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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

My Guilty Pleasure

My friends have much better taste in music than I.  My students have better taste.  My daughters have better taste.  All of them are eclectic, knowledgable, and enthusiatic. They play me songs, "Listen to this, isn't it great?" I feign enjoyment even though what I'm hearing - while definitely music - hardly makes exclamation marks start visibly from my head in delight and wonderment.  Frequently, it seems to me, they are thrilled by singers whose voices are either raspy or harsh.  I'm going to admit right now, I have never cared for either Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan.
The fact that I have a tin ear, or, if not tin, some other metallic substance - aluminum, perhaps, or bauxite - was brought home to me by the NPR show, "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross. Gross, who is a veritable encyclopedia of music, with such broad-ranging tastes she even enjoys Country Western, singled out Roger Miller's "King of the Road" as an example of a lousy song.  I love that song!  Who wouldn't?  The jaunty hobo singing about, "Old stogies I have found, short but not too big around."  The way Miller scrapes the bottom of his vocal chords, croaking the word ain't in "ain't got no cigarettes."  The choirs in heaven sing such melodies.
Briefly, in my defense, I will explain why I love country music, and not just any country music - the very worst kind of country music - corny, hillbilly, and faux-sincere.
As a writer and a humorist, I delight in the wordplay of many country songs.  Usually, this is a very obvious feature, not at all subtle and forms the hook of many a hillbilly toe-tapper.  But that's what I love about it.  Take the Toby Keith song that tells us, "You don't love the ones you can live with, it's the ones you can't live without."  What a lovely chiasmus!  Or the tasty litotes in "I ain't never had too much fun."  Lots of puns of course: Trick Pony's song seems to open, "Poor me!  Poor me!" but then it's "Pour me another shot of whiskey!"
All of this is delivered with a tongue-in-cheek quality I also find irresistable.  In a lot of country music, there's an unspoken message: I know you think I'm an ignorant redneck, and if that's what you want, that's what I'll give you.  How else can you interpret Hank Williams' immortal line from "Hey, Good Lookin'" "I got a hotrod Ford and a two-dollar bill, and I know a spot right over the hill.  There's soda pop, and the dancing is free, so if you want to have fun, come along with me."
Last, and most important, I really find the lyrics reassuring.  In my own writing I avoid "message" like eczema, but I love hearing it in drive time. Country music tells us that true love can last forever, as in George Jones' classic, "He Stopped Loving Her Today."  It admits that couples are unfaithful, but when they are, there are painful consequences as in Jim Reeves' "Put Your Sweet Lips a Little Closer to the Phone." Spirituality is a positive force in peoples' lives; if you can get to the end of Randy Travis' "Three Wooden Crosses" without sniffling - corny as it is - you have no soul. Criminality is punished - the wonderful Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, "Ain't No Good Chain Gang" - and hard work is honorable, as in Alabama's "High Cotton."  Neighborliness is an expected virtue, as in "Louisianna Saturday Night."
So there you have it.  Why I like country.  Go back and listen to "King of the Road," Terry.

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