Sam Burnham, Curator
Country music gets a reaction out of people. The modern stuff seems to get a rise out of purists and traditional Southerners. The new stuff is mostly hollow, heavily cliched, and very rarely tells a story that can engage the intellect of even the most simple of minds. The descriptions are often of some guy driving down a dirt road in the truck his daddy bought him. He's got some girl who is rebelling trying to get her daddy's attention and dude is looking for a place to try to take advantage of it and get in her "Daisy Dukes." That's about as deep as it's going to get.
David Allan Coe famously sang that a country song has to mention "mama, trains, trucks, prison, or getting drunk." But he had more to say on the subject. He went on to tell a story of catching a ride along a lonesome highway with a stranger in an antique Cadillac. That stranger offered him some advice in the form of series of questions, questions he'd have to answer if he intended to make it in Nashville:
Drifter can you make folks cry when you play and sing?
Have you paid your dues? Can you moan the blues?
Can you bend them guitar strings?
Boy can you make folks feel what you feel inside?
The former touches on some essential elements. The latter is what country music is about.
Look at Johnny Cash singing those Folsom Prison Blues. He's in prison and has no one to blame but himself. But the sound of that train waling past him haunts him.
Well if they freed me from this prison
If that railroad train was mine
I bet I'd move it on a little farther down the line
Far from Folsom Prison
That's where I want to stay
And I'd let that lonesome whistle
Blow my blues away
You know he's guilty. He knows it too. But his story, his tune, it has you hurting for him. You pity him. You find yourself wishing he could cut loose, jump that train, and be free. That was the power of Johnny Cash's music. From those early days all the way through his cover of "Hurt" he made people feel what he felt inside.
There are lessons in the messages. It's not just prison, it's the wisdom of our elders and learning the hard way that our elders really are wise and we'd be wise to listen. It's about learning humility and the importance of home. Like Travis Tritt sings:
I remember felling guilty
When Daddy turned and walked back in the house
I was only 17 back then
But I thought I knew more than I know now
I can't say he didn't warn me
This city life's a hard row to hoe
Ain't it funny how a dream can turn around
Where corn don't grow
But I think the songs are at their strongest when they are steering us home, putting in the hard work to make it, remembering where we came from, who we are, and staying true to that. I recently saw video of Jamey Johnson and Alabama singing one at The Ryman. That video was the inspiration for this article. I was especially hit by this:
Well I'll speak my Southern English just as natural as I please
I'm in the Heart of Dixie and Dixie's in the heart of me
And someday when I make it, when luck finds a way
Somewhere high on Lookout Mountain, y'all,
I'll just smile with pride and say that my
..home's in Alabama, no matter where I lay my head
My home's in Alabama, Southern born and Southern bred
When we say the new stuff is hollow, when we say it's fake, when we say we hate it, this is why. We don't want rap, pop, and we certainly don't want Auto-Tune. We want Waylon Jennings, Tanya Tucker, Charlie Pride, Roy Clark, Patsy Cline, Jerry Reed, Don Williams. We want talent and grit. We want a voice that sounds like our own, only better. We want to know we're not the only ones trying to make it in a hard world. We want real.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire