Guitars, Cadillac, etc.
The local country radio station, The Wolf, was having a retro weekend. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it, but I love pop country radio. Between that and Christian rock, it’s pretty much all I listen to in a car. Pop country is better pop than pop. And alt country is often great, but kind of feels like a stolen car. It’s hard to explain, but listening to Son Volt or Lucero or even Dave Alvin is somehow not the same as listening to David Allan Coe, or even someone kind of shitty like Randy Travis.
So anyway, I was listening to this retro weekend, listening to Coe, Brooks and Dunn, the Judds, Dolly, Keith Whitley. It was great radio. Singalong radio. The kind of music that you hear on a jukebox in southern Oregon or eastern Arizona, surrounded by deer trophies and yellow beer, and watch a 70-year-old in cowboy boots slow dance with his wife to Neon Moon.
I went home and tried to make a playlist on my computer, but ran into the intangible problem above. I couldn’t add Calexico, but somehow Junior Brown was okay. Dave Alvin made the cut, Wilco didn’t. Johnny Cash’s Columbia Recordings was fine, but nothing from the American sessions fit. Yes Dwight but no Lyle. Yes Hank Williams III (with regrets later) but no Mike Ness country cover album.
Country is a difficult patchwork of a genre. They call it the white man’s blues, and when done well, I think the themes are a good match. The thing with blues music though, is that it’s distinctly black. The themes of blues music come almost exclusively from what it’s like being a Black American. When a white man with a cowboy hat sings about how miserable his life is, it’s hard to buy into sometimes.
At its worst thematically, if not always musically, country music is suburban indie rock with boots and a slide guitar. Sometimes it’s corporate, right-wing, middle-class, white trash self-celebration. At its worst, it’s the soundtrack to the Ugly American. At its worst, it’s Toby Keith.
At it’s best, it will calm your nerves, and tune out the pounding heartbeat of the city and make you miss a time when life was as simple as waking up, working, then sitting on the porch with a bottle, trying to drown your last in a string of heartaches or muster a smile with friends who have their own problems. Which is a time for most of us that only exists in the collective imagination. At its best, country music will make you cry, every time you hear that song, even though you see it coming like a slow-moving train.