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WHY IS THIS STATE SHAPED LIKE A BELT BUCKLE? Or, Some Thoughts On Country Music

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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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28 Comments

  1. Erin wrote:

    “As I grew I became a person who emphatically HATED country, wouldn’t listen to it, wouldn’t take it seriously.”

    I was the exact way! I hated it all through middle and high school, and only started listening to it again when I went away to a liberal university. It is hard to disassociate country music from a small segment of its listeners who fit a certain stereotype.

    However, I never dressed like a vampire.

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  2. Sooz wrote:

    Oh, thank goodness this wasn’t another thing about how horrible country is! For all the conservative bits I hate about it, I really enjoy a lot of elements like the celebration of positive family experiences, female strength, and that sort of stuff. (I do rather wish I didn’t have to take Toby Keith and all these “OH MY GOD THINGS ARE CHANGING AND I AM UNCOMFORTABLE PLEASE STOP AND REGRESS BACK TO AN IDEALIZED FICTIONAL TIME RIGHT NOW!” songs. Also “inspirational” things that are all about making the privileged feel good without actually DOING anything.)

    So yeah, thank you for this!

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  3. Christianne wrote:

    I totally love a lot of country music, precisely because so much of it tells actual stories. It’s last bastion of the traditional ballad. It’s also pretty adaptable: Johnny Cash’s late recordings rock hard (he covers Nine Inch Nails, fer pete’s sake!), and parts of Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose barely sound like country at all. It’s also worth keeping in mind that there’s a reason that The Beatles had spies in Buck Owens’s studio and that Gram Parsons was able to segue between rock and country so effortlessly. At it’s best, it’s really, really good music.

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 4:11 pm | Permalink
  4. scrumby wrote:

    The country music machine is so controlling it makes it all the sweeter when artists manage to slip the leash. The manly-man cowboy ideal is both worshiped and undermined. The wholesome small town family values are perpetuated and exposed for the shallow nonsense they often are. In my world there is no better cure for “the Christmas Shoes” than “Family Tradition”

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 4:44 pm | Permalink
  5. Kathy wrote:

    I used to listen to a lot of (and I hate this term) alt-country when I was younger: Wilco, Old 97s, Lucinda Williams. It was a safe way to enjoy country music without feeling like I was compromising my values. Even in a moderately progressive Midwest city, country music was the domain of conservatives and evangelicals. I grew up with country music, though — my grandma was a big fan of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, George Jones, et al., but I have a huge mental block when it comes to country music. It comes with too much uncomfortable baggage.

    “She taught me things about Queer History. She told me stories about being a lesbian during the early days of the AIDS crisis.”

    Are you familiar with Mary Gauthier? She’s a queer country artist/singer-songwriter who recorded a song about ten years ago called “Goddamn HIV.” (And it’s not on youtube — grrr.) It’s stunning, and heartbreaking.

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 4:44 pm | Permalink
  6. That Girl wrote:

    Full Disclosure: I was named after a really old country song.

    Now I live in liberal spaces, thank God, but it always bugs the crap out of me when progressive people denigrate all country music with one fell swoop, because it normally comes from people who also insult anyone with a country-ish accent as if they aren’t intelligent and worth knowing.

    I went to a very progressive college, and the first time my roommate heard a message my dad had left for me she laughed at his accent and word choice. Apparently, country is just soooo funny sounding.

    It pissed me off. My dad is intelligent. Wicked intelligent. I disagree with him on almost every issue ever, but insulting the way he speaks is not legitimate.

    I interned for a progressive (awesome) organization recently, and the staff retreat was an interesting demonstration of what can so often go wrong in such an environment. Early on, we discussed that we don’t have networks/partners in the “fly over states.” A couple hours later, people started cracking jokes about those folks. I pointed out that we would never get them as partners if we insult them and their existence. {insert concerned progressive face}

    There’s a lot of nonsense in country music, much like every other form of music ever.

    Running away to listen to Patsy, Johnny, Reba, the Judds and my childhood!

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 4:44 pm | Permalink
  7. Sarah wrote:

    Great piece. But I do want to say a word in defense of Johnny Cash. He was a hard boozer and did a lot of messed-up things, but came to regret that later in life. He also fought (and was rejected by) the Nashville establishment and was a harsh critic of war, the prison system and this country’s genocide of Native Americans. I saw a really fantastic talk about his politics at the Socialism 2009 conference, which is posted on We Are Many if anyone wants to check it out: http://wearemany.org/a/2009/06/man-in-black-johnny-cash

    He’s a complex figure and deserves more than a throwaway, especially if we’re talking about Nashville reacting badly to activism.

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 5:01 pm | Permalink
  8. Emmy wrote:

    Has anyone else seen the movie Big Eden? I say this because I too was a country hating teen and this movie (which incidentally is a gay romance between Eric Schweig and Arye Gross set in rural Montana, in which the whole town is surprisingly cool with the whole man-love thing) had an A-FUCKING-MAZING soundtrack that kinda made me love country. Like, the Skeeter Davis song makes me cry a bit that’s how much I love it. And hell, if I agreed politically with all the music I listened to I’d only have, like, two songs on my ipod.

