If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
For 30 years country music has alternately ignored and embraced that small truth, always bouncing between the apparent threat of extinction and last-minute rescue. And now, after a decade of “evolution” and “transition,” the country music industry again is surprised that the real thing was good enough all along; that, indeed, the real thing may be the only thing. In spite of losses (Ernest Tubb is gone; Tammy Wynette hasn’t had a hit in years) and distractions (country music videos), the line separating traditional and contemporary music is obvious once more.
A path of musical influence and affection and homage can be followed backward from John Anderson to George Jones to Hank Williams; from Emmylou Harris to Kitty Wells to the Carter Family; from Ricky Skaggs to Bill Monroe; from Merle Haggard to Lefty Frizzell; from Willie Nelson to a whole lot of people. But a trip backward from Barbara Mandrell ends up at Wayne Newton. Kenny Rogers is a Nashville version of Perry Como, and Alabama is a rock group for people who don’t like rock. This is the Too-Easy Listening School of country music, and its popularity has given new meaning to the term crossover, obscuring the essence and function of country music with a mechanical blend of down-home showmanship and uptown talent. While there is no law against success, there is something sad and ridiculous and pointless about generic country music. It is enough to know that Kenny Rogers’ songs are played in public elevators.
The blurring of distinctions, the dilution of definitions, the confusion of the organic with the synthetic are nothing new to country music. What started in the 50’s as a stopgap to rock ‘n’ roll—which, it was feared, made country music vulnerable to its own hillbilly constrictions—took off in earnest during the 60’s. It was then that the powers that be in Nashville, Chet Atkins first among them, discovered the formula. They found that by dulling the edge of the traditional country sound they could broaden their current market while recasting their hokey image. Guided by the questionable premise that a progressively more homogenized country audience naturally expected a progressively more homogenized country sound, these men began to define the music by someone else’s terms and play the game by someone else’s rules.
The result was some overdressed but still recognizable country music. Nashville was turning out hits that forced fans to listen around the violins to get to the good stuff, which was irritating but not impossible. But Nashville, already hooked on the idea that you can’t have too much of a good thing, was prepared to make it irritating and impossible.
By the late 70’s, the country music industry had grown so aggressively cosmopolitan, so purposefully “relevant,” that it turned out songs that didn’t sound like country songs, to be performed by singers who didn’t sound like country singers, on records that had French horns but no fiddles. Steel guitars were as rare as yodeling cowboys, and what the hell was going on? Whatever it was, it worked. The folks responsible for the “product” had learned that the more they junked up country music—that is, the more like pop they made it sound while still insisting it was country—the wider was its appeal. (Wider, yes; deeper, no. But they didn’t realize that yet.)
As this calculated process was reaching its peak, things were getting hot on the consumer front. A segment of the public whose affinities were not rooted and whose attention span was limited —the floaters and the fad-makers—was cranking up to try something new by discovering something old. Bingo. Aided by the movies and all things Texan, “country” music was suddenly in, the diversion of the moment for a lot of grown men and women in cowboy suits who were getting back to basics with a vengeance.
The success of this particular product with this particular audience contained no small irony. While country music was burying its history in a play for the commercial big time, the weekend cowboys thought they were enjoying a little piece of the past. Since the music was about as authentic as the cowboys, the gag was obvious if not funny.
The whole thing was mainly the culmination of nothing more (or less) than classic American marketing; fit a product to a need; or, create a need to fit a product. In this case, determining whether the product created the need, or vice versa, was tricky but ultimately meaningless, since everyone seemed happy.
All that suffered was the music—and certain bewildered fans, who apparently were in the minority. These fans, the lifers, had hung on through the Nashville Sound, but “mainstream” was something else. They simply couldn’t make do with the likes of Sylvia. (You mean, when I’ve got the dark twirlies, and blue’s my middle name, and I need to be carried off, this is what I’m supposed to turn to?) But they were lonesome, not crazy, and they knew that country music couldn’t be two things at once, that “progressive country” was a contradiction in terms. These fans knew their own needs; by that knowledge they understood what country music does, and by that understanding they knew what country music is. Within this pure understanding of its meaning is country music’s salvation (time and again) and its strength.
