How long does it take Great Smoky Mountain fire crews to realize there really is something burning?
That thought occurred to me as I drove through the Smokies with my mom on September 11th this year, instinctively noting every misty, foggy patch rising up in the tree-covered hills. It does look like a forest fire.
If you were a fire fighter, would you constantly be alarmed? Or would you learn to remain calm and wait until you see ominous orange to crank the alarm?
I was travelling I-40 to fetch Mom from where she stays with her 91-year-old brother in South Carolina to bring her back for a few weeks of camping out in our dining room because my 88-year-old Dad is a “stress donor” and she can’t stay with him. Though my route took me right through the thick of the Music Row demographic and I was alone in a rented Camry for half the trip, I couldn’t bring myself to listen to a single pedal-steel-bent note of country music.
Two days before, I’d gone to eat with my wife and youngest son at a chain restaurant that pretends to be an old juke joint. From the parking lot you hear them blasting country-pop as soon as you open your car door. I felt so repelled, so pushed-away by that noise. That Nashville sound.
It’s the sound of intolerance, to me, these days.
I find I am intolerant of intolerance.
I should have said, “Let’s get back in the car and go someplace else. Maybe somewhere they play Mexican music.” But I didn’t. I gave my dollars to the juke joint in exchange for an entrée, two sides and a beer absurdly labelled “America.”
Thoughts without words. Words without actions. Not much use.
Still, more words: these days I feel so unwelcome in CountryMusicUSA.
Didn’t feel this way the last election, nor any other election. Something’s changed. I’ve disagreed with candidates before without feeling this bristling, nostril-widening, ancient alertness to impending cataclysm.
Someone’s gone in the forest and dropped a lit golden cigarette lighter with a huge diamond-inlaid “T.” Whole hillsides are ablaze, too hot, out of control.
This isn’t the misty fake smoke of the Great Smokies. I see orange.
Sound the sirens.
Of course, y’know, the forest floor wasn’t covered a foot deep in dead branches and dry pine needles overnight. That kindling’s been building up for years.
Where’d all this fuel come from?
It came out of the radio.
Talk radio, yes, of course, chewing through the “alt-right” talking points of the moment—but also, while you were listening to the WTF podcast or whatever (the f), Nashville stations were layering a lot of divisive, righteously indignant stuff into their broadcast days. To dance to. For years.
Nashville songwriters: I’m afraid you’ve got the rage-spittle of millions on your hands.
Over the past decade and a half, country stations have slowly increased the percentage of songs whose thesis is “white country boys and unreasonably hot white country girls totally rule and you are too politically correct to even try to kick our sexy, tractor-sittin’ asses so see that proves it.”
It’s a bummer for those of us attracted to the discipline of the writing, the deftly edited concrete imagery, internal rhymes and perfectly plotted reveals of clever hooks. Nashville writers had been busy cataloging every aspect of life, discovering multiple shades of emotional significance in recognizably human moments from often-surprising perspectives, then somehow rendering these little stories sing-along-able.
But now sleeper cells of intolerance have been activated, recruiting folk who would be pleasant to a white guy like me in an IGA, but scary to non-whites. And y’know, in reality, most folk would actually be pleasant toward any individual—even deferential. They’d fix a Sikh’s broken-down car and ask only that he pay the kindness forward.
Most are people I want to like.
They’ve been stoked into this news-media-resistant resentment, though.
Nashville—what did you do?
You could have been reinforcing how life and parties are more fun when filled with an expansive spirit of tolerance and togetherness. You’ve shown you can do it. Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar” describes open-minded inclusiveness, though it’s old now. Big & Rich’s big-party-tent had room for Cowboy Troy’s rap but that whole circus has some age on it, too. Garth Brooks sang in the early nineties, “When we’re free to love anyone we choose/When this world’s big enough for all different views/When we all can worship from our own kind of pew/Then we shall be free”—but scored one of his first not-top-ten records in that period because radio station playlist managers thought tolerance would irritate listeners.
Hootie’s gone country; call him Darius. Correct me if I’m wrong but he’s the first major Nashville African American star since Charley Pride, whose novelty as a black country singer is coming up on a half-century old. Pride’s contemporary, Merle Haggard—name-checked in approximately 62% of country songs because he’s an unyielding rebel outlaw who rhymes with “girl”—sang about interracial romance: “If my lovin’ Irma Jackson is a sin/Then I don’t understand this crazy world we’re livin’ in.”
Countrified open-mindedness and humane inclusiveness is possible, at least in small dosages.
It occurs to me, I’ve seen white grandparents walking around with mixed-race grandkids at pretty much every little county fair I’ve been to. For the most part, in practice, country music fans walk the all-are-welcome walk.
Actions without words. Kind of strange, really.
The reverse of me grumblingly slouching toward the juke joint steakhouse, I suppose.
Brad Paisley and LL Cool J tried to build a bridge with a song a couple three years ago called Accidental Racist. In the first verse, Brad (always shown in a cowboy hat) sings about wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt because he likes Skynyrd. He’s “a proud rebel son with an ol’ can of worms” who’s trying to understand life “caught between Southern pride and Southern blame.” Eventually LL raps: “… Feel like a new-fangled Django, dodging’ invisible white hoods/So when I see that white cowboy hat, I’m thinkin’ it’s not all good/I guess we’re both guilty of judgin’ the cover not the book/I’d love to buy you a beer, conversate and clear the air/But I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn’t here.”