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 9:59 pm | Permalink
  9. Yup, what Sarah said. Watching the McCain campaign squirm when Cash’s daughter told them to fuck off and stop insinuating her dad would’ve hadanyhting to do with them was priceless. I think, in a lot of ways, Johnny Cash fills Country-music-universe space that Bruce Springsteen fills in Rock-n-Roll Land. His ‘be proud of who you are, but fuck the people who keep you there’ message gets trimmed down to ‘America is so great11!1′ all the time, and it’s both funny and sad.

    Anyway, thanks for another lovely, nuanced, thorough post.

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 10:00 pm | Permalink
  10. Erin wrote:

    One thing I really like about country music relates to what you said about how the songs often tells stories. So much of country music just tells women’s stories. Though I realize they only tell the stories of a certain kind of woman (straight, white, cis), I do like that it often tells the stories of women who are not privileged in a socio-economic way. Oh, and country songs that do bring up race are often…awkward? Problematic? And occasionally offensive and/or oblivious.

    But Toby Keith supported Obama so it’s all ok! (JOKING).

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 10:28 pm | Permalink
  11. Chocolate Tort wrote:

    I was raised on country music too, and I somehow managed to avoid the hating phase. I’m not entirely sure how this happened, but I failed generally at rebelling (unless moving from IA to NYC counts).

    I love the story songs except when exceedingly cheesy, by which I mean afore-mentioned “Christmas Shoes” and that one where the abused little girl hides behind her couch when her dad beats her druggie mom and meets Jesus.

    And I love that Alan Jackson wrote one of the few Faith Hill songs I can stand, “I Can’t Do This Anymore.” It’s completely Betty Friedan, silent problem, housewife who just cannot take her husband and her role in the house anymore. I saw him perform it in concert, and it gave me chills. I wish I could find a recording of it.

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 10:59 pm | Permalink
  12. Andy wrote:

    When someone tells me they like “everything but country” I try to avoid talking to them about music ever again.

    Thursday, August 19, 2010 at 2:58 am | Permalink
  13. scrumby wrote:

    “love the story songs except when exceedingly cheesy, by which I mean afore-mentioned “Christmas Shoes” and that one where the abused little girl hides behind her couch when her dad beats her druggie mom and meets Jesus.”

    Amusing side note: In the book “I Hate Myself and Want to Die: The 52 Most Depressing Songs You’ve Ever Heard” Christmas Shoes is number one, beating out teen death songs, emo, and everything ever written by the Cure.

    Thursday, August 19, 2010 at 6:26 am | Permalink
  14. Mandy wrote:

    OMG Christmas Shoes! I will litearlly break my hand to change the radio station when that comes on! And then listen to the Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family” like a million times to scrub my brain.

    Thursday, August 19, 2010 at 10:00 am | Permalink
  15. Damn you people! I have that Christmas Shoes song stuck in my head now!

    I’m a big fan of the Dixie Chicks – not only do I like their lyrics and harmony, they are the only thing that will calm down BOTH of my sons in the car.

    Thursday, August 19, 2010 at 11:38 am | Permalink
  16. When I was a kid I spent a bunch of summer weekends with my friend and her family, who’d take their teeny little trailer up to Sunset Park in Pennsylvania. Hundreds of folks would park in the pasture and then go to concerts by Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty, Porter Wagoner and other country legends.
    I didn’t realize what I was hearing. My mom’s from Tennessee and her family liked country. I thought everyone liked country. (Even though at the time I was more interested in rock.)
    I don’t like what Scrumby called “the country music machine,” because it’s as calculated and hit-oriented as its counterparts in pop, rap, etc. But I do like a country song that tells a good story. Of course, I like anything that tells a good story.
    Ever read Dorothy Allison? Her stories are like bottom-of-the-whiskey-bottle-and-looking-at-a-gun country songs. Dark, dark places but stunningly written.

    Thursday, August 19, 2010 at 6:49 pm | Permalink
  17. Erin wrote:

    I’m glad Andy came along to add his intelligent insights to our conversation.

    Thursday, August 19, 2010 at 11:22 pm | Permalink
  18. Samantha b. wrote:

    I had the converse experience. I grew up in the anodyne but mostly liberal DC suburbs and always felt an affinity to country in a place where *no one* I knew could tolerate it. Probably because of its theatricality and because it violated the rules of polite upper middle class taste?

    Garland, do you catch the Oxford American Literary Magazine’s music issue at all? It is a completely fucking fabulous look at mostly forgotten Southern musicians, written about by a broad swathe of writers. I don’t subscribe to the whole magazine, but I order that issue off the web for $10, a price that includes 2 unfucking believable cd’s. My favorites of 2010 were the first black woman to play the Grand Ole Opry, Linda Martell, and Henry Flynt, who went off to NY and integrated rockabilly sounds with La Monte Young-esque minimalism.

    Friday, August 20, 2010 at 8:34 am | Permalink
  19. k not K wrote:

    I really like the theory that country music is, fundamentally, music about the transition from rural to urban life… migration music. And in fact country music is beloved by people all over the world (Dolly Parton is a big deal in parts of Africa! Seriously!), because as our lives become more and more urbanized, more and more people are experiencing nostalgia for a lost rural way of life.

