Why Can’t Country and Metal Just Get Along?
In between posting grades online, xmas social obligations, accidental resulting hangovers, I somehow got myself back to my hometown for Christmas. For some reason, this flight proved troublesome for me; I was racing around unable to find my gate while they were announcing last call for boarding (that has never happened to me), asking the guy in my seat who apparently didn’t speak English if he could move (to which he responded with a smile and a slow shake of his head), dumping the entire contents of my purse on the airplane floor while my cat howled in her carrier…jeezus.
Moments like this can be fixed with an aisle seat, nobody beside me, a complementary glass of wine from the flight attendants, and an episode of Metal Evolution that I haven’t seen yet.
Fair warning before you read on: this is a post that is at least partially about metal (but also about country) and it’s going to start by meandering through the personal, but I promise to ask some very, very important questions for you all to consider by the end.
I’ll start with about today’s events. I got up early to pick up my rental car. On the way back, I plugged in some tunes so I could finally sing along to what’s been on my playlist lately, something I can’t do at home for a variety of reasons including the fact that the soundproofing is so bad I can hear my neighbour sneezing from two floors up. It seemed appropriate repertoire: arrive in the prairies and put on Iron Maiden. I sing quite well with Bruce Dickinson, if I do say so myself.
Let’s go back a step. On Monday, I had a rather lovely visit with my ex-boyfriend. Six years after a brutal breakup, everything is now cool and we had a good time. He even was crazy enough to drive me across Toronto to work, and put me in charge of his ipod for the drive. I told him about my recent listening habits and asked what I should get next. He took me through a series of songs that had strange nostalgic value in that I used to wake up at 4 am to listen to the last hour of his noise/metal radio show. The scariest shit to wake up to, but somehow at the time it was comforting.
Let’s go back another few steps. My brothers recently formed a “supergroup”, combining the remaining members of their former bands into one. At the last show I went to, I had to lean against the bar to avoid the punching, kicking dance moves of their rabid fans. I’m used to this; I lost my baby brother in a mosh pit at a Foo Fighters concert in Edmonton ten years ago when I got forced out within the first thirty seconds of the show. (That sounds crazy. He wasn’t a baby, he was 17 at the time.) His alarm used to be a Tool album that came grumbling through the walls at 6 am. My other brother recently abandoned the band’s brand of hardcore for a hollow-body Gretsch and some country repertoire, a shock to me after 30 years of hearing anything but that.
Let’s go back 40 years. My parents told me today that they started dating 40 years ago, not so long after Master of Reality came out. I was born in ’78, the year that Hemispheres was released.
In short, despite the fact that I am a country music lover and researcher, metal has been hovering in the background for a long time, and I think I love it too.
Some people in my circles are disappointed that I have let my interest in metal be publicly known. When I sent a paranoid pun to my friend in an email, he said, “I get it. Stop it. Email me when you’ve listened to Court and Spark.” But I was always interested, even if it didn’t seem to be compatible with what I normally spent my time on. Luckily, you can get away with an “academic interest” in genres besides that which you built your identity on when you do the work I do, so I used to sneak off to papers on Voivod or Rush riffs at conferences or I would research speed metal in the interest of doing a good lecture on it.
A professional identity is not necessarily a social identity though, so I didn’t think I could get anyone to go along with me to concerts, despite all the above evidence to the contrary that friends, partners, and family would have. I probably didn’t think I would fit in. And I couldn’t reconcile all the things I liked about the music with the things I found attractive about roots and country: metal is not a friendly, accessible music. It might have started on underground labels, might have been one of the most rebellious genres in its original form, but it became an expensive, profitable, big-label music in many ways. The spectacle of metal discouraged the artist-audience connection that seems much more available in country. Also, it’s loud.
Maybe my classical background helps me appreciate the virtuosity and density of metal. Maybe my relatively benign childhood in the suburbs squashed a natural aggression in me that now gets satisfied by hard music. Maybe – certainly – I’m overthinking it. The reason I bring it up is because genre identities are so carefully constructed by us listeners and they are meant to be incompatible with others. Those who scratch Slayer logos into their jean jackets with ballpoint pens don’t turn around and go two-stepping on Saturday nights.
Or do they? When I started interviewing roots musicians, many of them told me how they made the move from hard rock to country. Among their first albums were treasures like Back in Black. Somehow, these guys – most of the people I interviewed in the Alberta scene were men – managed to integrate the music they loved in their teen years with country, creating interesting, heavy songs informed equally by Johnny Cash and Kiss.
There is a generation gap in this experience. Those in their 30s and early 40s tended to grow up on metal, though not exclusively, whereas those who are a bit older might be more drawn to singer-songwriters and punk. The division between punk and metal was the focus of the Metal Evolution episode I watched last night. Sam Dunn persisted in asking groups like Iron Maiden if they could at least appreciate punk, its speed, what it stood for, and the repeated, vehement answer was no. It is a division that is now often seen as humorous; the subject of many pop culture trips back in time. But at the time, it was serious. If you liked one, you probably didn’t like the other.
There are subtle things about both genres I’m ignoring here, not the least of which is their roots. MC5, for example, is held up as the beginning of music that became both punk and metal. And subgenres of each adopt virtuosity, or lack thereof, an indie approach, and the other’s themes. I’ve read that the reason Metallica sped their music up was to compete with the punk bands that were stealing their audience, and so began a whole body of work predicated on the integration of two supposed opposites.
So why is punk part of the background/story of alt-country, but metal isn’t? Is it an attitude problem, that the posturing and overt masculinity of metal doesn’t sit nicely with country? Seems to me there are more than enough tough guys in country, both past and present. Is the overly technical aesthetic of metal offensive? If so, why not in bluegrass? Country and metal address many of the same themes – rejection of suburban life, rebellion against dysfunctional systems, critique of institutional power – and are created by the same demographic.
Are we all closet metal fans not willing to admit our preferences because we are imagining this conflict between the two?
Maybe I’ll continue some of these thoughts down the road, but for now, merry Christmas, and a mostly unrelated video.