Whose (Who’s) Country?

My girlfriend digs pop country. It’s not usually my thing, but she’s turned me on to a handful of good songs. That’s what I get for writing off a genre completely, right? I end up missing out on good music. Thing is, I also miss out on a lot of utter crap, and that I’m good with.

Listening to songs about being country leaves me with the impression that to be country means to willfully narrow one’s experiences, to be anti-intellectual and to be convinced that these things make you superior to… everyone.

The one on my mind lately is “Bait a Hook” by Justin Moore. This little celebration of xenophobia sees the narrator criticizing someone’s new beau for such egregious offenses as caring about the environment, drinking fruity drinks and, god forbid, eating sushi. Mustering all his eloquence, the narrator says such a life “sounds like it sucks.” The chorus of this ditty?

He can’t even bait a hook
He can’t even skin a buck
He don’t know who Jack Daniels is
He ain’t ever drove a truck
Knows how to throw out a line, but not the kind in a field and stream book
No darlin’ I ain’t even worried, you’ll come runnin’ back
He can’t even bait a hook.

Now, setting aside the fact that the name of the man who gave us the ubiquitous Tennessee Whiskey was Jack Daniel, not Jack Daniels, this whole thing is the narrator saying “STOP LIKING WHAT I DON’T LIKE!”

This limited view of what is and isn’t country isn’t new. Hank Jr.’s “If Heaven Ain’t A Lot Like Dixie” and “Country Boy Can Survive” are two songs that I grew up on that have the same attitude. “If it’s not what I’m used to, then it’s crap!”

Things like this made me so very thankful for Johnny Cash’s words in his autobiography, Cash:

I was talking with a friend of mine about this the other day: that country life as I knew it might really be a thing of the past and when music people today, performers and fans alike, talk about being “country,” they don’t mean they know or even care about the land and the life it sustains and regulates. They’re talking more about choices — a way to look, a group to belong to, a kind of music to call their own. Which begs a question: Is there anything behind the symbols of modern “country,” or are the symbols themselves the whole story? Are the hats, the boots, the pickup trucks, and the honky-tonking poses all that’s left of a disintegrating culture? Back in Arkansas, a way of life produced a certain kind of music. Does a certain kind of music now produce a way of life? Maybe that’s okay. I don’t know.

Perhaps I’m just alienated, feeling the cold wind of exclusion blowing my way. The “country” music establishment, including “country” radio and the “Country” Music Association, does after all seem to have decided that whatever “country” is, some of us aren’t.

Cash by Johnny Cash, pp 12-13.

I grew up in the country. Country life made me who I am today. It influenced the way I think, the things I enjoy, the ideals I carry. My favorite snacks when I was a kid came out of mamaw’s garden. I’d walk next door and grab turnips, green onions and cucumbers out of the garden, wash them off with the water hose and eat them. I know that nothing storebought can beat the taste of yard eggs, and that snap beans taste best when you snap ’em yourself. I know how to milk a goat, and that you grab her by the ear and pop her on the nose if she tries to butt you.

I also hate hunting and fishing. Hell, I don’t even eat meat. I’d rather have good gas mileage than a giant pickup. I think Bud Light is shit and sushi is the shit. I’ll jump off the rope swing into the river with you, but you’re going to have to go gigging frogs on your own.

As I often do, I’ll defer to Don Williams’ classic “Good Old Boys Like Me.”

Good Ole Boys Like Me by Don Williams on Grooveshark

So what do you do with us? What about folks who were shaped by and love the country, but who find its trappings these days to be abhorrent? What do you do with those of us who like to read and write, who’d enjoy a glass of wine on the front porch, who’d fire up the grill and throw on some tofu or mushroom caps, but who also know what shade of yellow-green means to watch out for a tornado and that when all the cows are huddled in one corner of the field there’s rain coming? What do you do with those of us who can’t think of anything more beautiful than a star-filled silent night sky, and who wish that damn whippoorwill would shut up long enough for us to hear it, but who recite poetry when we see it?

If I were a lesser person, and I may well be, I’d turn Mr. Moore’s words back on him.

He’s never even read a book.
Hides his insecurities in a truck.
He has no clue who Walker Percy is,
and probably doesn’t give a fuck.

I’m wearing boots and a Wrangler shirt while I type this. I just got an email about the garden we’ll be planting soon. I’m in the middle of a book on the lives of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor and, yes, Walker Percy. I cried when I saw Kris Kristofferson sing and on the day Johnny Cash died. With all due respect, Mr. Moore, if that ain’t country I’ll kiss your ass.

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