mentally stimulating activity, so you assume a posture of mental vacancy, let your body be carried along by work, and try to spend most of your day engaged in thought.
The thing about country songs is that they aren’t just catchy bits of nothing, they are usually stories. Which makes them very hard to ignore and compartmentalize. Songs like George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” or Jeanne C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA” or Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” You usually learn the words to a country song gradually, but you know the story immediately. Sometimes those stories are about things that are funny, or sweet, or poignant, or about shitty foreign policy, or a nauseating fetishism of the past, or just terrible things that hurt people. Some of the songs are about really positive things, like “Love Who You Love” by Rascal Flatts, who discussed how their gay friends interpreted the song in an online interview with CMT.
At the time I prickled under the mental intrusion, partly because I was attending a shitkicker school and that lonesome cowboy bullshit is in the fucking drinking water over there. I didn’t want to admit that I was no different than most of the people around me: I grew up surrounded by country music. My grandfather taught me Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting For A Train” when I was 8 years old. Country music was the soundtrack to that inarticulate portion of my life when I realized that the adult world was a frightening and mesmerizing place, but didn’t yet have the mental framework to understand it. As I grew I became a person who emphatically HATED country, wouldn’t listen to it, wouldn’t take it seriously. I was far too busy dressing up like a vampire to be associated with something RIDICULOUS.
My sophmore year I began living with Jules. Jules was a woman her mid-forties who had grown up on a farm in Oregon. Sometimes, while performing some minor surgery on herself, she’d consult anatomy textbooks — for sheep. She loved Barbara Streisand, and Wrangler Jeans, and read faster than anyone I’ve ever met. She taught me how to be an adult, how to cook, and how to treat people.
She taught me things about Queer History. She told me stories about being a lesbian during the early days of the AIDS crisis. Told me about how lesbians and gay men formed communities based on that crisis, in order to survive the wave of moral panic saturating the country. And she taught me about the people whose careers were stalled or damaged by activism. Like Kathy Mattea, who showed up at the 1992 Country Music Awards wearing red AIDS awareness ribbons. In recent years this incident has been rightly seen as an important moment in the history of Country Music Stars engaging in social activism, despite the influence of Nashville’s regressive culture. Reba McIntire learned when she sang “She Thinks His Name Was John,” part of the Country Music audience did NOT want to discuss AIDS. Or gay people. Or where the sun goes at night! They wanted to watch a bloodhound run through a field while picking their teeth with hay (which is like the BEST thing for that).
Country Music has some very toxic models for masculinity, men like Hank Williams Sr. and Toby Keith and Johnny Cash, hard boozers who lived on the razor’s edge OR people who are currently giant douchebags. This model for masculinity privileges the lives of straight, white males, and forces country music fans with larger identities to embrace some things while rejecting others. This model for masculinity, in fact, makes their lives harder, by encouraging the bigoted, small souled people who subscribe to it to act like they’re in a goddamn Western all the time.
But even those of us who hate and fight against the rustic, down home, Americana-themed restaurant that is ALL of the South find things in it that resonate with us. Like Reba McIntire’s “Fancy” which is Country Music’s “I Will Survive.” Like the music of Loretta Lynn, who wrote a song in 1975 called “The Pill,” which could just as easily have been called “The Baby Factory is CLOSED.” I’ve been in love with Dolly Parton since I was old enough to sing along to music. Even though she can be mealy-mouthed about gay rights, she has always supported gay people. Don’t mistake me, I am fully committed to reaching escape velocity on this whole Texas experiment. But when I do, I’ll carry Country Music with me into the North, as the token of a fondly remembered mythology of homecoming.
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