Music, Outlaw Country, Social Issues

If You Don’t Like Hank Williams… Country Music Hating Bigots

by Derek Pyle Online dating is fraught with unabashedly unaware tools, creepy Nice Guys, and other egregious offenses of personality–and it is no surprise that many of the problem profiles belong to white dudes. I would like to draw attention to another moral infraction, prevalent but hitherto unaddressed, marring the world of online dating. “I like all music. Except country.” Plaguing numerous profiles, this sentence stands for that deplorable bigotry, the close-minded hatred of country music. Yes, you think that country lyrics are riddled with chauvinistic nationalism, and the music’s pop production value reeks of mainstream, unadulterated capitalism. If you also happen to have an expensive liberal arts degree, you also hate country music simply because it’s cool to rag on the rural, working class. You think that songs about hometown families fighting, falling in love, getting drunk, and going fishing are the markers of an uneducated people valuing stupid shit. You don’t have time for that. You dream of changing the world. Well, in the words of Kris Kristofferson:

I dig Bobby Dylan and I dig Johnny Cash and I think Waylon Jennings is a table thumpin’ smash hearin’ Joni Mitchell feels as good as smokin’ grass and if you don’t like Hank Williams, honey, you can kiss my ass!

Oh, snap! You mean Bobby Dylan is country? What about those songs by the Band, Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, and the Grateful Dead? That’s country?!? Yep. As Kris continues, in defense of country music:

I think what they’ve done is well worth doin’ and they’re doin’ it the best way that they can you’re the only one that you are screwin’ when you put down what you don’t understand

Country is a music of the downtrodden, the displaced, the criminal. In a sense, country is predicated on a white pathos of largely class-based oppression (that nonetheless has ethnic/regional origins), and yet country music simultaneously represents the Sarah Palin-like down-home-and-hunky-dory, often oppressive, ethos of white American nationalism. This seeming paradox, blurring the lines between oppressor and oppressed, is perhaps indicative of a larger European history, wherein the same folks who were forced to fight lions in the coliseum later tortured each other during the crusades, fled Europe to escape persecution, and then slaughtered the native peoples on their “new” land, building a nation on the back of slavery. Man, with a history so confusing, no wonder white people are so fucked up (and therefore do all that fucked up shit to everyone else). The term “country music” emerged in the 1940s as an alternative to the popular but disparaging term, “hillbilly music.” Originating in the oft-stereotyped region of Appalachia, where Scotch-Irish families had moved–in part to avoid the discrimination they experienced in New England–country music stands on a foundation of Old World songs, combined with the blues (the banjo, now predominately viewed as a white instrument, originally comes from West Africa). Given the striking disparities in power dynamics, and profit lines, underlying the mixture of cultural exchange and appropriation between white and black musicians–as well as producers, and audiences–the racial politics of music in the United States is always complicated. In the 1800s, a great deal of black music was appropriated by whites via minstrel shows, but it would be too simplistic to claim that all of the ensuing early 20th century white music (i.e. country, and later rock ‘n’ roll) is merely stolen music. While an entire blog could be dedicated to tracing this complex musical/cultural history, suffice to say that by the 1940s, the face of country was indeed white.

If you don't like Hank Williams

If you don’t like Hank Williams

That face, of course, belonged to Hank Williams. To hear the man in real-time, I suggest the recently released Hank Williams: The Garden Spot Programs, 1950 (and just like that, witty readers will realize that the first half of this blog post has been a very weird, at times sardonic, introduction to a rather simple review of Hank’s newest release). Available on limited edition vinyl, this posthumous collection of lost tapes offers four radio broadcasts from Hank’s tenure on the Garden Spot Program. Complete with lyrical references to the days of yore (from the track “Mind Your Own Business“: Oh, the woman on our party line’s the nosiest thing/ she picks up her receiver when she knows it’s my ring), this album represents a time when the radio reigned supreme; cause for nightly gatherings, as well as early morning listenings, the radio was a uniting force, connecting living room receivers across the country. For a kid like my dad, the radio was magic. You lay on the floor in Florida-panhandle house and hear the Dragnet, live from the Los Angeles Police Department! (Casual observers might also note that the radio elevated the possibility of normative and nationalistic ideals to a whole new level, as there was now a form of disseminating the exact same logos to anyone and everyone in the land.) Retaining the stock intro and outro of each separate episode (“Well hello everybody and welcome…”), The Garden Spot Programs, 1950 is valuable as a historic document. More importantly, on this album you can hear Hank yodel on his signature hit, Lovesick Blues. It’s fantastic. Tracks like I Don’t Care if Tomorrow Never Comes are as sad and lonesome as it gets. You might think this sappy, sentimental bullshit–the hallmark of bad country, you say–but Hank is no more sappy than Werther (from Goethe’s great novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther). It’s simply the truth; sometimes life can make even a hard-living, heavy-drinking man want to die. To be honest though, The Garden Spot Programs, 1950, is likely not the best choice for converting the uninitiated to the joys of country. Young ears especially, unaccustomed to old crackling sounds, may be unable to escape their bias against the so-called tinny voices and too much fast-paced fiddle. For a more contemporary rendering of Hank, listeners might do well with The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, which includes musical tributes from Bob Dylan, Norah Jones, Jack White, Levon Helm, and Sheryl Crow, among others. One last thought. If ol’ Hank Williams is as cool as I claim, you ask, why does mainstream country suck so much? That’s like asking where did capitalism come from, or why do radical ideas always end up as the new world order? The great Waylon Jennings asked these questions too, as long ago as 1975:

Lord it’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar where do we take it from here? rhinestone suits and new shiny cars it’s been the same way for years we need to change

Somebody told me when I came to Nashville son you finally got it made ol’ Hank made it here, we’re all sure that you will but I don’t think Hank done it this way, no I don’t think Hank done it this way

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