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 of a lack of character as because of catholic tastes developed over more than forty years of country music exposure. We accomplish little more than wasted energies in debating whether Jerry Jeff Walker or Dolly Parton deserves the larger accolades when judged on more than their chest measurements. For the fact is that all of these, and others—from Fiddlin’ John Carson, who in 1923 recorded the first “hillbilly” song, “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane,” to the newest would-be cosmic cowboy looking for his big break in Austin—have been, or are, part of an ongoing evolutionary process.
The continuity of country music is best appreciated when one considers its lyrics, rather than its diversities in singing styles or instrumental licks. Simply put, content is more important than melodies or rhythms. The theory is offered that should all our national archives except country music lyrics somehow go up in smoke, then what has happened to America within the last fifty years at least—its shift from an agrarian to an urbanized society, its changing sexual mores, its growing sophistication as well as its growing madness—would still be almost perfectly preserved. With one notable exception—that of our ugly racial prejudices and the resultant upheavals—our country poets, perhaps even more than our novelists, have written from the gut of those basic preoccupations of farmers and housewives and working stiffs. The larger human themes are there—the crazy convolutions of the human heart as it encounters new places and homesickness and poverty and unrequited love and other pains leading to excessive applications of whiskey or, lately, dope. Too bad Faulkner couldn’t strum.
A little history may be in order. Country music was born in the early Twenties of a mixture of gospel airs, folk songs, English ballads, and soul (or “race”) music, but this native American art form soon came to be associated with the Great Depression—the first universal experience to be shared after the country music genre came into its own. We rootless or ruined children of the Thirties identified with the drifting hobo or a silver-haired daddy left somewhere behind. Our songs commemorated the people and places we knew: whiskey widows, sisters menaced by the wicked cities of the American hinterland, deep mines, and company stores; they recounted our pitifully few conquests and reflected our impoverished and isolated lives. The music boiled in our blood the week around: through the hot work of the grain harvest, in the fearful soul-searching of midweek prayer meetings, up and down endless rows as we picked cotton nobody had the money to take off our hands. In our unpainted rural farmhouse in Eastland County, Texas—where one generation had died, one grew to adulthood, and still another was born—that music from our old Zenith battery radio reaffirmed our troubles and refurbished our dreams.
It was no accident that in 1929, the year the Great Depression began, Bob Miller and Emma Dermer wrote a country hit called “’Leven Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat.”
‘Leven cent cotton, forty cent meat.
How in the world can a poor man eat? …
No corn in the crib, no chicks in the yard
No meat in the smokehouse, no tubs full of lard
No cream in the pitcher, no honey in the mug
No butter on the table, no ‘lasses in the jug …
‘Leven cent cotton, ten dollar pants.
Who in the world has got a chance?
On Saturday nights, at the traditional stomps to be found along the creek banks—complete with fruit jar whiskey and random fistfights—local Mozarts of the fiddle, guitar, and mandolin, on sundown leave from the fields or the broom factory over in Cisco, strummed and cried the songs of the period. These were a mixture of the new and the old, some dating back before the turn of the century: “Papa’s Billy Goat.” “Old Joe Clark.” “Buffalo Gals.” “The Farmer Is the Man that Feeds Them All.” “Cotton-eyed Joe.” “When the Wagon Was New.” “Wreck of the Old 97.” “Lamp Lighting Time in the Valley.” “Waitin’ for a Train.” “May I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight, Mister?” “Put My Little Shoes Away.” “Mother, the Queen of My Heart.” “Little Rosewood Casket.” Not a touch there of modernity. There were many