I don’t like country music, but I don’t mean to denigrate those who do.
And for the people who like country music, ‘denigrate’ means ‘put down’.
— Bob Newhart
I’m not quite as dismissive as Mister Newhart is on the subject of country music; I have more of a love-loathe relationship with the genre. I love the simple honesty of a Hank Williams (pere) tune; the stately grace of a Carter family ballad and the intricacies of anything finger-picked by Doc Watson. I loathe the hokey, flag-waving, rhinestone cowboy maudlin crap to which so much country music has descended of late.
Maybe it’s the artists. Perhaps it’s the audiences.
What has 72 legs and 23 teeth?
The front row of a Willie Nelson concert.
It’s easy to make fun of country music because so much of it is excruciatingly bad but that doesn’t mean it can’t be taken seriously. Recently, a scientific paper appeared in the pages of the Review of General Psychology the very title of which must have tweaked a few scholarly eyebrows. The paper was called Cheatin’ Hearts and Loaded Guns. It wasn’t a smackdown of country music: it was a sober investigation of what those hurtin’ songs really mean. According to Robert Kurzban, the paper’s author, “Country music feeds our desire to learn about things that carry high fitness consequences in the world.”
That’s convoluted psychobabble that really means country songs are morality tales. They tell the listener what happens when you go off the straight and narrow. All those mournful yodelings about trucks and gals and bars and jails aren’t really about trucks and gals and bars and jails, they’re actually musical instruction booklets full of advice about human survival and sexual reproduction.
Sexual reproduction? You bet.
How about Tammy Wynette’s Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ with Lovin’ On Your Mind.
Survival? I give you Roped and Throwed by Jesus in the Holy Ghost Corral.
Not to mention: Drop Kick Me Jesus, Through the Goalposts of Life.
On a more secular plane, country songs address the eternal verities like Heartbreak: I Got Tears in My Ears from Lying on My Bed Crying on my Pillow Over You.
Or the even more magnificent Garth Brooks lyric from a ditty called Papa Loved Mama:
“Papa loved mama, mama loved men; mama’s in the graveyard, papa’s in the pen.”
Alcohol looms large in country music. Witness the songs 80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper and also I Want a Beer Cold as my Ex-Wife’s Heart.
Failed relationships are prominent too, as in George Strait’s All My Exes Live in Texas.
Occasionally a country song comes along that manages to turn a double play. Here’s one that addresses gambling and heartbreak: I Gave Her My Heart and a Diamond and She Clubbed Me with a Spade.
Personally, I prefer the simpler titles such as Bubba Shot the Jukebox and also Velcro Arms, Teflon Heart — but I’ve always been an incurable romantic.
It’s a macho world, is country music, but some of its biggest stars are women and female sensibilities are beginning to make inroads. A singer by the name of Miranda Lambert croons a vengeful little ballad that includes these lines: “He slapped my face and he shook me like a rag doll. Don’t that sound like a real man? I’m gonna show him what a little girl’s made of: gunpowder and lead.”
A little too John Wayne-ish for me. I prefer the caustic wit of Deana Carter’s song I Shaved My Legs for This?
Professor Kurzban, the man behind the paper Cheatin’ Hearts and Loaded Guns, insists country music survives because it “satisfies an informational need.” Well, maybe — but it’s funnybone fodder too. Hard to improve on a title like: When You Leave Me Walk Out Backwards So I’ll Think You’re Walkin’ In.
Cole Porter, eat your heart out.
You know what happens if you play a country music song backwards, don’t you? Your girlfriend returns, your pickup is un-repossessed, your hangover disappears, your dog comes back to life and you get a pardon from the warden.