Wandering Ear - Country Music

This week, the Wandering Ear that is Nate McKenzie dons his plaid shirt and cowboy boots [and hopefully something in between - Ed] and dives into the world of country music...

As with the rest of my life, I have no idea where this is going...

If you listen to the old heads, the guys hunched over the bar drowning demons that followed them home after battling Charlie in the bush, if you trust what these very sane men believe, all the great music is in the past. The Music Gods have abandoned us! they mutter around the spout of a flask. They lament the death of “good” music and complain about the birth of the digital jukebox craze for killing the once booming jukebox industry. How they used to be American hand-crafted, sturdy enough that two prayed-up strangers can lean against it and grind their stonewashed crotches on a Saturday night. Back home, one of my old dives recently upgraded to a digital jukebox. Before that, the bartenders played music off of a computer using an aux cord that ran to the two speakers in far corners of the bar. This seemed like a huge upgrade, until the owner, J (short for John or more likely Jabba) changed the settings on the device blocking the ability to play Rap or R&B music. It was like Bob’s Country Bunker in The Blues Brothers. “We got both kinds of music - Country and Western!” This happened in the year 2022. In America.

Is that what they mean by “NO MORE BULLSHIT!”?

Speaking of American Patriots, Country Concert is happening this weekend. Every summer, the spit and chaw parade descends upon Hickory Hills Lake in Fort Loramie, Ohio and celebrates hayseed heritage with a weekend of live country music from today, tomorrow and from back in your pappy's yesteryear. It’s easy to make fun of country music fans with their iced-out belt buckles and Morgan Wallen lyrics inked over their heart, under the tattoo of a faded Old Glory and if you're expecting a "but" it ain’t coming. I've been to country concert. It's a damn good time. I've been to hippie festivals, Warped Tour, Rock on the Range, Governor's Ball, enjoyed myself at every one. Felt the different vibe at each one. Country Concert has a flow all its own but like Sunday morning service, everyone is welcome. Country music fans are easy to joke about and joke with. Most of the music they listen to is pretty terrible and they know it, they just don’t care! It’s beer o’clock! Time to relax with Big & Rich and Cowboy Troy or whatever is the current equivalent to that hack-show (I don’t hate myself enough to research). Make all the jokes you want, I certainly will, but it’s hard not to enjoy yourself around a bunch of folks just trying to live, laugh, love themselves some ol' fashioned sounds from cowboy balladeers such as Nas X while sunbeams bathe them in that redneck glow. On one hot Saturday night, July 2021, I stood watching the crowd at Country Concert, from the top of the hill that slopes down to the main stage, a sea of farmer tans in front of me waving back and forth like a wheat field just before harvest. Justin Moore on stage, finishes his set and drops to his knees, white Stetson held over his heart, head bowed while the fans roar, all of their hearts beating together with the joy of finally, FINALLY tasting the sweetness of freedom after years of oppression which they suffered at the hands of those evil doctors trying to prevent a plague.

Standing there, feeling alone in that moment amidst thousands, I thought to myself - I could be their king! It wouldn’t take much; a fake southern accent, a pick-up truck full of Bud Light, and a few words about how our country is being destroyed by them gawdam liberals. Oh how easy and wonderful it would be. It dawned on me, though, that is the same thought that led to that gut-churning string of words: President Donald Trump. I am in no way comparing myself. Even with all my flaws, I am still a much, much better human being than that guy. The thing is - I don’t think anyone should be voting for me to be the leader of the free world. But they would. I would absolutely get votes if I sang about how I love America and put on a good show, because that’s what it’s all about, right - being entertained?

I wonder, in other countries, if there is an entire section of the music charts dominated by what amounts to tobacco-pop national pride anthems? American Country music celebrates, above all, the sheer dumb fortune of having been born on this particular patch of dirt instead of some other patch of dirt. That is pride unearned. So why do I envy them, to an extent? Once upon a time I felt that passion. I was a Lee Greenwood wet dream on the morning of September 11th, 2001 and I don’t regret one ounce of what I felt that day. I don’t regret trying to sign up for the military to defend mah country! But times change, feelings change. People change and so too does their country. That country, that America has changed in countless ways since then. Neither for the better. This strong, smiling community of music fans are so proud to be red-blooded Americans that they vote against their own best interests and ignore the guidance of medical professionals. These are good people, with generous souls, who have been manipulated by the invisible hand of a system that has one thousand hands in everything. These are folks with strong backs, hands that can twist a greasy lug nut. These are the people that keep some of the most unlovable parts of this country humming. The type of people we would need if we were to actually take back the States from the establishment and build the magical land of Oz we were told this was place was going to be. Instead, we get Hardy:

America isn’t perfect and country music isn’t all garbage. I have no more patience for people who dismiss an entire genre’s catalog than I do for racist bar owners that censor rap and R&B music because, “We don’t want it to get too… dark in here.” You already know who he is voting for in 2024.

The genre of country music as a whole itself is in flux, still trying to discover an identity for the new Millennium, but the best artists that orbit country music aren’t found on the main stage at Country Concert.

For every Hardy that comes out of Nashville, there’s an angel that wanders out of the mountains of West Virginia to hashtag bless us. Folk/Country singer Sierra Ferrell, with face tattoos and flower dress, looks like she’d be as comfortable on a skateboard in downtown Portland as she would be on stage at Country Concert. A daughter of West Virginia, Sierra grew up on a healthy dose of 90’s grunge and punk, the aesthetic of those genres bleeding into her own. Not only are the boundaries between musical worlds blurry but the old sounds are being replicated by today’s artists and blended by digital whisks which add a clarity that previous technology could never. With the entire history of music at their fingertips, many musicians today have a wide range of tastes which makes for more nuanced, complex art. Take five minutes and listen to Bells of Every Chapel by Sierra Ferrell and Billy Strings and tell me, without looking up the answer, what year the song was released. 2022? 1967? 2003? 1985?

The answer: Hell if I know, I never looked it up*. It doesn’t matter. Great music is timeless.

* [I did, it was written last year, 2021 - Ed]

NEXT TIME on The Wandering Ear...

As I hear it, rock and roll is dead. As I see it, rock and roll has always been about one thing: individuality.

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