And the bones of country music
Lie there in their casket
Beneath the towers of Nashville
In a deep black pool of neglect
—“The Death of Country Music,” by the Waco Brothers
You could call it prophecy. Thirteen years ago, Waco Brother Jon Langford bitterly lamented the murder of country’s spirit by the country music industry. Then, suddenly, in May 2010 there was that “deep black pool of neglect,” lapping up into the lobbies of those corporate towers and filling the very inner sanctum of corporate country, the Grand Ole Opry House.
But I’m not going to pull a Pat Robertson here. The Nashville flood also wrecked a lot of innocent people’s homes and property and took 30 lives. Those folks had nothing to do with, for instance, the 1990s rise of Shania Twain. So instead of prophecy, let’s just invoke poetic license and call the Music City deluge a naturally occurring metaphor.
The real country music saga is full of these signifying events. After all, it began with the 1927 discovery of Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family in a single week of field recording sessions at a warehouse in Bristol, Tennessee. And the music’s greatest genius, Hank Williams, really did die in the back of a Cadillac after being expelled from the Grand Ole Opry.
If this tale were a work of fiction, no one would doubt that the country music industry is long overdue for an Old Testament-style housecleaning.
It’s easy to define real country music by instrumentation—fiddles, steel guitar, the occasional harmonica. But plenty of the pop nonsense on corporate country radio today deploys those sonic markers. The real country brand (think livestock) involves a stoic sense of life’s essential tragedy handed down from the Appalachian ballads. Love is lost. The innocent suffer. Promises get broken. And everything doesn’t get wrapped up in a rosy glow in the last verse, the way it does on country radio today.
The country brand also means an almost schizophrenic reverence for tradition and hatred for authority. The genre’s link to rural life comes from that ornery frontier individualism, always undergirded by an unshakeable fatalism. That philosophical stance allowed Hank Williams to look eternity in the eye and sing, “Now I’m lost, too late to pray, Lord I’ve paid the cost on the lost highway.” But his reverence for tradition also required Hank to take off his hat and sing, “I Saw the Light.”
The survival of real country music matters because, as you may have noticed, life is not fair. And the people who do the suffering, even the white ones out in the middle of the country, deserve art that speaks to their condition. When people lose that cultural support system, they become even more vulnerable to, for instance, the tea party charlatans.
But there is hope for country music, even in Nashville. WSM, the legendary 50,000-watt AM radio station that created the Grand Ole Opry, is still on the air. In recent decades, it has broadcast a “classic country” format, but recently the programmers apparently realized that the pipeline of new “classics” was drying up. Now WSM has started welcoming rootsy, independent bluegrass and Americana artists onto its far-reaching airwaves—you can actually hear Old Crow Medicine Show alongside Hank Williams Jr.
WSM is owned by Gaylord Entertainment, which also owns the Grand Ole Opry and the Opryland Resort. But when the water started rising at the Gaylord complex this spring, the WSM crew abandoned ship. At this writing, they are still broadcasting from an ancient pre-digital studio they call “The Bunker,” at the foot of the transmission tower on the outskirts of town.
Sounds like another naturally occurring metaphor to me.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.