Maybe not every English professor loves country music, but I do—and I know I’m not the only one.
Country starts where pop stops. It’s grown-up music insofar as it begins when innocence is lost, or , to be more precise, when innocence throws its polka-dot panties out of the Chevy’s back window.
It hates phrases like “insofar.”
It’s about life as it’s actually lived: days filled by work (“9-5″; “Take This Job and Shove It”; “Down at the Factory”) and evenings spent with family (“That Silver-Haired Daddy Of Mine”;”Cleaning This Gun—Come On In, Boy”: “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife”) or perhaps with the dissolving of families (“She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)”; “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed”; “If You’ve Got The Money, I’ve Got The Time”).
It’s about the fact that when one’s poet days are over and one goes back to being one’s self (country music hates this sentence), one learns that the only important things in life are “Faster horses, younger women, older whiskey, and more money.”
Country music teaches us all about the triangularization of desire, a la Rene Girard: “You’re on the phone with your girlfriend, she’s upset/she’s going off about something that you said/’Cause she doesn’t get your humor like I do” sings Taylor Swift (who was lovely and gracious when I asked to have a picture taken with her in Nashville); “Your beauty is beyond compare/ With flaming locks of auburn hair/ With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green/ Your smile is like a breath of spring/ Your voice is soft like summer rain/And I cannot compete with you, Jolene” sings Dolly Parton, in a song that sounds like a sonnet.
Country songs are familiar, yet defiant. The first line of any respectable country song starts up after the traditional romance plot ends (“She got the goldmine, I got the shaft”) or after the singer realizes the complexity of the worker’s situation within capitalism’s oppressive system, etc. (“You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?/Another day older and deeper in debt”).
It threatens or promises—depending on your perspective—that “Heaven’s Just A Sin Away” and it warns you about what might happen if you lay off the bottle: “I sobered up, and I got to thinkin’/You ain’t much fun since I quit drinkin.’”
There are innumerable songs about fiercely independent women—including “Independence Day” (“he was a dangerous man/
But mama was proud and she stood her ground/ she knew she was on the losin’ end/…Well, she lit up the sky that Fourth of July/ by the time the firemen come they/
Just put out the flames and took down some names/ and send me to the county home/
Now I ain’t sayin’ it’s right or it’s wrong but maybe it’s the only way/ Talk
About your revolution/It’s Independence Day”).
There’s Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead” where we learn that the guy who slapped her face and “shook (her) like a rag doll” is going to learn what “little girls (are) made of/ Gunpowder and lead” because, after all, “His fist is big but my gun’s bigger/ He’ll find out when I pull the trigger.”
The classic Dixie Chicks fun-homicide song “Good-Bye, Earl” concerns another abusive guy (“he walked right through that restraining order and put her in intensive care”) who, once poisoned by the black-eyed peas (the food, not the band), turns out to be “a missing person who nobody missed at all.”
Country music talks about loss, jail, longing, grief, childhood, autonomy, adultery, trains, ambition, fighting, camaraderie, death, and all forms of vehicular transportation.
And, finally, country music talks about reading about a boy “in a Faulkner novel” and
“meeting him once in a Williams play” while expecting—or at least hoping—its listeners will understand.
Or at least sing along.