Blue Highways and Country Music

 

 

Country trucks come in three colors: gold, silver, and white. They are manufactured, with few exceptions, by three companies: Ford, GMC, and Chevrolet. As such, my cobalt blue Toyota Tundra stands out like…well, my beard and my brand of farming. Though its dented, dirty, Japanese designed frame and squeaky suspension marks it as an invasive species, my truck is all country at heart. It will (usually) haul 2.5 tons of feed or stock, and its 4-wheel drive gets me unstuck with unfortunate frequency. Appropriately, Toyota’s early 2000s standard radios are barely functional, meaning the only radio station to which I am able to tune while on the farm is 105.9, Memphis’ country music station. So, with a choice between silence and modern country, I frequently opt against being left alone with my thoughts and jam out to some Carrie Underwood or Chris Janson. While at first I thought this peculiarity of my vehicle was quaint and oddly appropriate, what with me driving abig truck down country roads all day, I now find myself lamenting not only the state of my truck but also of country music. That is, country music seems to no longer bear any resemblance to the country places for which it is named and to which it claims to pay homage.

 

 

 

Steve Earle, of Copperhead Road fame, recently remarked that country music today is simply “hip hop for people who are afraid of black people[1].” Citing the overwhelming amount of modern country dedicated to “getting fucked up” and “screwing on a pickup tailgate and things of that nature,” he decries the lack of real songwriting in Country. Ignoring the implicit criticism of hip-hop (he apparently likes Kendrick Lamar, but, for real Steve, go listen to some Talib Kweli), this outlaw country hero is onto something a bit deeper than mere poor songwriting. As I’ve listened my fair share of country, I believe this is a sad state of affairs. Because, you see, the actual country is dying to have its story told. Or rather, it is dying and needs to have its story told. As Nadine Hubbs notes in Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music, country music, though oft misunderstood, has long been a bastion of working class sensibilities. However, today the music better describes the lives and happenings of suburban kids at field parties, or worse, the sensibilities of glamour truck driving peri-urbanites commuting to town from what used to be the country. Take for instance, Chris Janson’s “Fix A Drink”:

 

 

 

I turn on FOX news and CNN

 

But it’s the same dang thing all over again

The world’s in the toilet and the market’s in the tank

Well I can’t fix that, no

 

But I can fix a drink

Pour it on ice

Mix it on up and getcha feelin’ right

 

I’ll admit, I find this song highly entertaining. Honestly, I’d probably take Mr. Janson up on that offer, but it’s not a sentiment that I’d hear from the mouths of most of my neighbors. So, if not “fixin’ drinks” what is it that should form the lyrical soundtrack of the rural experience?

Over three years of buying livestock from other farmers, seeking that elusive perfect feed or hay supplier, and craigslist excursions to small, rural towns, I’ve made habit of exploring and getting lost on Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas’ blue highways.[2] I have occasionally happened upon scenic, reasonably well off nooks or tiny towns with functioning Main Streets, but these, not surprisingly, are the exception. The spaces between the larger, well manicured farms, maintained by fewer and fewer people, you’ll find trailers sometimes not updated since they were parked new in 1975, burned or abandoned houses and farms, and, if you know how to look, the tell tale signs of rural America’s meth and opioid problems[3]. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a catchy ballad about meth houses on top 40 country radio.

Moreover, whenever I hear a song actually about fields and farms (which verifiably do exist in the country) the singer invariably and obviously has never participated in such things. Take Jon Pardi’s “Dirt on My Boots,” a catchy tune about a gentleman farmer taking his lady friend dancing after a hard day of tractoring in the sun:

Been up since the crack of dawn

 

Just trying to get paid

Been hotter than a hundred suns

I can’t find no shade

 

Just two more rows and I’m good to go

Yeah, I’m shutting this tractor down

Give me half an hour for a shave and shower

And I’ll be outside your house

 

Might have a little dirt on my boots

But I’m taking you up town tonight

 

To the untrained ear that sounds all well and good. What could be wrong with a working class cowboy taking his girlfriend out dancing after work? I’m sorry, Mr. Pardi, but your farm scale has given you away. I can only assume from the fact that he can afford to go dancing after work that this farmer is somehow wealthy (gasp, maybe a…hobby farmer). I don’t know of any working small farmers that have after work hobbies that go further than dinner, Netflix, and maybe a couple of beers. So, assuming that’s the case, he wouldn’t own a tractor that could manage only one row at a time. Zing!

 

In my mempory, the closest that come to the mark are Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” (approaching 15 years old at the time of this writing) and Jason Aldean’s “They Don’t Know” (2016). Of country hits in the past few years Aldean alone does well to capture a fact of rural life that most city folk only understand in an intellectual (i.e. statistical way): the human cost of the loss of farmland and farmers in rural America:

 

 

They call us a two lane just passing by slow down town

Yeah, they say what’s there to do when you ain’t got nothin’ around

They ain’t seen the blood, sweat and tears

 

it took to live their dreams

When everything’s on the line

Ain’t just another field just another farm

No, it’s the ground we grew up on

 

They think it’s a middle of nowhere place

Where we take it slow

Aw, but they don’t know

 

When I first heard Aldean’s song, I quickly dismissed it as nostalgic for a past we’d be better off moving past, banishing it as an artifact of “heritage” in the process. But, with the song’s repetition in my stereo along those lonely highways I realized that I was quite wrong. I had on my hands the country song I’d been wishing for. As farms continue to give way to “development” and those that still work the land—whether well or poorly—fade to memory, then folklore, I suspect that songs like this will be fewer and further between. That is a damn shame.

 

 

The country is a complex place. Century farms suggest permanence and history, all the while burnt out trailers and litter speak of decay. Strangers with dreams of renewing the land live alongside generational farmers struggling to make loan payments until harvest. The neighborliness that the South aspires to constantly contends with the distrust of others that comes from high crime amidst a drug epidemic and never ending cycle of poverty. And for city dwellers, it is somehow so very close yet so very foreign. If Nashville isn’t going to produce music that captures these truths, it’d be nice if some of you nice city folk would drive out for a visit sometime.

 

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/steve-earle-country-music-nashville-chris-stapleton-kendrick-lamar-oasis-a7791486.html

[2] For those unfamiliar with the term. Non-interstate highways were once colored blue on physical maps.

[3] Examples include trailers with perpetually open doors, beat up cars strewn about the yard at odd hours, and an unnecessary fire in the front yard to cover up the smell

 

 

 

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