    Of course some of that nostalgia for “the green green grass of home” is going to be nostalgia for fucked up things, and I do wish so much country music weren’t so sexist and otherwise problematic.

    But it doesn’t stop those cry breaks from breaking your heart. Also, there are so many songs that talk frankly about pain and longing, I can’t help but feel it’s a positive thing for people to get in touch with their feelings that way.

    Friday, August 20, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink
  20. Maud wrote:

    Like Sarah, I think Johnny Cash brought a lot more range and depth to being a Country role model than did Hank Williams, Sr. or, heaven help us, Toby Keith, although The same Nashville establishment which has declared it fashionable to revere Cash likes to overlook his independence from its norms – as when he had that commie Pete Seeger as a guest on his tv show during the height of both the Viet Nam war and the protests against it.

    But yeah, Country music is like any other genre in that many people simply reproduce its conventions, and a few use them to create something with dimension and particularity.

    Friday, August 20, 2010 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  21. rrp wrote:

    My stepmother liked country music, so I hated it for years (family issues clearly). But when it’s good, like any other genre, it can’t be beat.

    Mainly I just wanted to comment to say how much I love that song “Fancy”, thoughin Bobbie Gentry’s original or the Geraldine Fibbers’ version.

    Friday, August 20, 2010 at 7:05 pm | Permalink
  22. Gnatalby wrote:

    I too grew up listening to country only to reject it in favor of wearing granny boots and Victorian hats in my teens. In some ways what let me embrace country again was my affinity for camp.

    Obviously not all country music is campy but there is a lot that is over the top and theatrical while still have real weight. Case in point, the video for Reba’s “Does He Love You.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUP9DnurODw

    It is off the chain! But sans amazeballs video it’s a very emotional song I think a lot of people can relate to if they’ve ever loved someone who loves someone else.

    Shorter me: I like that country music can be serious and funny at the same time.

    Saturday, August 21, 2010 at 4:58 pm | Permalink
  23. Caitlin wrote:

    I have loved country music forever in a completely unironic way and in my whole life I have met maybe four people my age who didn’t regard this as bizarre.

    Country music and musical theatre are my two favourite genres, and the stuff that they get mocked and maligned for is what makes them so great, when they are great — they exist to tell stories, to talk about emotions. There is something fundamentally honest about them when they’re done right. And when I’m really, really happy or really, really sad, they’re what I reach for. I think more than any other genres they are songs about being human.

    Sunday, August 22, 2010 at 6:16 am | Permalink
  24. Meghan Whyte wrote:

    I grew up rural where ‘only farmers’ liked country music. Not being a farmer, hanging out with townies who liked punk and still liking Patsy Cline means up until recently admiting country is not on my “everything but ” list required the cravet “but only old country!” I know it was crap but there was still a sense of shame…

    Monday, August 23, 2010 at 9:28 pm | Permalink
  25. Kate wrote:

    I grew up with Woody and Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger, which I realise come under Folk and not Country, but imo it’s a short step away. I am not sure if I am offending people here – I’m an ‘I like what I like’ person when it comes to music. I knew who Leadbelly was before I was 10, but I literally did not find out who Bob Dylan was until I was almost out of high school. My mother was into her Carol King et al. But I have recently come to adore country music. And I not-so-secretly love Dolly Parton.

    It WAS a secret, until the manpanion walked in on me belting out ‘TOUCH your WOMAN, TOUCH your WOMAN, everythings gonna be alright, TOUCH YOUR WOMAN TOUCH YOUR WOMAN’. Walks like a cat, he does, curse him.

    Tuesday, August 24, 2010 at 2:29 am | Permalink
  26. mox wrote:

    I love this post so much. Count me among the childhood survivors of country music disdain, who found herself weeping hysterically one day to Roseanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache”, and then binged for a solid week on Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, the whole damn catalog from twangy bluegrass blues to sparkly ’80s country. And I will proudly admit that my karaoke song of choice is “Jolene.” Sing it, Dolly.

    Shockingly, I no longer am interested in dressing like a vampire. Whoddathought.

    Thursday, August 26, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  27. Anastasia wrote:

    You accurately described growing up in Texas for me. Hatred of country, then gradually realizing my secret love for it.

    Sunday, August 29, 2010 at 3:06 am | Permalink
  28. Chris wrote:

    My parents were baffled when my sister and I HAD to have wranglers and boots in middle school, but we both had been working with horses on and off for years. It’s hard to ignore country music when it is the only human sound in a barn at 5am, and we both loved it. Neither of us went through the hating-it phase, either, even though we both became very involved in underground hardcore, punk, and hip hop communities. Being wave-at-strangers-and-drink-sweet-tea southern girls never really left us and I’ve gone back to country more and more. Now that I have a newborn nephew, I started making a cd of lullabies that aren’t really lullabies (so my sister won’t smash her face in with a stuffed glowworm) and I was surprised that most of the songs I have found that are soothing, positive, and foster open-mindedness are country songs. Definitely even more so than a lot of the “progressive” stuff I listen to.

    Monday, August 30, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink