Country.

Ha.

Ugh.

Anyway.

Some friends and I had were gonna do a group blog about country music but it didn’t really gel. I’m pasting in the two posts I did for it, below. I thought of these today because I got a stack of pop country CDs out of the library. My wife very kindly didn’t roll her eyes at me when I said so, and listened while I tried to explain. Music has always been really important to me. I don’t connect in quite the same way with the music I was fired up about in my teens and twenties – music about falling in love, about short term fury, or about feeling adrift. I had my twentysomething experiences, in leftist and other demographically specific variations, and I had loads of music that conveyed those experiences to me in artistic form. I’m in my mid-30s now and I don’t have near as much that conveys those mid-30s experiences musically to me. There’s a lot of music I’ve loved for a long time and with a lot of it I’ve found more to it than I understood at first, but still, I have experiences now that I want music for. Aging. Parenting. Being married for a long time. Wishing I had the time and the money to get drunk just a little more often than I do (which is almost never at this point). Stuff like that. I’m sure there’s a lot out there that I don’t know about, not least because of punk – punk did a lot of good for me but it (or rather, I, when punk) narrowed my horizons in some important ways – but the main music I’ve heard that resonates with a lot of where I’m at in my life is country music. I think some of it’s pretty reactionary at the same time. I want to hear more country music because I like it, and I want to write more about it because I want to dig in to this tension between how I connect with the music and lyrics and what I see as really unfortunate content a lot of the time. So I’ma try and write more on this occasionally. I may also post some older posts I wrote about music on another aborted blog.

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I’ve got a few posts I’m thinking of doing about songs about work (edit: I’ve since done some more, here), and at least one more about Kenny Chesney, so this is as good a start as any.

Kenny Chesney, “Shift Work.”

I like this tune. I like his voice, the music’s pretty and catchy, that works for me, the lyrics are clever enough.

I’m going to talk about both the song and the video. I like that it starts with head shots of people saying when they work. Clearly not something they enjoy. I like the thing about vacations too, because I sure as hell could use a vacation and what with the damn winter and all I love the thought of a vacation somewhere with palm trees and warm. I’m gonna come back to the vacation stuff. Also about the video, I’m not proud to say this and am uncomfortable saying this, but because we’re all friends here and just to up front and honest, it’s enjoyable seeing pretty women and all that in the video. It’s typical TV stuff of course, using women’s bodies for commercial purposes and of course they’re standard model types in looks. The nicest thing to say about this I think is that it’s unfortunate for the song and it doesn’t really do any story work for the song/the video – those women’s role is like the muscle car’s, to be ogled at. They’re not really characters, they’re not really meant to be at work and so on there – even less so than the eyecatching tropical scenery, which is actually part of the story. What’s a lot better in the video are the images of what seem to be real people at their jobs, making small cameo roles, basically giving reactions shots. What’s work like? It sucks. Duh. And some of these people have clearly worked a long time at jobs that suck. I like how the song incorporates them into the chorus, mouthing the words and all. The video switches with the song, to the tropical setting, and this gets at the vacation fantasy of the song, which I’m going to get back to.

On the vacation stuff, I’m into it. i’d love to take a trip down to a place like that – pretty water and palm trees and sun and boats and all, for sure, somebody pay for me and my family to take a vacation wherever that stuff was filmed, okay? Again, I’m gonna come back to this. I want to get into the lyrics and all.

Shift work, hard work, tired body… I like all that. Work is hot and tiring and loud. Yep. When I first heard that I was like “I’ve worked jobs like that, I can relate” but I was also like “this is only some people’s work experiences, I don’t really like that aspect of it” but then the second verse is about working retail, some of the physical and the emotional part, and it’s a woman as well. With the same experience – working a shift, and it sucks. And I like the play on words – big old pile of shift work. Work is shit.

Try this as an experiment, next time you’re at work think “I could be on vacation somewhere, relaxing some place beautiful with a drink,” and see how it makes you feel for the rest of your shift. The switch back and forth in the song – the stuff about going somewhere tropical then back to the chorus at work – and the switching back and forth in the video from the tropical images to the people on their jobs – the vacation fantasy makes that big old pile of shift work look bigger and worse.

All of that said, there’s some problems here. For one, the vacation spot is also a “round the clock place” where people work 7 to 3, 3 to 11, 11 to 7. But they’re invisible in the song and in the video they appear briefly it at all and enjoying their work. Happily serving the tourist. Of course, acting happy helps you get bigger tips, because that’s part of what people pay for, the experience and the interaction, so them looking happy is them working, and part of their work is covering up the fact that they’re working.

