With a hint of ridicule in his voice, a friend once suggested that the reason I enjoy country music is that country music is “simple.” Now in one way, that’s sort of a compliment. But in another way, its a criticism.
If by “simple” my friend meant pure, honest, straightforward, unpretentious, clear or coherent then “simple” was a compliment. On the other hand, if by “simple” my friend meant naive, inexperienced, gullible or uninformed then perhaps “simple” was not really a compliment. Given that my friend was a fairly accomplished guitarist who enjoyed every kind of guitar music except the “steel” kind, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t giving a compliment to me or any other country music fan. In fact, he was very much “looking down his nose” at me when he described the simple nature of my favorite music genre. Nonetheless, I remain a country music fan.
These days, I find I prefer what is now called “classic” country music. Many times, I’ve jumped in the car and tuned the radio to the “Today’s Top Country” station all the while telling myself that I’m probably missing out on some good music. But inevitably, I listen for few hopeful minutes then shake my head, admit I can’t tolerate the new sound and switch back to the “Classic Country” station. Its sad but true: I’m definitely getting old.
Classic country music reminds me of some of the best times in my life. Maybe that explains my affinity for it. Its subject matter is familiar to me, describing people, settings and circumstances that are warm and comforting. Like woods and ponds, tractors and trucks, barns and churches, huntin’ and fishin’.
For example, when I listen to Alan Jackson sing “Drive”, I’m suddenly 14 again, sitting behind the wheel of Daddy’s old 1953 Ford truck, its bed stacked high with sticks of oak and poplar firewood cut from the woods behind our house. Daddy’s coaching me as I wrestle with the truck’s long gear shift which protrudes from the steering column. In the bed of the truck, out in the crisp Fall air and under an unimaginably blue sky, my two brothers sit atop the pile of firewood as I proudly transport them and our precious load across the field . Mama will have dinner (“lunch”) waiting for us when we reach the house. And I feel like a man.
And nothing entertained me more as a child than listening to my Uncle Skippy strum on his guitar and sing Johnny Cash songs. Sitting on the floor in Aunt Phyllis and Uncle Skippy’s living room, I would plead with Uncle Skippy to sing “A Boy Named Sue.” When he turned to pull his guitar from behind his chair, everyone’s faces would light up and we would settle in for a real treat. I can still hear Uncle Skippy singing “Folsom Prison Blues.” Each time he sang it, the anticipation would build as we approached the unforgettable guitar rip that comes about halfway through the song. Today, as I listen to the live recording of Johnny Cash singing “Folsom Prison Blues”, an excited joy still rises in me as I recall those special moments.
These days, as a grandfather, I find that I listen to my classic country music with a different perspective. I’m always considering the type of message any given song is communicating. Knowing that my impressionable grandsons may one day be listening along with me, I’m concerned about what sort of behaviors and attitudes these songs promote. Perhaps I should have taken this perspective when our two children were growing up. But I’m pretty proud of them both – as is their mom. So I guess exposure to all those lyrics about drinking, smoking, cavorting and cheatin’ did no irreparable damage. But I still don’t want to take any chances with my grandsons.
So often the lyrics of some of the most beloved classic country music songs communicate messages that are far from commendable. Some are downright immoral (Sammy Kershaw’s “Third Rate Romance”) or unhealthy (Shelly West’s “Jose Cuervo”, ) or both (Hank Williams, Jr’s “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound”). But some country music lyrics get it right and communicate a positive message (Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying”) or an important truth (Kenny Chesney’s “The Good Stuff”).
In the coming weeks, I plan to post two or three blogs that point out country music songs that, in my opinion, get it right and some that, in my opinion, get it all wrong. Topics of these tunes include life, love and, one of them most prevalent subjects in country music, alcohol.
While I like all the songs I’ll be writing about, I don’t agree with some of their messages. But maybe I can teach my grandsons to not simply tap their feet and sing along to these great tunes but to also carefully consider each song’s message. Listened to in this manner, these songs can make us all more thoughtful about what we believe and perhaps more deliberate in how we think and live. Just maybe this “simple” music can help us to live fuller lives in this confused and complex culture in which we live.