I grew up in a dozen small towns in Nebraska, passed on from relative to relative, friend to friend, orphanage to orphanage, while alcoholism, military life, court battles and adultery ravaged my family. Despite this predisposition to the very marrow of country music, our family was middle-brow to a fault. When we'd accidentally catch a snippet of twang on the car radio, we'd clamp our noses closed between two knuckles and honk out some improvised lyrics about trucks & trains, even before we'd heard Steve Goodman's country send-up, "You Never Even Called Me By My Name". My father loved deep, masculine voices and would get a little tight and sing along to Mario Lanza, Paul Robeson, Ezio Pinza, and Giorgio Tozzi in the wee hours, a bi-product of his alcoholism I actually found comforting and miss very much even thirty-some years after the booze killed him. He also played the hell out of Jim Reeves & Tennessee Ernie Ford records, singers I don't think he ever really connected to country music. I guess he -- like many Americans -- was thrown off by all those lush strings and voices colored more by the diaphragm than the adenoids. My mother liked "Go-Go Boot Country" -- Nancy Sinatra, Jeannie C. Riley, Bobbie Gentry, Joanna Neel, etc. -- but once again, I think she associated that more with hip LA than Nashville. We listened to a little opera, but only the arias. So country seeped into our lives from the jukeboxes in cocktail lounges, transistor radios balanced precariously atop the hoods of diner grills, the open windows of passing pick-up trucks, and the cabs of those fancy new combines that actually caused traffic jams on otherwise deserted highways. Stuck behind them for an hour, it was possible to get a pretty decent education in country music. And still our family insisted it wasn't for us.
There's nothing worse than the middle-brow mocking the low-brow. I'll smile and take it if Gore Vidal wants to tell me country music is atavistic hogslop, but small-town merchants in polyester leisure suits who listen religiously to Roger Whittaker, Glenn Yarbrough, and Helen Reddy, probably don't have much purchase when running down Conway Twitty.
You can't grow up in rural Nebraska and not know country music. While I didn't listen to it myself, I could sing you a little of every country hit and the names of the bands and performers were not lost on me. KRVN, a radio station out of Lexington, Nebraska, was always no more than a drugstore comic book buying spree away, and even if you're not paying much attention, your nose buried in an issue of Unknown Soldier or Weird Worlds, you're going to come away with a little "Hello Walls" or "There Stands the Glass" lodged in your pre-teen muddlehead. Of course I came to country music cattywumpus. Even though it was right there, the tinny radio soundtrack of my Nebraska life, it took the Grateful Dead, Pure Prairie League, and Eric Clapton covering Don Williams' "Tulsa Time" to get me curious about what I'd been trying valiantly to ignore. I remember DJ-ing a dance at Garden County High School in Oshkosh, Nebraska (my home for five years) and playing a few of the twangier Grateful Dead cuts off of Europe '72, thinking I'd turn all of those damn cowboys into Deadheads before the night was through. One lanky, half-crocked son of a bitch shambled over to the DJ table and told me stop playing "that disco shit". I guess I'd never really know what "Jack Straw" sounded like to them, how it reminded them of disco, but I'll always appreciate that cowteen for talking me down off my high horse.
Three events really pried me open and transformed an interest once coincidental and arbitrary into one conscious and deliberate. First, I fell moon-eyed in love with a girl from the rodeo club. Though I was an army brat and our family moved around a lot, from Puerto Rico to the Philippines, Alaska to Mexico, there were types in Nebraska that seemed utterly exotic to me. One year I courted a Mennonite girl for six months. She lived miles from town, in the absolute center of nowhere, and I spent many evenings on her porch, under the stern eyes of her mother and aunt, sipping fruit juice, admiring her excruciating blondness, and watching pale feathers of her hair escape from bobby pins and bonnet as the unchecked prairie breeze gusted through their meager acreage. Gradually my natural teenage impatience got the better of me and I found more suitable feminine companionship. That is, until I met the Rodeo Club Girl. Now, I don't want you to think that I was a Zeppelin/Sabbath-listening pothead brave enough to break free from my social set and compete head-on with the real-live bull and bronc-riding cowboys of Western Nebraska for the hand of this beguiling barrel-rider. I only proceeded once I decided she wasn't being nice to me at Quonset keggers because she'd downed half a barrel of Southern Comfort and grape Kool-Aid on a dare. So we began to date, and because she had the upper-hand, I began consuming country music as it was meant to be consumed, driving pick-up trucks on late-night country roads with the speedometer needle buried and a pint of Jim Beam clenched between my thighs. We'd drive and drive, changing 8-tracks willy-nilly from the pile of them on floor -- Merle Haggard to Tom T. Hall, Alabama to the Oak Ridge Boys, Tanya Tucker to The Kendalls. Thankfully, I was savvy enough not to start wearing cowboy hats and snakeskin boots, in fact my wardrobe ran more towards Robin Williams' duds in Mork & Mindy, with the occasional foray into tie-dye. But I definitely adopted her music. Of course she moved on after a few months. Apparently she found me exotic at first, but once I ran out of stories about Mexico and Alaska, she started to ridicule my horsemanship and that was that. Of course, the soundtrack to my busted heart was George Jones -- The Battle and Memories of Us in particular. Although I do recall one night when I listened to Tanya Tucker's "Would You Lay with Me (In A Field of Stone)" from 7 p.m. until eight in the morning, which is hell on an 8-track.
