Tuesday, February 9, 2010

RED STATE BOOGIE: Country Music And America

RED STATES. We all know that they’re full of ignorant hicks, yeah? Gun toting, beer swilling, “God, Guts and Guns” poor white trash and fat women with beehive hairdos. Yes, it’s all true.

COUNTRY MUSIC. We all know that this is the sound of the great unwashed of America. The soundtrack to the lives of Wal-Mart shopping, cut off T shirt wearing, God fearing, “Honk If You Farted” T Shirt wearing, Kenny Chesney CD buying, ignorant blindly patriotic idiots. Also somewhat true.

Like any other, however, this stereotype leaves you wanting. The Civil Rights movement was born in the South. Stax Records, sweet soul music, white kids and black kids stomping down literal and idealistic barriers to dance together to Little Richard in the 1950s. It all happened in the red states.

Did you know that white honky tonk king and country music pioneer Porter Wagoner was the first person to bring black music (James Brown) to the Grand Ole Opry, long (since 1925) a last bastion of white redneck good ol’ boy culture? Did you know this happened in the early 1960s?

Did you know that Ernest Tubb, basically the father of modern country music, used to give homeless people (then simply known as “bums”), whether they were black, white, or swollen and purple, charge accounts at the restaurants of their choice so that they could eat between shots of bathtub gin?

Did you know that Elvis Presley grew up in what we would today refer to as the “projects”, living amongst blacks and whites who mostly had no sense of separation?

What IS this? Socialism? White folks reaching out to black, rich folks reaching out to poor? In the Red States? In the 1940s and 50s and 60s, supposedly a time of racism, the KKK, and segregation?

The fact is, country music, now all about money and Wal-Mart, used to be the most soulful, caring and uniting music that white people had to offer. It wasn’t a sad, whitebread, money grubbing, watered down, muscle flexing, professional wrestling endorsing piece of hilarious Jerry Springer crap like you may have noticed that it is today.

It is erroneous, some might say, to romanticize America’s past. We look back fondly on the supposed simplicity of 1950s living, yet caution the nostalgic to remember that we have it so much better today. Race lines have broken down (have they?), our governments are so much more honest and direct now (really?) and technology has made all of our lives easier (has it?).

Truthfully, of course, this is all bullshit. Race lines were broken down by music and working class culture long before it became taboo to say “nigger”. Governments and legislation only reflected what the most intelligent and caring people on the street were already doing and feeling.

And lest we forget, yes I know America was stolen from Native Americans. We think of them, condescendingly, as Noble Savages. Of course, history tells us that these people waged cruel wars on each other and killed each other quite often before we ever got here. We also know that Native American scouts frequently worked with our cow-hustlin’ ancestors to aid the killing and swindling of their own people. This is not to say that we were right or that they deserved what we did to them. Not at all. I’m just illustrating how the picture is never black and white. Nobody is innocent.

But back to Country Music and America.

I need to tell you that without the blues, there would be no country music. Elvis, Hank Williams, Carl Perkins. They all spoke of how hearing honest to goodness working class black people sing the blues made them want to sing it too. That is racial harmony and that is your great American melting pot right there.

I need to tell you that I actually love America, I love this country. I do not like its' government. I detest its' foreign policy and it’s war on the poor. I hate the bloody exploitation of Native Americans and African Americans that we built this country on. I hate how big money and corporate control rages unabated and few people here seem to care that they’re being lied to.

What I love is it’s art and it’s culture and it’s geography and it’s class struggle. I love the people and what they’ve given to the world despite their governments’ greedy policing of said world. I love it’s roots in England, in Africa, in Mexico. We should and could be the best of all these cultures.

It’s not cool to say that anymore. I know a lot of liberal hipsters who like to say how much they hate this country, because of it’s many faults. How they’d like to move to another country where things are better, and it’s all because of those goddamn ignorant hick red state people. Apparently there are no ignorant people in other countries, and no political problems in other countries. I’m no blind patriot, I recognize the problems. But this is where I was born. And there is still so much here.

Politics are worked out in offices and boardrooms. The real world happens in the factories, the supermarkets, and on the streets.

I’m a card carrying liberal. I vote Democrat every election. Lesser of two evils, sure. Without the money for ad space to reach the masses, no third party will ever triumph in our lifetime.

