an opinion piece by Hawks guitarist Paul Lacques
Our new American Age is the ascendancy of warped rural values.What made us strong, what gave us soul, what defined us and defended us, went sour, and weird. All of us born after 1950 are defined by comfort, TV, and the safe and dazzling haven of the city and the suburb. We’ve traded life expectancy for life in the country.
My cousins in Bakersfield in the 60’s were super cowboys. They were on the tractor by age 12, and not the kind with air conditioned cabs and stereo systems, but the nasty old beasts that left you at the end of the 10 hour day with sunburned skin and dust in every pore.They were rodeo champions and pro football prospects. They played guitar well enough to master the lick from “Born On The Bayou.” They listened to Glen Campbell, and Barry Sadler’s “Ballad Of The Green Beret,” and this was the word of God.
“I beat up a Mexican this afternoon. On the canal.”Yes, they also were racists through and through. It was a deep family belief, like their belief in Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. It was a warrior’s creed, unquestioned. Racism defined the cousins–along with allegiance to Dodge trucks and the Super Bee, quail hunting, the spring roundup, early and faithful marriage, and lots of babies. And country music.
KUZZ in Bakersfield played Merle and Buck and Porter Wagoner, songs about cheaters and losers and drinkers lost in the big city. It sounded different out here, in a pickup truck on an endless road cutting straight across the flat Valley floor, alongside the swift black irrigation canal and the endless cotton with the sweet reek of pesticide from the daredevil crazies in the buzzing cropdusters. The steel and fiddle and lone Telecaster stark against silent horizons.
Today the cowboys and small ranchers and family farmers are scarce enough to be exotic, exemplary, an image to fill us with yearning, like the village blacksmith or the quilting bee. Rural America is mostly worn out fields pumped with nitrogen and Roundup, corn for cow factories, rootless day laborers toiling for Archer Daniels Midland. No one’s singing about these people.Commercial country music is pragmatic, not nostalgic. In a way, it’s more the real deal than the reconstituted ruralisms of the sincere practitioners of alt country. Today’s Nashville sings for the soccer mom and the reformed bad boy grinning in the back row of the mega-church. Country music, severed at last from white man’s blues, has drifted and mutated, like an invasive species in a strange new land.
And the Nashville sounds got real, real strange, when producers tweaked gated reverb and autotuning, country drummers learned Kiss and Metallica licks, Telecaster players bought Les Pauls and screaming distortion boxes. Nashville songwriter teams discovered Jesus lite, upbeat sentimentality, and how to subtly reference the faded soul of our rural past. Bring up the fiddle a little. Good.And with 9/11, Nashville found its mission, its message, and its Party. Karl Rove discovered gated Jesus and the terror pedal. The president found an exaggeration to the Texas twang grafted onto his New England blue blood branches, learned a parody of rural tasks on his newly purchased ranch.
The Republican convention in St. Paul was Nashville pop dragged out over four days. Sarah Palin is Mylie Cyrus, all adolescent passion and cleverness and rage. The throaty roar of the Republican delegates is the group hysteria of lost Disney Channel teens, pitched down an octave, primed and cued to outburst at the slightest rise in pitch or rhetoric from their scrubbed new prophetess. Rural soul is the boxed prize pig in this contest for the reins of American power. John McCain, privileged son of a Navy Admiral, has to play up his warrior status, like the ghost of a Confederate soldier sacrificed for the old ways. Never forget, we are reminded, that we are pioneers, we were formed from war, and we will never be anything else.
On the final night of the Republican convention in St. Paul, the dazzling video that introduced our next President was bursting with the naive bombast of a Nashville top ten single. Were you offended by the aggressive orchestral music, the hushed religious tones of the narrator, the story of Christ re-writ in a Hanoi torture pit? Too bad. Move to France. The steel guitar has left the honky tonk, and the honky tonk is found only in the margins of the nation, in towns the candidates will never even hear of, let alone visit. Coming to Fresno, Mr. McCain? Mr. Obama?
Still–rural soul lives. It’s in all of us. A mere 100 years ago our people farmed. The whole earth farmed. Get thee to your garden. Grow your own.