The Passions of the Common Man

“If all our national archives except country music went up in smoke, then what has happened to America in 50 years—its changing sexual mores, its growing madness—would be perfectly preserved.”

One way to get a fat lip these days is to attempt to define what country music is or what it has become. Even those with credentials as something close to true experts—the pickers and sangers, the song poets, the critics—cannot agree on what has the better claim to legitimacy.

To state the decree of one’s own limited expertise: I listen to country music with a veteran ear, can carry a tune provided the bucket’s big enough, pick guitar as if wearing Boss Walloper work gloves over a pair of concrete hands and only in the absence of witnesses. I am your average barstool expert, a foot-tapper and sing-alonger and guzzler of long-neck beers, and we are worth about six cents the carload in the adjudicating of musical disputes.

Ray Price or Eddy Arnold, with all those syrupy violins singing behind them, do not necessarily set my teeth on edge, though my friend Buck Ramsey of Amarillo—who chords a little guitar when there are no musicians in the room—never fails to howl how they are frauds, if not felons, for their crimes against traditional country licks. Though Olivia Newton-John sounds as though she were shifting a mouthful of plum pudding, and Loretta Lynn as if she just rode into town on a load of turkeys, even they have their respective partisans among experts: each won plaques and scrolls this year.

I can weep along or cheer when Ernest Tubb walks the floor over you, when Kinky Friedman pays tribute to that asshole from El Paso, when Patsy Cline falls to pieces, or when Buck Owens and his Nasal Passages celebrate being together again. I like Waylon and Willie—but I also respond to the corny likes of Red Foley, Roy Clark, Cowboy Copas. This, I like to think, is not so much because

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