You don’t hate country
Mike Donovan | Thursday, April 2, 2020
The phrase “I hate country” rambles in shambling echoes around circles of self-described music nerds: a whiney chorus erupting from a choir of skinny little malcontents with mouths bigger than their record collections.
“I hate country!” they sputter, hoping their spray might hit the nearest [Luke Bryan, Sam Hunt, Dierks Bentley, Toby Keith, Florida Georgia Line] fan.
I consider these people — semi-Faucis trying to speak truth to a pandering pandemic — woefully misguided in their position (which is decidedly un-Fauci.) It’s not that I wish to defend [Luke Bryan, Sam Hunt, Dierks Bentley, Toby Keith, Florida Georgia Line] for their vacuum sealed, FDA approved, Grade-A bulls–t. That pop-country nonsense is the musical equivalent of Bert Kreischer’s comedy or Guy Fieri’s food.
What I wish to defend is the beautiful and diverse genre they’ve co-opted, a genre best defined by the lineage of storytelling and subtle subversion linking Hank Williams to Tom T. Hall to Townes Van Zandt to Dolly Parton to Gram Parsons to Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch and Whiskeytown and, more recently, Kacey Musgraves, Lil Nas X, Ratboys, Pinegrove and Waxahatchee (whose latest LP, “Saint Cloud,” sits at the peak of contemporary American songwriting).
I ask you first to consider the root of modern country music — Hank Williams — whose ability to twist tragedy into twangy and twinkling pop songs bought him a brief moment in the limelight before his untimely death at the age of 29. You’ll find in old Hank’s music not a celebration of excess (the odes to self-medication on display in Bentley’s “Drunk on a Plane” or Bryan’s “Hungover in a Hotel Room”) but rather a meditation on its painful consequences. Biting tension courses through his strongest tracks, e.g. “I Just Don’t Like This Kind of Living,” suspending endearing melodies and immersive arrangements against a ferocious lyrical darkness: “I just don’t like the things you’re doin’ / Your evil heart will be your ruin.” Williams’ lyrical persona is frank, obsessive and aggressive — a tragic counterpoint to a postwar zeitgeist (and melodic sensibility) built around a frictionless, formulaic and largely fictional mainstream (Welcome to Levittown!).
Williams’ post-modern performance of the American Dreamer, caught up in a nightmare, served as a model for successors dying to document a deontology in decay.
Tom T. Hall sought the Dream in Memphis where he thought a lost love of his might have gone. “If you love somebody enough / You’ll go where your heart wants to go,” he sings amidst the misguided optimism of the first verse, ignoring harsh realities lurking close behind. His realizations occur gradually. Briefly, he holds on hope (“I know if you’d seen her you’d tell me ‘cause you are my friend”), though by the third verse the strain of his search (“I haven’t eaten a bite / Or slept for three days or nights”) comes to the forefront while the possibility of ever finding his beloved fade away: “Forgive me if I start cryin’.” He “got to Memphis” carrying the weight of a false promise. Once there, it crushed him.
Since the Dream kept a short list of prized recipients (white men, almost exclusively), neither Emmylou Harris nor Gillian Welch expected its fruits to fall on them.
They went picking, instead. Harris, on her first record, returns to feelings “Before Believing.” She reclassifies the unbent believers who’ve made it in America as the insulated members of a privileged few: “Pieces of the sky were falling on your neighbor’s yard / But not on you.” These believers’ bubble, it seems, was soundproof: “Think maybe there’s something you oughta do / Solutions that never lay down before you the answers are all around.”
Welch doubles Harris’ scathing sentiments, surrounding them with her own contemporary context. A B-side sequence on her 2001 record, “Time (The Revelator),” offers a stark portrait of April 14, “Ruination Day,” on which “the great emancipator took a bullet to the head.” This portrayal of the punctuation mark at the end of America’s defining tragedy precedes her understated anthem, “Everything is Free.” Ostensibly a song against the exploitation of creative labor in the age of streaming, the song extracts wisdom from generations of working-class voices. “Everything is free now / That’s what they say,” she sings to signal a false hope: “Everything I’ve ever done / Gotta give it away.” She sings for everyone who “never minded working hard” but wanted some say in “who [they’re] working for.”
Current versions of these classic themes are keen to mix notes of triumph into the tragic foundation.
Lil Nas X’s chart-topping single “Old Town Road” satirizes the country music’s overwrought archetypes (horses, boots, tractors) in the language of hip-hop and internet memes while Kacey Musgraves sinks its heart-on-sleeve sensibilities into a sugar-laced combination of twang, disco and bubblegum pop, her message as incisive as it is concise: “I bet you think you’re John Wayne / Showing up and shooting down everybody / You’re classic in the wrong way / And we all know the end of the story.”
Pinegrove and Ratboys lean on the warmth of the genre’s sonic register to bolster lyrics steeped in emotional ambiguity. It allows the former to navigate the nuances of a strange early morning sensation (“I woke up grinding my teeth / With you next to me just smiling”) and the latter to relay the dark humor of family history in quirky absurdist aphorisms (“Elvis is in the freezer / I got your tail, I’m teasing”).
And it’s Katie Crutchfield who, on her latest project under the name Waxahatchee, summarizes the purpose of enlightened country (and all of its offshoots) in a mission statement of sorts: “We will coalesce our heaven and hell / My eyes roll around like dice on the felt / My mind turns to something useless and trite / My uneasiness, materialized.”
In short, the country genre, at its best, aspires to the same things as any other art form: a way to translate the complexities of existence into something we can digest.
You don’t hate country. You just haven’t found it yet.