Accidental, you say. Look, that guy in the truck ahead of me with the Stars-n-Bars and Trump stickers knows what he’s doing. It’s no accident. That flag of anti-American secessionists first sewn as an emblem of the fight to own Africans is inconsiderately flown out of stubborn self-centeredness, willful denial or simple meanness, not ignorance.
As a kind of answer/rebuke to Paisley’s bridge-building, Blake Shelton comes right out and sings that you can kiss his country ass if you got a problem with a rebel flag flying. Wait, I’m sorry. Flyin’. He pretends that you might have a problem with him playin(g) music late at night or mountin(g) deer heads over his bed, and stuff, but of course nobody really objects to any of that—responsible deer hunting is totally acceptable, even if it’s not my Mason jar of tea. But he slips that rebel flag in there. Dammit, Blake. You were in a position to unite.
Dividing sells best, I guess.
Nashville likes to play up the differences.
There’s an old Hank Williams, Jr. song, A Country Boy Can Survive, which glorifies this country/city, bright red/bright blue divide. In its final verse ol’ Hank Jr. wants to be the one who guns down the criminal who killed his city friend for $43 (those who hear dog whistles will infer it was probably a member of some minority ethnic community).
Blam Blam Blam!
Interestingly, for those trying to understand Trumpism, you may note the respect the country boy pays to the New York City businessman character who—though he doesn’t skin bucks or run trotlines—can take a joke and give as good as he gets, and is just practicing the profession taught to him by his Daddy and Grandaddy, same as the country boy.
Think about it: The Donald is just behaving how country boys would if their daddies had taught them to build casinos instead of showing them how to cook a pig in the ground, because AN AUTHORITARIAN CITY DUDE WHO INHERITED A FORTUNE FROM HIS RACIST DAD CAN SURVIVE. [punctuating guitar lick]
And if the real estate mogul can succeed at fudging this or evading that, well, (shrug) Country Boy might’ve hunted on land marked “No Trespassing” once or twice. Strong-arm tactics on behalf of us, America, the country on the beer label? Might be good. If you can get by with it.
As I drove Mom through the Smokies that Sunday, I kept expecting to see 9/11 memorials on the overpasses, with vets and flags and people waving. A rare non-divisive issue. We can all agree on the tragedy and horror of that day. Anytime I’ve passed under a bridge with one of these memorials the last fifteen years I’ve given a solemn toot.
For whatever reason, we only saw one memorial the whole trip. What’s going on?
Where was everybody?
Well, it was Sunday. Might have something to do with it. Whatever it is, I know those bridge-wavers haven’t forgotten.
Who would accuse someone of forgetting that day? Who would make 9/11 a divisive issue?
Songwriting coach Barbara Cloyd often writes humorous songs she categorizes as “Barbed Wit.” A decade or so ago she was enraged by “Have You Forgotten?” sung by Darryl Worley. In a rattling bass, shortly after the attacks, Mr. Worley contemptuously asks libtards who oppose the Bush 43-era wars if it’s possible 9/11 slipped their mind?
“No, Darryl Worley, I have not forgotten,” sang Barb, exasperated, to people at the Bluebird Café who came to hear her and her friends perform. Everybody chuckled grimly. She went on to refute everything wrong with the logic of that song concisely and wittily.
Let’s check out the first verse and chorus of Worley’s original glove-smack-across-the-cheek:
“I hear people saying we don’t need this war/But, I say there some things worth fighting for/What about our freedom and this piece of ground/We didn’t get to keep ’em by backing down/They say we don’t realize the mess we’re getting in/Before you start your preaching let me ask you this, my friend”
Have you forgotten how it felt that day?/To see your homeland under fire and her people blown away?/Have you forgotten when those towers fell?/We had neighbors still inside going through a living hell/And you say we shouldn’t worry ’bout bin Laden/Have you forgotten?”
How deliberately insulting. Such a provocation! Also rhyming “bin Laden” and “forgotten” is cheap.
Seriously, though: Nobody (other than Bush 43 and his cohorts, pre-9/11) said we shouldn’t worry about Osama bin Laden. Good gravy, man. No one over age six that day will ever forget that awful act. Yes, we shouldn’t back down—but nobody said, “Let’s back down.” You’re acting like… okay, maybe the day you recorded this you didn’t yet believe the reports that we didn’t attack the right people. (Argh!)
But I’m missing Worley’s point, aren’t I? His point’s a feeling, not a fact. Boring facts are lost in long-winded explanations while the feeling of “there are some things worth fighting for” causes patriot blood to rise. Sung with glowering anger, it’s very effective.
Inflammatory, imprecise and divisive. But effective.
So, hello… Nashville? I’m saying you’re the ones who dynamited a lot of America’s common ground. As actual smoke drifts up to wreathe your alabaster capitol dome, do you have anything you’d like to say at this point, some kind of response—not set to music, for once?
I don’t want to hear the music right now.