One sure sign of advancing age is a transition in our perceptions of unchanging events: What was once on some level interesting or amusing is now simply irritating. As a few things become more important, many things become more boring; while there’s more to love, there’s less to like. Time robs us of—or frees us from—certain degrees of patience.
So allow me to introduce myself I am 55 years old, and I will be known hereafter as That Crank. As I survey one of life’s major diversions and influences popular culture—I find I hate just about all of it. As I further survey my own personal corner of pop culture, i.e., country music, I realize that I am one bitter, defeated gal. Follow that trail of tears down to the river of memories, and there you’ll find me, cranking for all I’m worth.
By definition, popular music is fluid. Were it not, we wouldn’t have had Elvis, so that’s reason enough right there to celebrate. But the fluidity of country music has always existed within a self-prescribed context. What this means in practical terms, for both country musicians and their audiences, is that you can do just about anything with the music’s sensibility except force it. It was okay for Tony Bennett to sing “Cold Cold Heart,” as long as he didn’t try to sound like Hank Williams. And it’s all right for Willie Nelson to sing “Stardust” (though personally I’d prefer that he didn’t), as long as he does it unself-consciously.
But we live in highly—indeed, invasively—self-conscious times, and no genre of pop culture any longer possesses its own parameters, much less its own definitions. America is now one big uni-culture, as virtually everyone from U.S. presidents to hillbilly singers blindly breaks the first rule of cool by straining to be hip. Country music is uniquely unsuited to pretensions of hipness, and as a result of its current efforts in that regard, it is going to hell.
Of course, country music is always going to hell, or at least coming close. In 1974, during a live broadcast of the Country Music Association Awards, dear old Roy Acuff, he of Maynardsville, Tennessee, the first living member elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, was called upon to present the award for Female Vocalist of the Year. That award had been won in the two preceding years by Loretta Lynn, and would be won in the two years that followed by Dolly Parton, but in 1974 the award went to . . . well, let’s listen to Mr. Acuffs announcement: “And the winner is: Oliver Newton-John.”
The combination of bewilderment and annoyance that crossed Mr. Acuffs face suggested thoughts along the lines of: For all we know, this Newton-John feller could be some pop singer from Australia. The fact that Newton-John actually was a pop singer from Australia, albeit a female, merely justified Roy Acuffs befuddlement. If he looked like a man who had opened his front door to see a stranger standing in his house, it was because he had.
As a musician, Roy Acuff walked on stage and did his thing as straightforwardly as anyone who ever lived. If the harmless, mosquito-voiced Olivia Newton-John could throw him for a loop, what would he have thought of, say, the fully evolved Garth Brooks? Brooks does not give performances; he stages musical approximations of the Second Coming, with himself in the middle of things: Jesus in a cowboy hat. Like so many country-based singers, male and female. Brooks has adopted the I’m-going-for-a-stroke approach to vocalizing. Veins bulge, eyes roll, screaming occurs. It’s quite gruesome, really—as if all of Nashville had been seized by the spirit of Whitney Houston. To give Garth Brooks his due, however, I will note that he was responsible for the second biggest laugh I ever had during a country awards show. A few years back, while accepting one of many trophies he would receive that evening. Brooks announced, “I’d like to thank God, because He’s done a hell of a lot for me,”
But those laughs were all in my pre-Crank days. This year’s CMA ceremony was, like the music it featured, overdone, artificially muscular, and faintly tragic—as if someone had decided to force-feed steroids to Babe Ruth. I didn’t laugh when the back-up dancers in the very long skirts, which covered the very tall stilts, were suddenly hoisted by invisible wires high into the air, where they hung like mutant moths. I didn’t laugh when members of some group called ‘N Sync, one with flamingo-colored hair, coupled up, to hideous musical effect, with Alabama. And I didn’t laugh when Vince Gill informed viewers in advance that the coming duet of Merle Haggard and pop singer Jewel would be “one of the neatest moments of the night.” (It’s so happening to have the Hag singing with Jewel, isn’t it?) No, I didn’t laugh. What I did was switch off the set.
What do you do when you reach not only the point where something you love fails to gratify you, but where the goofy distortion of something you love fails to amuse you? You do what cranks and fogies always do: You turn backward. Whereupon you do again what cranks and fogies always do: You sigh, “Why, the view is fantastic!”
These days, one of the great sights on the past’s landscape is Bob Wills. Listening to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys today is not only sheer pleasure, it’s pure inspiration, an example of what can happen to country music when it is left alone to amalgamate naturally.
Fortunately, Bob Wills is not some overlooked country musician who failed to get his due. Wills has been the subject of full-length biographies, as well as wonderful tribute albums by Merle Haggard and Asleep at the Wheel, among others. Musicians are drawn to Wills’ music because it is a supple, seamless blend of the influences Wills himself loved: country, jazz, blues, cowboy ballads, Tex-Mex, and big band. He played waltzes, he played polkas, he played two-steps—Saturday night dance music that was at once original and authentic. As for the songs Bob Wills wrote (“Take Me Back to Tulsa,” “Stay a Little Longer”), they were often funny, sometimes witty, and possessed of a light throwaway feel that could disguise the jazzbo poetry of his lyrics and the lovely finesse of his sound.
Today we can listen, free of nostalgia, to the music of Bob Wills because it exemplifies excellence. It doesn’t sound dated, because it was created by an innovator rather than an imitator. It is tongue-in-cheek (though not unserious), while retaining the grace of a swan and the polish of a new penny. Wills made recordings that now, over 50 years later, remain fully accessible as entertainment, yet genuinely sophisticated in their musicianship. As practiced by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, western swing was both high-energy and laid back: It was irrefutably, infinitely cool. To most people, anyway.
In the course of a 35-year effort to generate in my husband an appreciation of, if not a love for, country music, I have imposed upon him the recordings of everyone from Randy Travis to Ernest Tubb (whom my husband, early in our marriage, obliviously referred to as Ernie Tubbs, causing me, appalled, to question how his otherwise devoted parents could so have neglected his musical education). To make a long story short, I have failed. My husband’s overall view is that country music exists not for enrichment but for laughs. (Ernest Tubb, Ernie Tubbs—what’s the difference—with a name like that?)
Still, I soldier on, and before a drive to Chicago last fall, I loaded the car’s CD player with a two-volume set of Bob Wills’ greatest hits. Yes! At last I would make progress. After all, what’s not to like about Bob Wills? There’s a little something for everyone in his music.
So there we were, barely out of the driveway, about 50 seconds into “San Antonio Rose,” when old Bob lets loose with one of his trademark high-pitched Ahhhaas, a genial sound if ever I heard one. And my husband, startled, says, “What is that? What’s he doing? What’s wrong with him?” Oh, I gits weary and sick o’ tryin’. What was that? It was a Bob Wills Ahh-haa. What was he doing? He was doing what suited him. What was wrong with him? Exactly nothing.
We drove to Chicago without the accompaniment of Bob Wills—and without the accompaniment of whatever football game my rabid-fan husband was just itching to find on the radio. “Why listen to football?” I asked. “The game’s gone downhill since the days of the great Packer coach Vinnie Lombardo.” My husband: “Vinnie Lombardo?!” Me: “Ernie Tubbs?!” Not for nothing have I become That Crank.