The mid-70s was a great time to be into what was called "Real Country Music". Crossover was everything and gradually it got so bad you could listen to allegedly country radio stations for hours without hearing a steel guitar. Imagine that. While the group Alabama packed stadiums, you could catch Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Porter Wagoner, Ferlin Husky, and Johnny Cash at county fairgrounds for three bucks, and I made it my business to see them all. During this time I began playing taps for the funerals of dead veterans and fell in with a feisty bunch of old drunkards from the local VFW. After I stood on some Ash Hollow Cemetery hillside in the rain for an hour waiting for the rifle salute cue to begin burbling taps through my waterlogged old Conn trumpet, they'd get me out of school for the entire day and we'd sit down at Tom's Tavern, drinking beer and loading up the jukebox with quarters for beautiful, soggy afternoons full of George Jones, Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Horton, and Ray Price. Some misguided soul opened what he hoped to be the next Branson, Missouri on a lake about a hundred miles north and started putting on huge shows, bills overloaded with outmoded country geniuses. These feisty vets and I made the trip up at least once a month, and when I wasn't smoking pot on the high jump pit and talking Led Zeppelin with my stoner friends, I was galavanting around the badlands with a bunch of drunk old men to hear Jim Ed Brown & Helen Cornelius, Roy Clark or Mel Tillis. I paid to see George Jones on about twelve separate occasions and only managed to actually see the man perform three times. You've never seen anything like a crowd turned away at a George Jones show. While there was always a groan of disappointment, it quickly gave way to wry grins, quickly stifled guffaws (a lost art), and conspiratorial whispers, as if it wasn't a known fact that Jones was inebriated between here and wherever. Nobody wanted to be a gossip.
The third event seems innocuous enough, but it legitimized my country music listening to such a point that I no longer felt like a city kid wearing a seed cap for show. During a Junior Class Slave Sale, I was purchased by one of the bigger farms in Garden County and put to work roaming the fields on a tractor, lifting about ten thousand bales of hay onto a flatbed trailer. I relished the ritual of getting up at five in the morning, stopping by Doug's Texaco for an Old Home Cherry Pie and a Mountain Dew, and smoking a joint while I made the hour-long drive to the farm, the highway to myself, the dirt roads even more-so. I also enjoyed the work. I suppose that had something to do with knowing I was bound for college and wouldn't have to do it the rest of my days. When my week was up, they asked if I wanted to stay on, and I did. I think they just liked the idea of some bookish four-eyes doing back-breaking labor eight hours a day. I worked two summers on the farm & my favorite part was repairing shit in one of their huge barns. There was a disemboweled tractor in a corner of the barn, spider webs where the essential innards would normally be, and on the rusty seat sat a little Braun transistor radio, always tuned just ever-so-slightly off a country station and the little radio hung on for dear life to that signal, giving me classic country day in and day out, while I pretended I knew what I was doing. By the time I actually knew which end was up on farm machinery, I had a storehouse of "earned" music in my head, at least that's how I saw it. No matter how fraudulent I was in the long-haul, the music came to me legitimately. Discussions of what's genuine, what's legitimate, and what's hokum are valid, but I think everybody would agree that music has a natural state. If you listened to disco in New York City in 1976, you were listening to something different than I was, dancing to The Trammps at a Ramada Inn in Kearney, Nebraska. If you listened to Doc Watson and Hazel Dickens during a mining strike in Kentucky, you heard something very different than what I heard listening to them at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The songs from that little Braun radio, combined with my sunburned neck, my morning drive, my aching muscles, and the voices of men of few words yapping out orders in clipped, nearly incomprehensible, syllables, were beginning to feel lived-in, not simply recognized.
As years of befuddling heartbreak set in after high school, a series of events set off by the death of my father, I turned to Joy Division when obstacles seemed surmountable and to George Jones when they didn't. Of all the country singers who'd shared my days on the farm, his voice seemed the strangest, the most unique. Though he sounded like any number of his idols early on, by the late-60s his voice was a jazz instrument, a completely unique set of nasal groans, deep dark baritone hollows, and gothically sad phrases tortured across registers like infidels on the rack. I'd put it up against Albert Ayler's saxophone any day for sheer invention. Like Coltrane making art from the treacle of "My Favorite Things", Jones' nearly infinite control of his instrument, combined with the silky, and sometimes bone-chilling, catharses of Billy Sherrill's arrangements, made shiver-inducing transport out of standard-issue country pathos. And when the lyrics poetically sketched out a kind of tract-house Gotterdammerung, as on Jones' version of Jerry Chesnut's "A Good Year For the Roses" or "The Grand Tour", he could be an all-consuming blue flame, sucking all the pretend-happiness from a tavern and replacing it with the richer textures of shared experience and memory. My sister could never understand my fever for country music, asking me why I wanted to be sad all the time, and I found it difficult to explain that lovely blue zone between sadness and contentment, the place where experience and memory are at peace. You don't have to exaggerate the good times or make light of the bad times to show your face. The operative color may be blue, but it's a pulsing, vibrant blue, a community of blue, and there, George Jones will always be king.