America is a great and powerful beast, and in it’s sheer size and weight, it is sluggish and fat and slow to understand. The Media has it’s own agenda, and the working class, who have little time (because they’re working and raising families) to consider the intricacies of political wheeling and dealing, believe, naively, what they hear. Fear is the greatest motivator. Fear of other races, fear of immigrants, fear of homosexuals, fear of loss. This is why we have red states. Because the media have led those honest working class people to believe the very fabric of their lives is under attack by all of these things. It’s not because the people there are stupid, it’s not because they’re ignorant. It’s because they just don’t know.

In the sound of country music, we have the sound of America. You may notice in early country and bluegrass music, the similarity to European folk ballads and traditional Irish and English reels. You may notice the thunking rhythms that are the heart beat of African music. The steel guitar is a Hawaiian instrument that goes back ages. Asian cultures from thousands of years ago had similar instruments. African and European cultures stumbled upon early versions of the guitar at roughly the same time in history. The banjo, the sight of which sends most modern people into a panic of country music hatred, was first played and developed in Africa.

Flash forward to the here and now and I’d like to tell you about a man called Steve Earle. Steve was raised in the 50s and 60s as a lil’ tyke on Honky Tonk music, as he was born in the deep south. I don’t know if Steve ever bailed hay or drove cattle, but he certainly absorbed and worshiped hillbilly music from an early age. Steve grew up playing hillbilly rock n roll and country music, and did some jail time in his early 30s for some nasty business we can just overlook, cuz he’s a good boy, our Steve.

Steve Earle is pretty much a hick.

Steve Earle wrote these lyrics:

“Livin’ in a city of immigrants
I don’t need to go travelin’
Open my door and the world walks in
Livin’ in a city of immigrants

Livin’ in a city that never sleeps
My heart keepin’ time to a thousand beats
Singin’ in languages I don’t speak
Livin’ in a city of immigrants

City of black, city of white, city of light, city of innocents
City of sweat, city of tears, city of prayers, city of immigrants”

Which is pretty much some serious liberal shit. Steve Earle is a card carrying Democrat and a proud Southerner. A Red Stater. A man who also wrote this song about the reign of King George Bush the Second:

“North wind blowin’ like a hurricane house
Old man leanin’ like he’s pullin’ a plow
Neck bowed, bendin’ like a willow bough

Red sky color of the end of time
Bleeds dry runnin’ down the center line
Wise guy pretends he doesn’t see the signs

Bad news everybody talkin’ ‘bout
A short fuse a half an inch from burnin’ out
All used up beyond a reasonable doubt

Make way for his majesty the prodigal king
Still taste the poison when you’re kissin’ the ring
Don’t say he never gave you anything

Deep breath the calm before the storm begins
Cold sweat pretend that you ain’t listenin’
Don’t bet on gettin’ by with that again

Short ride from here to where the beast resides
Fine line that separates the shadows inside
Make mine a double shot of cyanide”

Lyrics like these certainly don’t warrant the “I’m With Stupid --> ” T shirt that most of our more liberal, intellectual folks would probably place on Steve Earle’s doughy middle aged torso, just by looking at his pork belly and his Grizzly Adams beard and cowboy boots and knowing he’s from the South.

What I’m trying to say here is that stereotypes are wrong, and Country Music isn’t racist and ignorant (although it is at times purposefully and gloriously ridiculous). It is, at it’s best, the heartbeat of the poor white man, living alongside the poor black man, working alongside the Mexican, Puerto Rican and Asian man, a mile away from the impoverished Native American Reservation. It’s the voice of the American working class, and it’s a symptom of the disease of America that you will no longer find real Country Music on the radio or your flat screen TV.

I’ve made Steve Earle an example, because I love his music, but there are certainly others. The Waco Brothers from Chicago. Robbie Fulks, Hank Williams the 3rd, Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, even early Wilco. Dale Watson, Rosie Flores. Lucinda Williams. The classic pioneering Country Rock of Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt. Steve Earle’s 25 year old son Justin Townes Earle. This is soulful heart of America full of compassion and conscience.

So don’t count out those red states. We have allies there. And they are spreading the true spirit of American Music, one gig, one record, one fan at a time.

I leave you with more Steve Earle. This is one of my fave songs and shows a much younger and slimmer Stevie Earle. Please note my favorite line; "Everybody told me you can't get far/ on 37 dollars and a Jap guitar", and also note the GORGEOUS middle eight at 1:25. ENJOY.