My father listened to “outlaw” country music when I was young. He had piles of 8-tracks recorded by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. He thought that honky-tonk and bar fight songs were okay, but The Beatles were evil and only sang about drugs. Not just evil, but truly evil, as in you’re-going-to-hell-if-you-listen-to-John-Lennon “Scary Dad” evil.
Even though we have pretty much nothing in common, and I am a certified Beatle-maniac, my father did pass on his affection for Johnny Cash and Co. Recently, I’ve started listening to Pandora’s Outlaw Country station. I’ve discovered a lot of gems that I’d never heard, such as Willie Nelson’s solo version of “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Trust me, it’s much better than the duet version he performed with Waylon.
I’ve also noticed that every other song is some kind of redneck pride anthem. I see nothing wrong with loving your culture, and I don’t mind listening to songs about rural life. For instance, Pandora has acquainted me with Josh Thompson, and I like “Way Out Here.”
A lot of the songs, however, contain basically the following lyrical formula: “I drink beer, I love Jesus and I wrecked my pickup truck.” It’s quite a linguistic achievement to smash the words “beer,” “Jesus” and “wrecked pick-up truck” into a single run-on sentence.
Of course, beer+Jesus+truck isn’t the first country music stereotype ever. The one that people threw out when I was an ’80s kid was that all country music lyrics boiled down to “My woman left me, my truck died and my dog ran off.” Thirty years later, the “truck with misfortunes” endures. But today’s formula, to my expatriate ears, sounds like a weird juxtaposition of “I’m a badass” and “I’m humble before Jesus,” battered and deep-fried and served with a big “you can like it or go to hell.”
As for the “you can like it or go to hell” part, who is “you” in this scenario? Is “you” the non-badass? The non-Christian? The driver of a sensible sedan? I’m on shaky philosophical ground to say that these songs are evidence of what many red-state dwellers are thinking. At the same time, I see radio-wave provocateurs and certain news stations owned by Rupert Murdoch profiting by convincing people that their way of life is under attack.
When I listen, I find myself wondering whether wounds over a century old never truly healed because I get the unsettling feeling that the collective “you” may be the blue-state resident. The old outlaws did sing about national and regional pride; songs like Merle Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and Hank Williams, Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive” come to mind. However, although I can’t cite any statistics, those Southern pride songs seemed to make up a small proportion of the old outlaw repertoire.
I tell myself that I’m completely overthinking the output of the Nashville hit machine. Still, as I thumbs-down song after song in the formula of beer+Jesus+truck+”you can like it or go to hell” while listening to Pandora, and as I watch the growing philosophical chasm between red-staters and blue-staters, I get a nagging, uneasy feeling about where my country may be headed. I worry that the threat we divided Americans pose to ourselves surpasses any unseen threat that may be lurking overseas.