Last time I talked about the undocumented underbelly of America where I grew up – the Ozarks – as it has been (rarely) portrayed in popular culture. This time, a bit about the music.
It wasn’t the music native to the region that influenced me, necessarily. The Ozarks once had a distinct regional musical identity, which has occasionally been documented. But by the time I was a kid those folk traditions had largely faded away.
Most have also forgotten that before the Ozarks became a musical embarrassment thanks to Branson, the area actually had a respectable reputation as far as country music goes. Springfield was even a legitimate challenger to Nashville as country music capital. The likes of the Carter Family, Chet Atkins, Wynn Stewart, and Les Paul worked for radio station KWTO in Springfield. The radio program Ozark Jubilee on KWTO even went on to become the first country music television program. Carl Perkins made his television debut on Ozark Jubilee singing Blue Suede Shoes, and many country music stars were broadcast live from Springfield to homes across the nation.
But by the time I was alive, all that was over. Like most folks at the tail end of the 20th century, the music I heard was largely commodified and divorced from regional distinctions. Though radio hadn’t yet been completely Clear-Channeled, and KWTO still played some good classic country music on occasion, most music I heard was the same crap you could have heard anywhere. So, my musical purview was shaped more by the odd bits and pieces that I managed to find out about, in those pre-internet days in the middle of nowhere. My musical education was largely self-directed.
I didn’t have any older, cooler kids to hip me to anything – it was miles to the next house. I never skateboarded – no paved surfaces. I didn’t hear any punk rock until I was maybe 18 years old, when I bought Never Mind the Bollocks at the nearest Musicland, which was at the nearest mall – 50 miles away. I remember the first time I walked into one of those places, and I was all “Whoah – look at all the cassettes!”
Before that, I had been listening mostly to classic rock and older country music. My parents had Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton albums – Johnny Horton’s Sink the Bismarck was the first song I ever called the radio to request as a kid. As I got older and heard more rock and roll, I sought out the Stones and the Who, which led me to the blues. My interests combined with my rural isolation meant that didn’t hear most of the stuff other people my age commonly did, while I knew about some stuff way before most teenagers normally would. I heard Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker before I heard more contemporary stuff. Thanks to articles in guitar magazines, I was listening to Albert Collins before I heard any punk. I was trying to copy the guitar on Lonnie Mack’s The Wham of that Memphis Man! before I ever heard the Ramones. What a freak!
I grew up on a farm. My high school was actually too small to have an FFA chapter. So, I find it funny that every contemporary country song has to be about how much more country the singer is than everybody else. I read a great blog post about this phenomenon:
All day, you’ve been singing rock songs to me about how country you are. And even country songs about how country you are. It’s been “dirt road” this and “back road” that, and “party in the woods” this and “redneck, hillbilly” that.
Then there’s been some stuff about fishing with cane poles, and skinny-dipping in the lake with some two-named girl…
I don’t believe you were on the dirt road to the barn party with your redneck, hillbilly friends. I don’t believe the story about the lake. I don’t even believe anyone under the age of 30 is named Wanda.
– Peter Cooper: Country boys are wearing out calling cards
This article is doubly hilarious to me, because unlike this author, I did drive down dirt roads, did go to redneck parties in the woods, and even went fishing with a cane pole. I jumped off rope swings at the swimming hole like it was a goddamn Mountain Dew commercial. And you know what? Instead of writing anthems about how great it was, I spent most of my time thinking about getting the hell out of there as soon as possible.
According to my studies, cows digest only 2 percent of what they eat. The rest is simply coated in filth and flung out of the back of the animal. The only two events in the life cycle of a cow are ruining grass and death.
– Seanbaby: 6 Things No One Tells You About Living on a Farm, something rarely found in American popular culture, or on the internet – an accurate depiction of rural living.
Perhaps you can see why it annoys me when I see musicians doing folk and country-influenced stuff try to play up their ruralness, because, trust me, I can out-hick any of those bastards. I am amused to see a singer with an affected twang that disappears when they talk between songs. I have to laugh when a “rootsy” artist says “You guys” instead of “ya’ll.” Having once lived in a trailer, I find kitschy odes to trailer parks tiresome. I guarantee that I am more “country” than just about any country artist on the radio today, or any bullshit singer-songwriter on NPR. Armed with this “authenticity” and two bucks, I could get a cup of coffee, if there was a Starbucks within 40 miles of my hometown.
Believe it or not, back before modern country music became the de facto music of the right wing’s “Real America,” not every country song had to be about how great it was to live in B.F.E. Country music wasn’t always as bad as the crap you hear today. I can dimly remember a time when it had soul, and being fat, stupid, and proud of it wasn’t always the default attitude. But those days are over.
Sure, a weirdo (compared to mainstream country types, anyway) like James McMurtry could make fun of small town life with a song like Talkin’ At the Texaco, but major-label acts with radio hits could do it, too, once upon a time. An act like Garth Brooks could even pull off one of these songs back then, with a tune like Nobody Gets Off In This Town. (Not bad; sounds like early George Strait.)
Steve Earle’s Someday is a great, soulful example. Earle’s first album, Guitar Town, came out in 1986, and I listened to the shit out of this record when I was a kid.
Guitar Town had a top ten hit, and was nominated for two Grammys. Given that a blandly inoffensive, milquetoast act like the Dixie Chicks can be denounced as un-American nowadays, a singer like Steve Earle (who has even been interviewed by the Socialist Worker! Call Joe McCarthy!) wouldn’t have a chance in hell of having a career in mainstream country music if he was just starting out today.
I went back and listened to Guitar Town recently, and the album still holds up. If you had asked somebody in 1986 what musical act was more subversive – Steve Earle or Megadeth – I’m sure they would have laughed. Country music is conformist, and metal is rebellious, anybody coulda told you that. But now Dave Mustaine endorses Rick Santorum for president, meanwhile Steve Earle was on The Wire. Shitkickers: 1, Metal: 0.
Speaking of country, punk, and metal, a memorable entry in the “get me the hell out of this shithole town” genre from a band that combined all three is Nine Pound Hammer’s Outta The Way, Pigfuckers, which contains the immortal couplet,
“With your Wal-Mart gossip, and country-fried philosophy,
toothless witticisms abut farm machinery
Just a greasy ham stuffed with high-school football scores,
I’m hittin’ the road, mister, I can’t take it anymore. “
I could relate better to this song if my school had actually been big enough to have a football team.
If this upbringing did anything, it inoculated me against any feelings of “Southern Pride,” and as a side benefit, amped up my bullshit detector where “American Exceptionalism” is concerned. Why should I be so proud of an accident of birth, or care about anyone else’s pride in something over which they had no control? I’m not ashamed of where I grew up, but I take no pride in it, either. Moving to Texas only amplifies these feelings. I’ve never met anyone with a tattoo of the state of Missouri, but I’ve met numerous people with state of Texas tattoos, which I view with a jaundiced eye.
Rather than taking pride in things over which I have no control, like where I was born, I just try to own the positive aspects and discard the rest.
One of my favorite writers, John Dolan, described two other favorites, Mark Twain and Hunter S. Thompson, as “tough Southern boys who were too smart, honorable and cocky to fall for the Southern mythos—or the Northern one.”
Thompson took all that was good about the South: personal honor, toughness, gun love, jokes; and abandoned, once and for all, the vile baggage that went with it, without whining about his loss.
-John Dolan, A Hero of Our Time: Hunter S. Thompson 1937-2005
About the best I can shoot for, I suppose.