Also, the guy in the song says he “made a break with the money I saved,” after he worked shift work for ten years. Maybe this is just about having a really good vacation after ten years. That’s cool. Or maybe it’s about moving somewhere, where it’s almost like a permanent vacation. (I should point out, the vacation isn’t a full escape, he “I drank my money away”, money’s still there and he’s still somewhat conscious of it. If it’s a permanent vacation fantasy, that fantasy’s got two problematic aspects. One, what makes the escape possible is partly high enough wages to save enough to go away. The characters in the first and second verse probly earn different wages, so some people will have more difficulties making that escape. Two, the escape relies on the difference in buying power between countries. It’s a first world fantasy of going somewhere else in the world where your money goes further and you can afford things the locals can’t.

If it’s not a permanent escape fantasy and just a fantasy about a good vacation, that’s less of a problem but the same dynamics are there. I still want one of you to buy me a trip, though, and I still really like this tune. I have to I get up at 7 for never-ending shift (I work piece work, which is another sort of big old pile…) so I’m gonna stop here, gonna make a break and have a beer by my kitchen sink.

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Josh Thompson, “Way Out Here”

I don’t listen to country music all that often, and especially not pop country. You see, my wife agrees with Hank III that pop country really sucks, so I mostly listen to it when I have a few minutes driving somewhere by myself. The first time I heard Josh Thompson’s “Way Out Here” it sounded to me like one to turn up loud. Of course, for the past twenty years or so that’s pretty much what I’ve always said about any song I like. If it’s worth listening to, it’s worth listening to loud. (WHAT? SPEAK UP!) I also knew right away that this was a song I wanted to write about.

I’ll start with the music. In the intro I like the steel guitar of course. I like the electric guitar ringing sustained chords, turned low in the mix. I like the lead as well. It’s simple and melodic, and the rest of the instruments play around it well. The intro is quiet but there’s a fair bit going on, then everything drops out for the verse. The main vocals on the verse sound like they’re sung relatively low in Thompson’s range and are kind of talky. With the beginning of the chorus the steel guitar comes back in. I really like the break that kicks off the anthemic part of the first chorus. I can’t think of any examples but I know I’ve heard this kind of thing in several other songs and I always really like it. The drums bang in, especially the stomping bass drum, with the electric guitar percussively playing along then everything drops out for a second except for a high-pitched tone. I thought at first it was a harmonic on the guitar, which is a common thing in some rock and punk but here it’s played on the steel guitar. The heart of the chorus has a faster beat than the verse, a lot more bass drum, more electric guitar, and is generally louder. The vocals are sung louder and shouter, with a more audible back up vocal. It’s anthemic. For whatever it’s worth, I like all the music, it sounds good and it’s dynamic.

Then there’s the content. In a way I relate to it, but I think that’s sort of a trick of memory. I spent a lot of my childhood out in the country, in an area that was in the process of transitioning from rural farm town to an exurb commuter town. I relate to the stuff about our dogs running loose and eating fried food and smoking and working outside and trucks (working trucks that ain’t clean, which by the way is very much about masculinity. “Oh you work inside and drive a fancy car? I work outdoors in the sun and my truck’s dirty because of how I work and play. I’m hard, you’re soft.”) There was definitely a strong sense that a lot of people were “about John Wayne, Johnny Cash, and John Deere.”

Now that I’m older I look back on that fondly for a variety of reasons, but at least when it comes to thinking about (or feeling about) my past in the ways that country music tends to provoke for me, I think I look back through rose-colored glasses. I liked John Wayne but wasn’t into farming or country music as a kid and a teen. I wanted out of that hick area and into a big city where there was culture and diversity and anonymity or at least the opportunity to reinvent myself. Of course those things do exist in small towns and rural areas to some extent, and in ways I didn’t always realize (and when I did realize it, like when I got into punk, I wasn’t always conscious that this was what was going on; I was a pretty self-conscious but not a very self-aware kid). My point with this is that this song speaks to me and where I’m from but it wouldn’t have if I had heard it back when I actually lived in a place like the song was about – I was all “fuck this place and these fucking people” at the time. So the song speaks to me now and how I now orient toward where and how I grew up, now that I don’t live “way out [t]here.” Given that I heard this song on the radio in the urban area where I live I would bet that I’m not the only one who relates to this song this way. It seems to me that “we’re about John Wayne, Johnny Cash, and John Deere”, as well as other aspects of the song, makes it really clear this song is saying among other things “we’re white.” I wonder if there’s a way that rural white people, and particularly rural white men, are a sort of moral center of gravity or like a character that represents a certain moral perspective and a certain way of life that some people are nostalgic for. I think that that is part of what this song (and similar songs) are about. At least, that’s what they’re about for people who don’t live “way out [t]here.”

