Imagine our surprise, then, Sen. Goldwater's and mine, when we read in a piece by Neil Strauss in the Sunday New York Times a few weeks back about commercial country music that "not one person I know in any position of cultural authority whatsoever can truly say they like the genre."
I felt so, so...marginalized. I started quivering like a huge blancmange, then sobbing uncontrollably.
But Barry helped me mobilize. "There are times when a man must be a man," he said. "Extremism in the defense of commercial country is...well, you know." So I fortified myself with a keg of Blue Ribbon, hopped on my John Deere and started up the shoulder to New York with my varmint gun. And that's how I ended up pecking on this here laptop in the Hoboken jail.
The basic plot of Strauss' yarn seems to be this: he starts "dating" someone who, being a little lady from Baton Rouge, has no cultural authority. He makes the apparently bizarre discovery that she listens to country music in the car and sings along. In the course of the piece, Strauss arrives on her doorstep, the hand behind his back clutching a huge bouquet of patronization just for her. She plays him the lovely Steve Wariner song "Small-Town Girl" because it seems to her to tell their story as a couple. He finds the thing cheesy, yet he's touched by his date's and the song's sweet idiotic lack of sophistication.
Sen. Goldwater speculates that while the relationship might survive Strauss' condescension, it doesn't deserve to survive the magnificent effort by which Strauss represses that condescension. Girl, next time try "What Part of No Don't You Understand?" or perhaps "Here's a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)."
Neil Strauss, we might suppose, likes Mary Chapin Carpenter and despises SHeDAISY. Why? Because people with cultural authority judge country music by makeup and hair and chart position. Mary Chapin is from Princeton, NJ by way of DC and wears peasant dresses, while the three sisters in SHeDAISY have had their hair done in a Nashville salon. Never mind that any given Mary Chapin album and SHeDAISY's '99 debut deploy an almost-identical esthetic and an almost-identical feisty feminism. Never mind that the songs on the SHeDAISY album are just a little better, and the singing, too.
Or let us take the case of Lyle Lovett. After a couple of hits in the late 80s, Lyle became hip when he fell off the bottom of country radio and right into the killing clutches of the cultural authorities. Now the obvious fact that Lyle couldn't wipe George Strait's ass is irrelevant. What is relevant to Strauss, ultimately, is Lyle's hairstyle?the coiffure equivalent of David Byrne's shoulders. It came from art school.
Strauss "certainly [doesn't] want to defend the music," but I bet he would defend, let us say, Kelly Willis. Now compare Kelly Willis to the stylistically similar but just-a-little-better Patty Loveless. According to the hideously swollen pretension that is Strauss' cultural authority, Loveless gets hurled into the cultural gulag on the grounds that people in Baton Rouge like to sing along to "Timber, I'm Falling in Love." The fact that she's a great singer singing great songs is, finally, irrelevant to those charged to surveil the culture.
Strauss has made the incredible discovery that the South is different from the North. But commercial country music is the most popular radio format all over the country outside of Manhattan, and even at their worst the songs you hear on country stations are perfectly crafted (Strauss actually admits that). At their best, they are the best popular music being made today.
One might wonder what culture it is over which Neil Strauss has authority. It sure ain't American culture. The New York Times: It's as if the Soviet Union disintegrated and the KGB just kept right on. Strauss' date has no cultural authority, but at least she has a culture.
Now regular readers of this column, if there are any, are perhaps detecting a certain inconsistency in my approach. You are perhaps remembering when I talked about the "vicious fools who run Nashville." You are wondering how I can rag on the Nashville establishment, then defend it from Strauss' condescension.
First of all, Strauss is patronizing not only to his date and the artists and their music (Sen. Goldwater challenges him to produce a better guitar player than Steve Wariner), but to the listeners of country music and to the entire Confederacy. Second, I earned my right to rag on Faith Hill by listening to country radio my whole life and loving it.
