The Nation's Pulse

Gone Country

Music to make you feel happy about America.

By 7.29.05

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My favorite Republican drives around town listening to country music and crying. Wendy Wakeman, the former chair of our board of selectmen and an experienced, tough political cookie, doesn't mind admitting it. She also pounds on the steering wheel and sings along with her favorite raucous tunes, like Alan Jackson's "It's Five o'Clock Somewhere."

Pour me something tall and strong,
Make it a hurricane before I go insane.
It's only half past twelve but I don't care...
It's five o'clock somewhere.

When I'm fed up with news and talk and politics, and it does happen, I switch over to one of our two New England country stations in this area and catch up on what's happening in the real world. Wendy and I swap favorites. With "It's Five o'Clock Somewhere," as with so many other good songs, it's not so much the catchy chorus that grabs our attention as the razor-clean look at life in the verses:
The sun is hot and that old clock is moving slow,
and so am I.
The workday passes like molasses in winter time,
but it's July
I'm getting paid by the hour and older by the minute,
My boss just pushed me over the limit.
I'd like to call him something, but I think I'll just call it a day.

WHEN COUNTRY MUSIC WORKS, it works beyond compare. You turn on the radio and get three knockouts in a row, Faith Hill's orgasmic "This Kiss," Alan Jackson's exquisitely sentimental "Remember When," and Toby Keith's delicious half-stoned singalong, "I Love This Bar," and all's right with the world.

And then comes Montgomery Gentry's kick-ass bar rocker, "Hell, Yeah," with its oddball infusion of octave singing (used be the exclusive province of Euro-rock), heavy metal guitar riffs, and almost chattily Beat lyrics, which deserve an extensive quote:

She's got an MBA and a plush corner office
She's got a don't mess with me attitude
She'll close a deal she don't reveal that she can feel
The loneliness the emptiness
Except when she comes in here
She's the product of the Me generation
She's got a rock and roll side when you get her agitated
She got the tattoo there on her derriere from a spring break dare
In Panama where love was all she thought she'd ever need

She yells out to the band,
"Know any Bruce Springsteen?"
Then she jumps up on the bar
And she, and she starts to scream
She says

Hell yeah!
Turn it up!
Right on!
Hell yeah!
Sounds good!
Sing that song!
Guitar man playin' all night long
Take me back to where the music hit me
When life was good and love was easy


And if the disc jockey finishes off that quartet with Toby Keith and Willie Nelson singing what must have become an anthem for our boys in Iraq, "Beer for My Horses," why, you'll be setting off skyrockets in your car, bouncing up and down on the driver's seat, and wiping your face just like Wendy and me.
Justice is the one thing you must always find
You got to saddle up your boys, you got to draw a hard line.
When the gunsmoke settles we'll sing our victory tune,
Then we'll all go back to the local saloon.
We'll raise up our glasses against evil forces, singing,
"Whiskey for my men and beer for my horses."

COUNTRY MUSIC CAN DISAPPOINT, TOO. Twinkletoes marketing boys try to turn the music's legendary common touch into a marketing technique, resulting in a distressing number of cold, calculating tunes ("Let's see, it has to mention drinking, a farm, a car, religion...") like Brooks and Dunn's "Red Dirt Road."

It's where I drank my first beer,
It's where I find Jesus.
It's where I wrecked my first car.
I tore it all to pieces.

Sometimes you turn on the radio for another "Ten In A Row!" and get one damned focus grouped song after another. They sound as if they're written by committee, and they probably are. My friend Ed spent years in Nashville as a songwriter, much of it "writing with" this or that other writer or writers. That can be a creative technique, of course, but it can equally often amount to little more than show biz social climbing or crank-it-out commercialism.

Note, however, you will never hear incompetent country music. Those Nashville cats still play clean as country water, and everybody can sing.

PEOPLE WHO DON'T KNOW COUNTRY MUSIC, like people who are bad at imitating accents, will often launch into what they think of as a howling parody of a what they think of as a typical song: "My dog died the day I got outa prison," and so forth. Grief and heartache appear aplenty. The willingness of country writers and singers to confront that sadness gives the music its strength. No other genre can offer the savagely clear-eyed contemplation of loss of Joe Diffie's "A Night to Remember."

Sad ain't my style but once in awhile
I just have to give in,
Cause a woman like you is so hard to lose
You just don't want it to end
I know this can't go on forever
So tonight I'll have a night to remember
Dim the lights, lock the door, spread your pictures on the floor,
Throw the dust off of our past, let it all come hurtin' back.
Cause it ain't easy being strong, and when I can't forget you're gone,
I just surrender
and have myself night to remember.

That's a man, folks, telling us how he sits alone in a room and sinks himself in grief over a lost love -- and does it on purpose, because he has to.

The whole world of country music takes credibility from honesty like that, so when it tells us something important, we have to listen. For example, to John Michael Montgomery's "Letters from Home."

I saw your momma and I showed her the ring.
Man the television said something so I couldn't sleep.
But I'll be all right, I'm just missin' you.
And this is me kissin' you X's and O's
in a letter from home.
I hold it up and show my buddies
Like we ain't scared and our boots ain't muddy
But no one laughs cause there ain't nothin' funny when a soldier cries.
And I just wipe my eyes.
I fold it up and put it in my shirt,
pick up my gun and get back to work.
And it keeps me drivin' on
Waitin' on letters from home.

THAT'S THE LATEST FAVORITE of Wendy's and mine. It gets us every time.

A week before the last Presidential election, a liberal friend of mine e-mailed me that he thought Kerry would win by about two percentage points. I should have told him to turn on the country music station where he lived. That week found John Kerry criss-crossing the Midwest with aging rock and rollers. President Bush hung out with NASCAR drivers and with country stars who never age. It was obvious who was going to win.

Forget those things the television says that rob you of sleep. Listen to country. America is going to win, too.

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.

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Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.