Features | Retconning

XIII :: Country I (Post-1960s)

By Mark Abraham | 16 December 2007

I don’t line-dance, though I’ve been to weddings where it’s occurred (I did not partake). I don’t own a spanky hat either, but why would I? The hat is a semiotic nest-egg for a specific socio-cultural spasm that now sneezes outside the black/white visual cues of Sergio Leone; Maritimers don’t play that jive, having spent most of their formative years breathing shades of grey. By which I mean, it’s hard to be a cowboy in the fog on a dock near boats, right? At the same time,  growing up in the Maritimes ‘round people who may well have had a hat tucked away somewhere at the back of their closet, I was exposed to country music. Good country music. We took it with black rum more than whiskey, but it’s still the kind of country music that merits the distinction and motivates another thing that I don’t entirely get: the reverence for and emphasis on pure roots music that still drives contemporary country fans, even if debates about what authentic country music sounds like can somehow include Cash and Brooks and Dunn, depending on what color state you come from or what age you are. Consequently, the one thing I don’t don’t is country; I love it, I love the political clusterfuck it represents, and even though it has become the ludicrous punchline to every lame street cred posturing ever (“I like everything ‘cept”), that’s only because Toby Keith and his ilk make seriously seriously bad music. And that’s ignoring the Bush-bop politics.

Here’s the thing about country, which I say as a fan but not a habitator, and that’s another crucial distinction here, because real country fans (like people who only ever listen to country and it’s a real strain for them even to deal with the occasional bluegrass) live country. I’m just a tourist no matter how lived-in a good country song will feel, but anyway here’s the thing: with the exception of the blues, country is the genre of music that is most focused on an artist’s personality. Now, that’s not to suggest that country is a monolithic mass of major chord progressions with different voices; country, though, is very often about the character, the viewpoint, and the politics. Which is why your choice of country is so important, if you care about such things. Because liking Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson over Merle Haggard or Glen Campbell means something: explicitly, it means choosing Texas/outlaw over Nashville; implicitly, it means venerating a specific kind of masculinity. And all you boys in the audience who love Graham Parsons: I mean, that’s just an early example of the indie-construction of the sensitive boyfriend, right? He’s an outlaw on his own gushy terms. Which in its own way is outlaw-ish too, of course, and that’s kind of the point; schools of country are schools of identity, especially since the flag waving brand of modern country is insanely Republican. Point being the hat doesn’t mean much at all, which is why this list offers the lilt, the twang, and just enough imagined controversy to keep law- and non-law-abiding country citizens alike uptight.