46 / CHRONICLESnhad French horns but no fiddles. Steelnguitars were as rare as yodeling cowboys,nand what the hell was going on?nWhatever it was, it worked. The folksnresponsible for the “product” hadnlearned that the more they junked upncountry music—that is, the more likenpop they made it sound while stillninsisting it was country—the widernwas its appeal. (Wider, yes; deeper,nno. But they didn’t realize that yet.)nAs this calculated process was reachingnits peak, things were getting hot onnthe consumer front. A segment of thenpublic whose affinities were not rootednand whose attention span was limitedn—the floaters and the fad-makers—nwas cranking up to try something newnby discovering something old. Bingo.nAided by the movies and all thingsnTexan, “country” music was suddenlynin, the diversion of the moment for anlot of grown men and women in cowboynsuits who were getting back tonbasics with a vengeance.nThe success of this particular productnwith this particular audience containednno small irony. While countrynmusic was burying its history in a playnfor the commercial big time, the weekendncowboys thought they were enjoyingna little piece of the past. Since thenmusic was about as authentic as thencowboys, the gag was obvious if notnfunny.nThe whole thing was mainly thenculmination of nothing more (or less)nthan classic American marketing; fit anproduct to a need; or, create a need tonfit a product. In this case, determiningnwhether the product created the need,nor vice versa, was tricky but ultimatelynmeaningless, since everyone seemednhappy.nAll that suffered was the music—nand certain bewildered fans, who apparentiynwere in the minority. Thesenfans, the lifers, had hung on throughnthe Nashville Sound, but “mainstream”nwas something else. Theynsimply couldn’t make do with the likesnof Sylvia. (You mean, when I’ve gotnthe dark twirlies, and blue’s my middlenname, and I need to be carried off, thisnis what I’m supposed to turn to?) Butnthey were lonesome, not crazy, andnthey knew that country music couldn’tnbe two things at once, that “progressivencountry” was a contradiction in terms.nThese fans knew their own needs; bynthat knowledge they understood whatncountry music does, and by that understandingnthey knew what countrynmusic is. Within this pure understandingnof its meaning is country music’snsalvation (time and again) and itsnstrength.nBy function, country music is notnentertainment. It is nurture. It serves anneed unfailingly, the need being thensimultaneous expression of yearningnand fulfillment. Non-fans who typicallyncomplain that all traditional countrynsongs sound alike are, at once, missingnthe point and saying more than theynrealize. The music’s predictable narrownessnis both its chief beauty andnfirst requirement—the fan’s guaranteenthat the same internal space will alwaysnbe occupied, the same responsenalways prompted, the same need alwaysnmet. Being unaligned with fashionnor taste or style (the world of thentemporary), true country music protectsnits own legacy and remains blessedlynimmune to the diminishing effectsnof nostalgia. Years pass, thennames and faces change, but thensound is a rock. If you want surprises,nwell, listen to jazz. Accusing countrynmusic of being lyrically unsophisticatednor musically uncomplicated is likensaying ballet would be better withoutnso much dancing. Roy Blount Jr. oncenwrote that “[country music] is sometimesnvery good, and sometimes whennit is bad it is even better.” While thisnobservation hints at the “I Love CountrynBecause It’s So Tacky” attitude ofntoo-clever critics, it makes an importantnpoint. “Bad” country music isn’tnbad, as in “I Was Country WhennCountry Wasn’t Cool”—possibly thenmost self-conscious and unsoulfuln”country” song ever recorded. Bad isnmore on the order of “I’m Going tonHire a Wino to Decorate Our Home,”na goofy country song that gets the jobndone because its sound and its heartnare both in the right place.nTo be put off by country’s “hick”nimage or attracted by country’s “new”nimage—to judge its form—is alreadynto have missed the point. When countrynmusic’s form—its style, manner,nimage—became an end in itself rathernthan a natural outgrowth of the music,nurban cowboys were the result. CrystalnGayle was the result. “I Was CountrynWhen Country Wasn’t Cool” was thenresult. When form is its own excusenfor being, unintentional parody is al­nnnways the upshot. The bloodless searchnfor the components of mass popularityndid to country music what all thentub-thumpers and drinking songs andnmusical plainness never could; Itnturned country music into a joke—atnleast for a time, at least on the surface.nBut at the height of the silliness, ancountry singer came along who demonstratednperfectly all that was seductivenabout the idea of form, all that wasndeceptive about it, and all the reasonsnto ignore it. Both the problem andnits solution could be seen in WillienNelson.nWhen Willie Nelson hit it big, henhad style to spare. In addition to talent,nhe had qualities considered rarenamong country entertainers —nmystique and “taste.” Here at last wasna country singer who was not a cliche,na country singer fit for the musicnaficionado. He became everyone’s petnovernight, adored by his new public asnWillie the Outlaw, and by critics asnWillie the Fearless Experimenter. Peoplenwho didn’t like country music likednWillie Nelson.nBut the fans who were not a part ofnhis musical cult, the ones who hadnknown him before the birth of his auranand image(s), knew something aboutnWillie that everyone else seemed tonmiss. He was first and last a countrynsinger, one who just happened to bengiven to some musical messingnaround. These fans were content tonindulge him or wait him out becausenhis voice made a sound at once uniquenand predictable; because part of it slidnthrough his nose just right; because hensang ember as three syllables, with thenadded um in the middle the clincher;nbecause not even he could underminenhis country credentials. They knewninstinctively that form gained meaningnonly in the absence of substance, andnhere was the substance: When younneeded to head home, Willie Nelsonnsinging 30 seconds of a clunker liken”Unchained Melody” would get youncloser than Eddie Rabbitt singing all ofnHank Williams. (Eddie Rabbitt singingn”I Love a Rainy Night” wouldnleave you stranded forever.)nThe substance and power of countrynmusic depend on the music’s un-selfconsciousnconnection to its own past.nIt justifies itself only when and becausenit sounds like itself. Willie Nelsonnwears an earring—which raises then