Until You Add the Steel Guitar
In a Chattanooga bar, I fell in love with country music. You can blame cheap beer and a dollar’s worth of jukebox Uncle Tupelo, but I fell hard for banjos and fiddles and, yes, even line dancing. I bought myself a straw cowgirl hat and a pair of scuffed boots. I went to Texas to see the hill country. Since I’m a writer, I also started to scribble — sonnets full of dusty trucks, gravel roads and corn-fed boys with broad tanned shoulders.
But Budweiser isn’t iambic. I got scared the day I knew I wasn’t writing poems anymore, the day I realized I was writing country songs. I was writing bad country songs and I was embarrassed.
At first, I told everyone I knew that it was just a kick in the ass, something to distract me from my “real” work, but I was lying. I ended up in Iowa, in dank graduate school dives grasping at straws, arguing the poetics of Gram Parsons, Townes Van Zandt and Alejandro Escovedo.
I wanted to confess, to stand up and proclaim my devotion from a mountaintop, but I couldn’t find one high enough in Johnson County. I wanted to plant my boots on a soapbox and rustle my skirts. I wanted to shout to the world, “I love Dolly Parton. I believe in Patsy Cline.”
Finally I outed myself in the hallowed halls of the Iowa Writers Workshop by turning a page of song lyrics in for the amusement of my unsuspecting workshop. Giggle if you want to, but I was seriously frightened. I guess a small corner of the world is the corner that counts when you’re in it, no matter how silly or stuffy that corner might be.
I truly believed the sky was going to fall, but my teacher walked into our classroom the next day with a portable stereo. We listened to Greg Brown sing William Blake’s “Songs Of Innocence And Experience”, talked about Wallace Stevens, then hit a big wall made out of two words — “sentimentality” and “cliche.”
I was prepared to go down swinging, but what could I say? “Nope. You’re wrong. There are absolutely no cliches in the country songs I love.” I knew I was licked. I figured I’d have to quit school since I couldn’t kick the country. (I may be a serial monogamist, but I’ve never been unfaithful.) Then my teacher said slowly, “You know what? ‘Stand by your man and tell the world you love him’ is simply not poetry…until you add the steel guitar.” I was vindicated.
For me, country songs are the last bastion of sincerity. You think I’m going too far? Maybe. But words like “last” and “sincerity” are uncomfortable words in just the same way that “never” and “love” are uncomfortable words. They’re extreme, but they’re the kind of words that make me love country music, the words that make me want a song to never end. Go ahead and laugh. It’s all right with me.
Extreme words are funny — when somebody uses them, you want to snicker at their vulnerability, or you want to empathize. Lucinda Williams means it. Gillian Welch means it a lot, whatever “it” is. Country music is my shelter in the storm of self-awareness, St. George fighting the meta-dragon.
I know that even as I write this, somebody is finishing their thesis on the curious emergence of alt-country music in the new millennium, and that’s fine. But for those of us seeking comfort from the clever or indirect sarcasm of graduate school and indie-rock, country music is more than an idea.
Dogs die and lovers leave and trucks break down. Other things happen in this world too, but an awful lot of people get left and an awful lot of people cry and an awful lot of people drink too much. Cliches happen for a reason. Sometimes stereotypes bother us most of all because they happen to be true.
I had to get wasted at a Tennessee bar and then wake up in an Iowa cornfield to understand, but I’m a believer now, the real deal. The night John Ashbery tried to send me to the store for a bottle of Tanqueray, I left the party. But if you play the banjo, I’ll help you load out. I’ll let you sleep on my floor and if you’re nice, I might even make you breakfast.
And yes, there are bad offensive stupid country songs. Of course there are. But at least when they’re bad, they’re usually honest.