There really are people with cultural authority who listen to country music, and these people can distinguish the real shit from the bullshit. Neil Strauss is not one of these people?though he does, he claims, like some country music. He likes Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, George Jones. If he didn't, of course, he'd have no business saying a damn word about the subject. But look: those people were commercial artists in their heyday, and commercial country music is, thank God, a living musical tradition. I'll bet my back 40 that a few years from now Neil Strauss will be at the Bottom Line watching Alan Jackson play an acoustic set consisting of 20 pure, perfect, original country songs. And the aged rock critic will, I swear, be in the back, nursing a beer and thinking to himself that Alan Jackson is a national treasure.
And here are some other national treasures, each of whom we have a decent chance of hearing in any given hour on any given country station: Martina McBride, Sara Evans, John Anderson, Marty Stuart, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, Lorrie Morgan, Pam Tillis, David Ball, Dwight Yoakam, Rebecca Lynn Howard, the Bellamy Brothers, Tracy Byrd, Terri Clark, Kenny Chesney, Doug Stone, the Mavericks, Mark Chesnutt, Trace Adkins, Wynonna Judd, Randy Travis, Joe Diffie, Lee Ann Womack.
Neil Strauss wants country music dead: he likes it as long as it is a museum piece. All that really means is that as a cultural authority he's always already way late.
All right. I feel better now. They let me bring my Discman into the cell. Let's review some records:
Loretta Cooper and Iron Horse, New Generation (Reba Records; rebarecords.com): This good woman from southwestern Pennsylvania (in other words, not too far from Whoa-O-Rama Farms) sings absolutely straight-up country music, a mix here of originals and neglected classics. The version of "Satin Sheets" approaches perfection. As with a lot of indie country, you'd like to see what she could do with a budget, or at least unlimited studio time. But still, country ain't dead until acts like this cease playing little honkytonks in West Virginia. All in all an excellent prison disc.
Damon Gray, Lookin' for Trouble (Broken Bow): All right, here's an album that the cultural Stasi will ignore. But it's solid, Texas-style pop country, at once catchy and traditional.
Kathy Mattea, The Innocent Years (Mercury Nashville): In like '88-'92 there was a neo-folkie wavelet in country music. Probably the best two symptoms of the thing were the songs of Suzy Bogguss and Kathy Mattea. Mattea's career song was "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses," which really was a classic. But Barry and I at this point have had enough. If Kathy Mattea sings one more frigging song about angels, I will feed her to Neil Strauss. Get this straight, honey: There are no angels. But if there were and they were this insipid, they'd be bitch-slapped by God. If your spirituality is a vague fuzzy feeling that makes you feel all gooey and stupid inside, do yourself a favor and find Satan before you make the next album. The new-age country thing, which has also recently sucked the blood out of Alison Krauss, must be killed aborning.
Joe Ely, Live @ Antone's (Rounder): Those suddenly arriving at Steve Earle need this disc, which gives you a sense of the tradition out of which Earle's Americana eclecticism emerges. By all accounts the meta-legendary Ely is at his best live, and this is just a great performance, though the melodies seem a bit samey.
Slaid Cleaves, Broke Down (Rounder): I reviewed this thing a few months ago. As you may recall I liked it in a kind of lukewarm way. Since then I find that it keeps popping up on my player every day and subsequently the songs waft through my head continuously and I have reached the conclusion that this guy is one of the best singer/songwriters in the world.
Hazel Dickens, It's Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song (Rounder): Rounder has steadily been reissuing the output of Dickens, who sounds something like music might have sounded in Appalachia before it could be recorded. She's an acquired taste: so off key and cranky that she can actually be hard to listen to. But her songs are amazing, as she shows here in her Vietnam-protest song "Will Jesus Wash the Bloodstains from Your Hands," which makes the most emphatic Dylan antiwar song seem merely vague. Dickens is really a contemporary of, say, Loretta Lynn, but listening to her gives you a sense of where Loretta came from.
Steve Earle, Transcendental Blues (Artemis): You have already read 174 reviews of this album. All 174 reviews were written by people with cultural authority. You have already bought this album and listened to it 18 times. I really have nothing to add. Bye now.