I can remember when I was young and spending many idle nights in the backyard while my father drank beer in the garage as he listened to old Country music on the little tinny AM/FM radio. I spent much of my childhood listening, obliviously, to the maudlin, introspective lamentations of rural America while its lyrics were strung plaintively through twangy guitar chords.
Not until I was much older did I reacquaint myself with this Country music. It had to be “old-time” of course. The music had to be issued from the coarse and despondent voices of troubled, rough-looking men and women who sang of pain and of that disconcerting sense of low-level misery that accompanies the soul of man who stubbornly retains his outdated values in the face of a plastic and sanitized culture that brings with it boring, crappy modern Country music which is not Country music at all, not in the sense I remember it. Modern country music is a profitable, soulless enterprise with too many handsome and pretty artists whose portrayal of country music leans toward a repulsive and antithetical “designer” lifestyle.
I liked the old stuff that fractured country bumpkins sang. I like the Country music that celebrated individualism and independence. Music that boasted of self-reliance, even if the price was a trying and besotted life. Old Country music celebrated simplicity and sincerity and adherence to one’s soul. This music found refuge in a man’s tenacious grasp of the only things in this life he can fight to own: his soul, his autonomy. Yes, old Country music realized this was a battle that all men must wage, and much of the music is a tribute to the hard, ravaging mission that we must endure if we want to maintain our sense of Self. Country music realized you had two choices. You could “sell out” or you could maintain a dignity which promised likely pauperism if you stubbornly clung to these principles.
That old Country music was great! Men who sang of being devout to their own principles while eschewing society because their soul would never let them become a part of its falsities. Men who chose isolation and a sense of stoic strength over the alternate path of acceptance and willingness to play the stupid games that require you to sell your soul.
One of my favorite songs which embodies the alienating worldview of the man who clings to himself in defiance of the promises of the Social Siren of modern culture was “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” written and performed by Ed Bruce in 1975. The song describes the Cowboy stranger, the man whose way of living will not allow him to be at one with the shallow masses of society. Self-sufficient to the degree he must resist pleasures of the weakly conformist modern man, the Cowboy is a nefarious wanderer who can never exist truly in your world.
Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.
Don’t let ’em pick guitars or drive them old trucks.
Let ’em be doctors and lawyers and such.
Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.
‘Cos they’ll never stay home and they’re always alone.
Even with someone they love.
The song tells us of the two paths. Responsibility, conformity, soullessness, crass materialism; or heeding one’s own rudimentary instincts which are never civilized, because, after all, man is not.
This is the well-known Waylon Jennings version.
More than anything, I loved and respected Country music’s sense of unapologetic self-sufficiency and immunity from the judgmental eyes of society. Old Country music raised a healthy middle finger in the eyes of mannered culture and spit Fuck You in the faces of those who would dare to tell us how to live our lives. The artists, rough men with beards and big hats, didn’t want your help and they didn’t want to be drawn into the dependent loop of helplessness that American culture enervated with its incessant handouts. The old Country singers realized that the road to independence necessitated they rebuke needless assistance from anybody. As Charlie Daniels sang in “Long Haired Country Boy:”
‘Cos I ain’t askin’ nobody for nothin’,
If I can’t get it on my own.
If you don’t like the way I’m livin’,
You just leave this long-haired country boy alone.
Country music, in today’s culture, seems “square” and a little (actually, very) “unhip.” You don’t hear many kids blasting Hank Williams out their car windows, and the lexicon of George Jones has not quite seeped into popular Twitter culture. Old Country music is not urban or ethnic. I’ve always felt somewhat an outsider of sorts when it comes to identifying strongly with the Country mentality of these men and women who dotted the musicscape throughout the middle portion of the 20th Century. The lyrics have always spoken to me. I have the soul of a Honky-tonk man. I dread the niceties and pomposity of refined, urban culture. Old Country music expresses my abhorrence of such an affected mentality. Country music can dip a little too strongly into the netherworld of cultural Conservatism for my tastes, but ultimately, even this type of Country music still speaks to that strong sense of values and self-reliance that America would be better off with as a nationally experienced sense of virtue.
Merle Haggard, one of the greats, embodied this in his hit song, “Okie From Muskogee” in which he proclaimed a shameless tradition of simplicity and Americana which he realized seemed trite and unpopular in modern socially liberal culture. I can’t say I hang with many of the qualities he outlined in this song, but still, the unapologetic adherence to a staid life as one sees fit is not a quality seen often in most modern music.
Funny how listening to this music during those nights my dad drank away didn’t affect me visibly at the time, but looking back, it seems the music quietly ingrained its sensibilities into my psyche and the passage of time and maturity finally allowed me to recognize the music for what it meant to me, not what it conveyed to scornful modernist society in my place.