It doesn’t come from Nashville, at least ostensibly. Nashville’s the Big City and just about everywhere else constitutes the backwater. Hard country comes from Bakersfield, from Austin, from anywhere else. Because it opposes itself to Nashville, it could be argued that hard country is less commercial, but for now, at least, I want to leave that distinction alone. Signing a record contract or getting on the road again is going commercial; some artists just go farther down that road than others. Still, hard country is all about drawing and crossing lines especially when it comes to the lines around what makes something and someone country.
Some people live in the country, but globally speaking, most don’t. Historically speaking, many of us once did–hence the emotional charge of the rural diaspora. Hard country has a lot to say about what that means, and it’s on this topic that you can hear a very clear distinction between what’s hard and what’s easy, what’s in the backwaters and what’s in the mainstream.
Hard country underscores how hard it is to “be” country—whether it’s singing about struggling musicians or those who lack the social or cultural capital to be urbane. With its untrained vocals, steel guitars, fiddles, and cleverly abrasive lyrics, hard country is often hard to listen to–especially if you don’t consider yourself country. When it makes you cringe, it just may be trying to get your attention. “You don’t know me but you don’t like me,” charge Dwight and Buck. “You never even called me by my name,” complains David Allen Coe.
Hard country, like mainstream country music, also makes lots of meaning out of the overlap and ambiguity of the geo-political word “country” and the “country” as the opposite of the city. The United States is a country and the sticks are the country. Because of the complexity inherent in the word “country,” lots of lines can be drawn and crossed when it comes to defining “our” country, “my” country, “your” country.
To start, let’s take the 4th of July. In Boston Harbor, where I happened to be, you could hear mainstream country whether you wanted to or not. With friends, we bought tickets for a boat ride to better see the morning’s ceremonial turn of the USS Constitution and, in commemoration of the war of 1812’s bicentennial, a fly-over from the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels. A local country music station, 102.5, played on the boat, and at short intervals, they played Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” to punctuate the proceedings. Written in response to the September 2001 attacks, the song reached the top of the bestseller charts. It generated controversy as well, and repeated exposure to the chorus this 4th of July began to upset me for some of those same reasons. (Wikipedia gives as good an account of the conflicts as any: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Courtesy_of_the_Red,Whiteand_Blue_(The_Angry_American). Controversy or no, the statistics about the song’s popularity speak loudest to me). “You”, in this song, seems to cover anyone living in a country that’s perceived to be our enemy, including the one we were told had stocked weapons of mass destruction against us: “You’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A. / ‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.”
As much as the Blue Angels amazed me, as warming as this particular summer’s day felt, as intriguing as it was to be floating over the site of the very first “tea party,” as much, in short, as I love my country, I just can’t accept Keith’s definition of “the American way.” But I didn’t want to spoil everyone else’s day by asking the pilot to switch stations or to let us cruise in silence. I started to feel like the enemy. You don’t know me, but you don’t like me, indeed.
Hard country artists are braver than me. They don’t reject patriotism but they sometimes poop on the party. Think Dixie Chicks, who learned the hard way after tangling with George W and Toby Keith over the Iraq War. Think Merle Haggard, who had big hit with bellicose songs like “The Fighting Side of Me” in the late 60s and early 70s but also admits to uncertainty about the American way as Toby Keith might define it. “Let’s get out of Iraq an’ get back on the track, And let’s rebuild America first,” he sang in his 2005 “The American Way.”
The upcoming election will engage us in all sorts of questions about the country. The patriotic and political stretch of time from July 4th to election day November 6 thus offers an interesting time to revisit hard country classics and to hear new voices.