Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Confessions of a Sometime "Country Boy"

Here's the thing about country music: Like most categories of popular culture, it resembles a dumpster filled 98 percent with brightly wrapped, completely empty boxes. But if you dive the dumpster, and if you have the right kind of sensibility, you can find touchingly sincere, clever, unpretentious, and readily accessible simple pleasures scattered among the wretched refuse.

So says Daniel Menaker at Slate, and for the most part, I agree with him. I would rather the broken knob on my car radio be tuned to a crappy pop radio station than to a crappy country music station. And yet, and yet ... when a country song works, I think it is so much more direct and immediate than when a pop song works.

I suppose great country music has its complexities, as well. But it's all delivered in a straight-forward 4/4, three-chord, three-minute approach that only allows for so much variance before it sheds "country" and becomes something else. The country music that haunts me is bafflingly simple stuff. T-Bone Burnett's best album to date was an accoustic country effort that curbed his allegorical impulse in favor of quiet meditations on those lifelines his divorce-wounded heart couldn't relinquish: love, guilt, forgiveness and the safety of his daughters. I shared it with a musical friend, who later told me, "There's an intimacy evoked that makes you feel uncomfortable after a while."

Emmylou Harris is masterful at that, especially when she's working with Daniel Lanois. Lyle Lovett can evoke that sort of thing to a lesser degree, with his spare, essay-length songs on physical space and emotional isolation - but his artistic sensibility is too calculated to truly entice the listener. And should the listener be foolish enough to bite, Lovett is quick to deliver a well-placed nudge in the ribs with "Stand By Your Man", or "She's Leavin' Me (Because She Really Wants To)". Those are fine jokes, in fact (I'm smiling as I type), but they won't carry you to the end of the line.

I'm thinking these days of Johnny Cash. How can I not, with all the hooplah surrounding his bio-pic? I think everyone was alternately cheered and unsettled by his death following so closely on the heels of June Carter's. The big man could be as jokey as your local grocer (think, "One Piece At A Time"), but when it came right down to it, he was a terrifically disturbed and disturbing person. I honestly can't see why any popular religious group would care to claim him. Listen to "The Man Comes Around" before you go to bed tonight, and tell me you slept well - tell me you slept at all. Is Cash's religion really yours? Is it really? Because if it is, I honestly don't know how you find the wherewithal to dress up, climb into the van and sing choruses come Sunday morning.

The movie will give us a manageable Johnny Cash, much the way Ray Charles was tamed for public consumption in his posthumus flick. It's the music, though, that slips under the skin and alternately discomfits and encourages. Discomfit and encourage - you don't typically find those qualities working in tandem in pop music. You don't typically find them working in tandem on country radio, either. And perhaps it's just as well, or we'd have to pull our cars over to the side, just to get a grip.


Phil said...

My students and I recently read an essay on the politics of hip-hop, and we had great fun with the fact that J.C. got the Camus-like "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" onto the pop charts thirty years before, say, NWA.

Phil said...

PS, though--You ask if Cash's religion is really ours. Is "The Man Comes Around" really Cash's religion? (At one point maybe, but ultimately?) Or is it just one more box-window into the world projected by one possible state of mind (one he'd no doubt felt but didn't necessarily live in), such as he, just like Tom Waits, was so adept at offering?

Why, if I were Harold Bloom, I'd write up some banal overstatement (making sure to use the words "Gnostic," "nihilist," "American" and "Splendid") linking the two.

Whisky Prajer said...

Heh - nice! You ask a good question. Unfortunately I'm not the "authority" to answer. Who is? When Cash died, my mates and I got into a jpg-swapping frenzy, sending each other our favourite pics of The Man (a pleasant break from Tilda Swinton). Besides the expected "Johnny Flips The Bird" shot, there were so many other just plain weird pictures of the guy. Johnny looking sternly into the camera and pointing at an enormous American flag. Johnny, emaciated from speed pills, wearing an undershirt. Johnny perched on a diving board, and wearing a bathing suit and cowboy boots. Clearly the man knew how to pose.

I get the sense, though, that the difference between Cash and Waits is one of "detached awareness". Waits is certainly capable of being in the moment (Coppola's "Dracula"), but so much of his recorded output has a carefully measured feel to it. He's constantly searching for sublimely unexpected ways to connect the listener's emotions to his weirdness.

Cash had a modicum of awareness, but it frequently failed him - or, more likely, he it. The 70s and 80s amount to 20 years of embarrassing schmutz. I can't help wondering if the majority of his energy didn't go into keeping his shit together. You don't hear stories of Waits checking into Betty Ford.

Whenever an interviewer tries to corner Waits on his weirdness, he typically says, "We're all pulling an Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy stunt in this business" - an astute distinction that Cash (and June Carter) never once gave voice to. Cash did say he was uncertain where the facts ended and the stories began, when it came to his life - which makes me think "The Man Comes Around" could well be an accurate articulation of his religious ... frame of mind. For what it's worth.

Scott said...

"Clearly the man knew how to pose."

And then some. My first sense of this (catchy songs "Ring of Fire" and "I Walk the Line" notwithstanding) was in seeing a music video from the late 80's, I believe. I don't know the song but the image was of Johnny in a long black coat standing in a field with an open bible resting on the palm of his outstretched hand. The bible bursts into flame and he stands there, the flames rising, and stares directly at the viewer. I got chills, not knowing if this was mocking or celebrating his faith. These days I think it was both.

Cash seemed like the kind of fire-and-brimstone Christian I instinctively avoid, yet I would still be drawn to him and eventually soothed by a song called "No Earthly Good":

If you're holdin' heaven then spread it around
There are hungry hands reaching up here from the ground
Move over and share the high ground where you stood
So heavenly minded and you're no earthly good
No earthly good you are no earthly good
You're so heavenly minded you're no earthly good

Any bets on whether the movie will capture this complexity? ;)

Tom said...

Listen to Dwight Yoakam's rendition of Train in Vain and you'll be going, "wtf?!? The Clash wrote country songs?"