By function, country music is not entertainment. It is nurture. It serves a need unfailingly, the need being the simultaneous expression of yearning and fulfillment. Non-fans who typically complain that all traditional country songs sound alike are, at once, missing the point and saying more than they realize. The music’s predictable narrowness is both its chief beauty and first requirement—the fan’s guarantee that the same internal space will always be occupied, the same response always prompted, the same need always met. Being unaligned with fashion or taste or style (the world of the temporary), true country music protects its own legacy and remains blessedly immune to the diminishing effects of nostalgia. Years pass, the names and faces change, but the sound is a rock. If you want surprises, well, listen to jazz. Accusing country music of being lyrically unsophisticated or musically uncomplicated is like saying ballet would be better without so much dancing. Roy Blount Jr. once wrote that “[country music] is sometimes very good, and sometimes when it is bad it is even better.” While this observation hints at the “I Love Country Because It’s So Tacky” attitude of too-clever critics, it makes an important point. “Bad” country music isn’t bad, as in “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”—possibly the most self-conscious and unsoulful “country” song ever recorded. Bad is more on the order of “I’m Going to Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home,” a goofy country song that gets the job done because its sound and its heart are both in the right place.
To be put off by country’s “hick” image or attracted by country’s “new” image—to judge its form—is already to have missed the point. When country music’s form—its style, manner, image—became an end in itself rather than a natural outgrowth of the music, urban cowboys were the result. Crystal Gayle was the result. “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” was the result. When form is its own excuse for being, unintentional parody is always the upshot. The bloodless search for the components of mass popularity did to country music what all the tub-thumpers and drinking songs and musical plainness never could; It turned country music into a joke—at least for a time, at least on the surface.
But at the height of the silliness, a country singer came along who demonstrated perfectly all that was seductive about the idea of form, all that was deceptive about it, and all the reasons to ignore it. Both the problem and its solution could be seen in Willie Nelson.
When Willie Nelson hit it big, he had style to spare. In addition to talent, he had qualities considered rare among country entertainers—mystique and “taste.” Here at last was a country singer who was not a cliche, a country singer fit for the music aficionado. He became everyone’s pet overnight, adored by his new public as Willie the Outlaw, and by critics as Willie the Fearless Experimenter. People who didn’t like country music liked Willie Nelson.
But the fans who were not a part of his musical cult, the ones who had known him before the birth of his aura and image(s), knew something about Willie that everyone else seemed to miss. He was first and last a country singer, one who just happened to be given to some musical messing around. These fans were content to indulge him or wait him out because his voice made a sound at once unique and predictable; because part of it slid through his nose just right; because he sang ember as three syllables, with the added um in the middle the clincher; because not even he could undermine his country credentials. They knew instinctively that form gained meaning only in the absence of substance, and here was the substance: When you needed to head home, Willie Nelson singing 30 seconds of a clunker like “Unchained Melody” would get you closer than Eddie Rabbitt singing all of Hank Williams. (Eddie Rabbitt singing “I Love a Rainy Night” would leave you stranded forever.)
The substance and power of country music depend on the music’s un-selfconscious connection to its own past. It justifies itself only when and because it sounds like itself. Willie Nelson wears an earring—which raises the
question, Would Kitty Wells sport a tattoo? No, but it doesn’t much matter. Willie Nelson’s image is no more significant than, say, Porter Wagoner’s when Porter, his Nudie suit aglitter, his mystique nonexistent, gives his honest hillbilly best on “I’ve Enjoyed as Much of This as I Can Stand.” Willie and Porter are two versions of the same lesson: When the sound is true, style is no more than giftwrapping. (Which makes T.G. Sheppard one example of the converse: When the sound is contrived, style is no less than the whole empty package.) It all comes down to the First Law of Country Music: If you have to work to find it, it ain’t it. (And from which follows: If you don’t know it when you hear it, you deserve T.G. Sheppard.)
This idea is the foundation of the lifer’s musical value system, and it supports the natural pairing of mutually dependent responses. The first, a type of suspended disbelief—a musical act of faith that permits the acceptance of just about anything (earrings on men, songs about wino decorators)—functions only and always in the presence of the second, the listener’s absolute certainty that the music will never betray his trust. The thinking is circular; the circle is prescribed; the payoff is foolproof. When, for instance, George Jones manages to break hearts and restore spirits with the wonderfully absurd line “with the blood from my body I could start my own still,” all faith is rewarded, all cases are closed.
It is galling but finally irrelevant that George Jones must share a job description with Ronnie “She’s an 80’s Kind of Girl” McDowell. Yes, you can fool some of the people all of the time; but the operative word in that adage is some. Because its integrity is guarded more closely by those who need it than by those who make it, country music outlives its pretensions, its commercialism, and even its own crazy generosity (being ever ready to welcome into the fold discarded pop singers like Jimmy Buffett, Marie Osmond, and—good grief—Florence Henderson).
Country music was never meant to be received by the mind, or even the heart. It is absorbed somewhere in the vicinity of the bones. Bluegrass and honky-tonk, mountain ballads and country blues—this music survives through the loving, stubborn understanding of those who are fed by its sound.