And the qualities of those people way out there, supposedly? They fry and smoke and work hard and play hard, with their dirty trucks and their dogs. They’ll fight individually and they serve in large proportions in the military. They’re individualistic in the sense that they pull their own weight and don’t take anything they haven’t earned through hard work. They’re rural and agricultural (John Deere); they’re patriotic (John Wayne and their military service, and the video opening with a tattered flag and that Roosevelt quote about Americanism); they respect and share cultural traditions with regard to country music (Johnny Cash) and religion (“Our houses are protected by the good Lord”).

And they want people like you, those of you who aren’t from around here, to leave them alone if you don’t like how they live. And if you come at the wrong time and you’re not from around there, they may kill you. “Our houses are protected by the good Lord and a gun, and you might meet ‘em both if you show up here not welcome son.”

It may be clear by now that while I like the music, like I said, I don’t particularly like the lyrical content. They speak to me in ways that I’m uncomfortable with and they express sentiments that I think are a problem in two ways. For one, I think the song says “we” in a flattening way. All of us are about these things. If you’re not about those things, you’re really one of us, even if you happen to live out here. (And people out here who aren’t welcome, some of them may get shot.) I think that sort of sensibility is part of why some people in rural areas can’t wait to get the hell out. For another thing, who is not from “way out here”? As in, what are the qualities of people who aren’t from way out here? They don’t serve in the military as much, perhaps because they’re not as patriotic. Their necks aren’t burnt and they don’t have dirty trucks – their men are less manly (and it seems to me that the ‘we’ in the song is one that is mostly about or has an agenda mostly set by men). What’s more, they don’t pull their weight and will take unearned money. We, way out here, we won’t take an unearned dime.

It seems to me that the song is partly about, that the collective character described in the song is insecure. Leading with the idea of protection means there’s a need for protection. And the fact that an intruder will be killed, not just stopped, but killed, seems to me an insecure thing. “Don’t mess with me” is one thing. “Don’t mess with or I will kill you” is a different and more intense thing. I think the “we won’t take a dime” part could mean a kind of insecurity as well. I can relate to this idea… I’m attached to the idea that I have earned the meager income I have. I *have* worked hard for it, but “earning” and “working hard” are not the same thing. And for me, part of why I’ve been uncomfortable with getting unearned income is that I need the money and whoever provides income has power over me. The claim to having *earned* my income makes me feel like I have a stronger claim to it. That doesn’t reduce the power of the people who provide my income, but it makes me feel more legitimate in getting that income and expecting it. And, for people who believe that a capitalist society basically works, if you’ve earned your income by hard work then you can expect that your income will keep coming in. There’s also an insecurity here in this song that someone else or some other people are getting their money without earning it. There are such people in our society (employers!) but the song isn’t clear about who is and who isn’t getting unearned income. It’s a common, wrong, ugly idea that poor people and people of color get unearned income via welfare, for instance, and I can imagine a fair amount of people “way out here” believing that. They certainly did where I grew up.

Two last thoughts. A friend of mine made a point once really clearly that captures a lot of things in our society, I think. There’s the hand your dealt and there’s how you play it. There are real limits in how well you can play a bad hand, and there are really serious problems in our society in that some people are consistently dealt really bad hands and others are dealt much better ones. The game is rigged, so to speak. A lot of this song seems to me to be about how to play the game – play it honestly, don’t take unearned money, work hard, worship and be patriotic – and there’s little here about the game and how hands are doled out. Setting aside the metaphor, this is a song about how some people experience themselves, and there’s very little here about power and social structure and unequal starting points in society. It’s a very individualistic perspective, in a bad way I think. Like Kenny Chesney’s “Shift Work,” another song I like very much but the content of which I’m uncomfortable with (though not as much with this song), this is a song about individual behavior in the face of collective circumstances (even though the individual here is one who conforms to the standards and fits in easily to the community way out there).

I said earlier that the song is anthemic in spots and I’ve talked about who the we is in the song. I’m not sure about this but I have a hunch that part of the feeling of “this is anthemic” is a feeling or expression of a we. That is, I think part of what makes something an anthem is that it gives a sense of a group speaking about itself or some individual speaking for a group in a way that feels like it accurately represents the group, at least to some extent.

Finally, there’s the line about how the country should be run like it used to be, like it ought to be, like it is out here. The more charitable way to interpret that is that it’s a kind of rose-colored nostalgia like I mentioned I think I sometimes feel in relation to country music. Because the country has never before been run in some really good way that we should return to. Like I said, that’s the most charitable interpretation, one that means the song is papering over past injustices. The only other interpretation is that the song actually approves of them.