The last couple of days I've been around the house more than usual, which means I've been subjected to my mom's radio more than I can bear. It's one of those weird little radios that no one has anymore, mounted into the bottom of our kitchen cupboards. I remember being a little kid with one of those little microphones that would "broadcast" over the radio, and I would run around the kitchen singing (yelling) into it. Back then we listened to FM97, especially Brother Weems in the morning. So much so, in fact, that when Weems got booted for being too wild, we moved with him to a local country station, WIOV, and suddenly my childhood went from Billy Idol and Right Said Fred to Billy Ray Cyrus and Garth Brooks.
It goes to show you just how commodified pop music really is, for my parents to move seamlessly from their Mötley Crüe cassettes to a Neil McCoy concert. But Weems was pretty legit. The morning he ran was no Howard Stern, but at my age I probably wouldn't have understood Stern anyway. Though, within a few years, we would be hanging out at my friend Ryan's house, listening to the re-broadcasts late at night between Cake's "Frank Sinatra" and the Presidents of the United States of America. But that was it for my parents, they were into country suddenly, and now fifteen years later, WIOV is still the station my mom's radio is tuned to.
It's the reason why I can sing the words to every single country song from 1991 until about 2001 without even knowing them (I need to get on that CMT show, "Singing Bee"--I'm a total ringer), and really, that I don't mind. Some of those songs are pretty damn good. I love Johnny Cash and Hank Williams and George Jones. I've got a place in my heart for David Allan Coe and Reba McEntire (so many songs about murder!), and of course Garth Brooks is one of the biggest acts in the history of music for a reason. But tuning into WIOV (or now as they call it, "The Big I-105") these days is a far cry from a decade ago.
I hate the music that they call "country" any more. Johnny and Hank would be disgusted to hear it. Johnny no doubt was when he was still alive--you didn't see him singing duets with Faith Hill or touring with Rascal Flatts (whoever the fuck that even is). He worked with Rick Rubin and Tom Petty and sang songs by Glenn Danzig and Trent Reznor. I played in a country band for almost a year, and though we've sadly now disbanded from the distance between us, I miss The Bad Faith Compromise quite a bit. But when I'd try to explain who we were, what we did, I'd always balk at calling it country though I knew it plainly was. "Folk rock" we said most of the time, "or Americanacore, if you can imagine such a thing. You know, a little like Slim Cessna's Auto Club. Or Waylon Jennings fronting Minor Threat."
It's not because I wanted to lie, it's because country music, at this point, absolutely mis-represents country music. It's the farthest cry from what it was, in production, in spirit, in sound, even in theme. If it was popular at one time to make fun of country songs for being all about rusty pick-up trucks and old hound dogs and the memories of lovers lost, then what the hell do we have today? At least those were stories, and from the heart. I dare you to listen to "Beaches of Cheyenne" without it painting a heartbreaking tale for you. Hell, think about the title. That's deep stuff! Today we get three main kinds of songs. Female singers get the one of the categories, the Tough-Ass Beer-Swillin' Babe Gonna Show You She Ain't Dealin' With Your Shit No More (Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman" and Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats"), along with their occasional sappy love songs here and there. Male vocalists also get their whiny little love songs (that are usually more about Jesus than women, it seems), but they've got two main categories as well: the Let's Hit The Bar & Partake In Some Questionably Homoerotic Bro-Bonding (Big & Rich's "Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy" and Kenny Chesney's "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problems"); and of course the I Am So Goddamn American You Wouldn't Even Believe (Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" and... well, okay Toby Keith kinda has the market cornered on this one).
Actually, as I took a few minutes from writing just now to look up these song titles (since all I ever hear in these songs is "America! Beer, beer beer! America! Horses!" and that's not much to go on for identification), I am truly blown away by some of the shit I have found. First of all, Kenny Chesney's gay, right? First that song about not wearing clothes up there, but he's also got songs entitled, "Keg in the Closet," "All I Want for Christmas is a Real Good Tan," "Flip Flop Summer," and his ostensible ode to the many and beautiful schlongs he's seen in his life, "Someone Else's Hog." Apparently there's some crossover in the Shit Yeah You Know I'm A Fucking American camp as well, with Chely Wright's "Bumper of My SUV," in which she sings somberly about the U.S. Marine Corps ribbon magnet on the bumper of her SUV, and the woman in a minivan that flips her off as she drives by. Because of her bumper sticker, right? Not because she's probably holding up traffic as she cruises down the street at 10 mph below the speed limit in her gas-guzzling Hummer H2, taking out small pets and kids on bikes without even noticing because she's on her cellphone and listening to Toby Keith's "Let's Talk About Me" at volumes loud enough to drop birds from the sky.
Yeah, I'm sure it was your USMC bumper sticker.
I love country music, but every time I say it, I have to follow it with a big, fat asterisk. I love the stories county music tells like no other genre can, and I love the storytellers telling them. I love the imagery and metaphor, like John Updike with a harmonica. I love a simple guitar, a haunting lap steel and a fiddle. Man, if the good ol' boys of country could see it now, I know exactly what they'd do. They'd beat the snot out of these Keith Urbans and Brad Paisleys and call them queers. Because, frankly, they were racists and homophobes. But they did make some fine ass music. And that's what counts. I think.