I Like Both Kinds of Music: Country and Western
Mackubin T. Owens
November 1, 2004
I am fortunate to have been given the opportunity to review Jim Webb’s magnificent new book, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, for the print version of National Review (forthcoming). It is a wonderful social history of an individualistic, stubborn, rebellious people responsible for creating America’s strongest cultural force.
A particularly powerful component of this culture is country music. Webb calls country music “a uniquely American phenomenon,” a “hypnotic and emotionally powerful musical style” that evolved from its Celtic origins in the mists of Scotland and Ireland.
Country music is at the heart of the Scots-Irish culture… In the hollows through those earlier years the dulcimer found its plaintive notes, the traditionally exquisite violin turned into such a hot fiddle that some warned it came from the devil [think Charlie Daniels: “The Devil came Down to Georgia”], and the banjar, a native African instrument made with a gourd, evolved into the hillbilly banjo.
Indeed, anyone who wants to understand the Scots-Irish in America would do well to begin by listening to this genre.
It is no accident that Webb describes the importance of country music for the Scots-Irish in his chapter entitled “Fight. Sing. Drink. Pray.” Country music is about real life, about “hard living, cheating hearts, and good-looking women.” It’s also about sin and redemption. Country music teaches that actions have consequences, and no one has ever conveyed this reality more clearly than the hard-living, hard-drinking George Jones. The titles of his songs tell it all: “From Hillbilly Heaven to Honky-Tonk Hell,” “Hell Stays Open All Night Long,” “The Man that You Once Knew,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and “I’ve Had Choices.”
I’ve had choices, since the day that I was born.
There were voices, that told me right from wrong.
If I had listened, no I wouldn’t be here today,
Living and dying, with the choices I’ve made.
Country music teaches these lessons in a way that puts to shame most of what passes for poetry these days. Consider what I believe to be the greatest country song of all time: “Amarillo By Morning,” by the incomparable George Strait.
Amarillo by morning, Up from San Antone
Everything that I’ve got, Is just what I’ve got on…
They took my saddle in Houston, Broke my leg in Santa Fe
Lost my wife and a girlfriend, Somewhere along the way…
Amarillo by morning, Up from San Antone
Everything that I’ve got, Is just what I’ve got on
I ain’t got a dime, But what I’ve got is mine
I ain’t rich, But Lord I’m free
Amarillo by morning, Amarillo’s where I’ll be.
Or “Whiskey Lullaby,” by Brad Paisley and Alison Krause:
She put him out like the burnin’ end of a midnight cigarette
She broke his heart, he spent his whole life tryin’ to forget
We watched him drink his pain away a little at a time
But he never could get drunk enough to get her off his mind
Until the night.
He put that bottle to his head and pulled the trigger
And finally drank away her memory
Life is short but this time it was bigger
Than the strength he had to get up off his knees.
Country music can be overtly religious, which, of course, scares the dickens out of secular elites in this country. Consider Jimmy Wayne’s “I Love You This Much”:
He can’t remember the times that he thought
Does my daddy love me?
But that didn’t stop him from wishing that he did
Didn’t keep from wanting or worshipping him
He guesses he saw him about once a year
He could still feel the way he felt
Standing in tears
Stretching his arms out as far as they’d go
Whispering daddy, I want you to know.
I love you this much and I’m waiting on you
To make up your mind, do you love me too?
However long it takes
I’m never giving up
No matter what, I love you this much.
He grew to hate him for what he had done
’Cause what kind of a father, could do that to his son
He said ’damn you daddy’, the day that he died
The man didn’t blink, but the little boy cried.
Half way through the service
While the choir sang a hymn
He looked up above the preacher
And he sat and stared at him
He said “Forgive me father”
When he realized
That he hadn’t been unloved or alone all his life
His arms were stretched out as far as they’d go
Nailed to the cross, for the whole world to know.
But even a man of faith can lose it—at least for a while—if the burden is great enough. The next time you get a chance, listen to Alan Jackson sing “you left my heart as empty as a Monday-morning church” about a man who has just buried his wife.
As Webb observes, when the Scots-Irish aren’t praying, they are often fighting, singing, or sinning in other ways. Despite the admonition of countless fire-and-brimstone preachers from time immemorial, the Scots-Irish have lived the, ahem, secular life to the fullest. As an old Marine, the drinkin’-and-fightin’ strain of country music has always appealed to me (not that I have ever engaged in such rowdy behavior, of course). To my way of thinking, there’s nothing like the in-your-face music of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., Aaron Tippin, and Toby Keith.
And we shouldn’t forget the rowdy girls. I love the ladies—Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, June Carter Cash, Reba, Faith Hill, and the rest—but I have always had a soft spot for the wild ones: Tanya Tucker and my latest favorite, Gretchen Wilson, the redneck woman who’s here for the party.
I may not be a ten but the boys say I clean up good
And if I gave ’em half a chance for some rowdy romance you know they would.
The Scots-Irish have a 2000-year-old military tradition, so it’s not surprising that country music is also overtly patriotic. Who can forget Alan Jackson’s 9/11 musical memorial, “Where Were You?” or Toby Keith’s moderate response to the terrorists, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” (“we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way”)?
Country music looks to tradition for continuity. There’s nothing like a “ghost of Hank Williams” song. So Alan Jackson sings about “Midnight in Montgomery”:
Midnight in Montgomery, silver eagle, lonely road
I was on my way to Mobile for a big New Years Eve show
I stopped for just a minute to see a friend outside of town
Put my collar up, found his name, and felt the wind die down
Then a drunk man in a cowboy hat took me by surprise
Wearing shiny boots, a Nudi suit and haunting haunted eyes.
He said, “Friend it’s good to see you, it’s nice to know you care”
Then the wind picked up and he was gone
Was he ever really there?
’Cause it’s midnight in Montgomery
Just hear that whippoorwill
See the stars light up the purple sky
Feel that lonesome chill
When the wind it’s right, you’ll hear his songs
Smell whiskey in the air
Midnight in Montgomery
He’s always singing there.
Of course, the elites in this nation hate country music just as they hate what Webb describes as the Scots-Irish culture. So after the elections, novelist Jane Smiley wrote in Slate that
Well, to Ms. Smiley and her fellow “elites,” from us country-music fans: As Aaron Tippin sings in a different context, “Jane—kiss this!”
There are lots of reasons for Americans to love country music. I love it for all the regular reasons but also because it has provided me with a personal anthem. In the immortal words of Sawyer Brown, “some girls don’t like boys like me, ah, but some girls do.” Laura, are you reading this?
Mackubin Thomas Owens is an associate dean of academics and professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.