Ah, "Hee Haw". (That is an awkward sentence to say out loud.) I remember walking around my Grandma's house in Smoot, Wyoming as a young boy. My Mom and her sisters would congregate in the kitchen by the pear shaped clock and chatter about . . . whatever the hell it was they talked about. I was never that interested in getting the latest scoop on Star Valley gossip. So I would amuse myself by either flipping through the dozens of Reader's Digests my Grandma had stacked around the living room, or take my chances on what was on TV. Without fail, "Hee Haw" would always be on one of the three available channels. Every time. Usually, it was already on, blaring loud enough to be heard in the kitchen.
I'm not sure why, but I hated "Hee Haw". Now, that's nothing to apologize for. It's a terrible show. But there were all sorts of terrible shows that I watched on a regular basis as a seven year old. Hell, I still watch a lot of terrible shows. It wasn't the corny jokes or bad delivery that irritated me. Look at this clip of "Hee Haw" (for as long as you can stand it). Now watch this clip of "You Can't Do That On Television". Both are equally terrible for the same reasons. And yet I remember running home from school to catch YCDTOT (give me a break, I was seven) but I could not tolerate the same level of corn on "Hee Haw".
The reason for this disparity lies in this fact; I hated Country Music growing up. Hated it with all the energy of my being. It felt like phony, hokey, inbred, slack-jawed garbage. Denim shirts and fiberglass hay. Not my bag. It didn't help that in the early 90's (my formative music listening years) "Achey Breaky Heart" was unavoidable. Honestly, what a shit song. I was forced to line dance to that thing at mutual for hell sakes. In 1994 (?) my beloved classic rock station Z93 changed its format to Country and became KBUL 93. Yee Ha! I felt personally attacked. For a few summers I installed phone lines at the University of Utah where I worked with a shaky, burned out hippie named Randy. We would sit in the van for hours listening to Country radio on am radio while I inhaled his second hand smoke. The scary thing about that, was that Garth Brooks and Shania Twain started to grow on me. But not in a good way. The way a fungus grows on you. It's itchy and unnatural but you can't get rid of it. (For the record, I haven't had many fungi growing on me. Just that one scrotum thing back in 02. That's it. I swear.)
I persisted in my resistance. Until one day, I was driving my brother's 1980 VW Jetta home from High School listening to Oldies 94.1. That's where I first heard "Boy Named Sue" by the man, Johnny Cash. That was probably 1995. I was an opinionated 17 year old asshole (believe it or not) that knew what music I loved and knew what music I hated. I loved Rock and Country sucked. It was simple. But then Johnny Cash had to come along and screw it all up.
There was an authenticity to that song that I couldn't deny. It resonated with me. My biggest gripe with Country music has always been that it's contrived. It pretends to be genuine when it couldn't be more phony. And yet Cash's voice and delivery just felt so damn real. I later found out that the lyrics that I found so entertaining and "authentic" were written by children's author Shel Silverstein. I was a black T shirt wearing, Zeppelin rocking, Metallica listening rock snob that got into snotty arguments about why Jimmy Page was a better guitarist than . . .whoever. And yet, I had to acknowledge the fact that I liked a country song written by the "Where the Sidewalk Ends" guy. I didn't know what the hell to believe anymore.
But I couldn't get that song out of my head. In a good way. This, of course, was in the dark days before the interweb. Before you could listen to any given song at any time on a variety of websites. So my only options to hear it again were to stand by the radio, ready to tape it off (which I did for about a week to no avail) or break down and buy a Country CD. Finally, I surrendered. I drove down to Sugarhouse to Blockbuster Music and spent good money on the music I had vocally despised my whole life.
I remember sitting in my parked car for a while, psyching myself up for self betrayal. It felt like I was buying porn. The deviant, weird porn that guys who work at porn shops get creeped out by. I went into the music store with my hat pulled down over my face. I first loitered around the Rock section, scanning the store for anyone that might recognize me. I then quickly moved directly to the "C's" in the Country section, located a Cash Greatest hits careful to not touch any other CD's. I then bootlegged it to the register as quickly as I could. Avoiding eye contact with the clerk, I handed him cash, uninterested in any change. I got my receipt and shoved the CD deep into my coat, to hide my shame from the light of day. I entered the privacy of my car, opened the CD and popped it into my discman balanced on the dash board.
Son of a bitch.
I loved every single song on that CD. "Walk The Line", "Ring of Fire", "Big River", "Folsom Prison Blues", "Sunday Morning, Coming Down". Every song was absolutely amazing. Johnny, you're really messing with my world, here. It was the only CD I listened to for the next few weeks. Secretly, of course. But I could not deny the brilliance of Johnny Cash. I had to deal with the fact that I liked at least one Country music singer. And there may be more. Up was down, black was white. Dogs and cats living together! MASS HYSTERIA! It's hard to recover, when your world view is rocked to its foundation.
Over the last fifteen years or so, I have developed a healthy respect for good, solid country. I'm still picky about it. As a general rule, I still reject most all of what could be called Wal-Mart Country. Which is anything on a top 40 Country station or on CMT. I still despise Billy Ray Cyrus and his ilk (Toby Keith, Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney and the like) for all my above stated reasons. But that doesn't mean there isn't an ocean of powerful, honest music out there worth the time to explore. Most of the good stuff is old. From the 50's, 60's and 70's. I am also a big fan of many of the so-called "Alt County" bands that have come out recently. Now, there is such a huge volume of Country out there, I'm not too ashamed to admit that I am still a novice. There is tons of stuff I don't know. But I do know what I like. So here are five songs that for one reason or another, speak to me.
I'll Fly Away - Gillian Welch and David Rawlings
This song was on "The O Brother, Where Art Thou" Soundtrack. It has a great flatpicking Bluegrass vibe to it. What I love about this song is how happy and bright the guitar work and the vocals are despite lyrics that border on despair. He is a link to them. They are heartbreaking and beautiful. Basically they say "I can't wait to die, because I won't be free of all the pain of life until then." And yet the delivery is carefree and convincing. This song isn't misguided escapism. It's genuinely hopeful.
It's Only Make Believe - Conway Twitty
Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Conway Twitty! On Hee- Haw of all things. I never would have thought that I would love this. Twitty has a nice Elvis crooner thing going. But the best part is how he looks really pissed off. Even when he nervously smiles. Sure he's singing about heart ache and rejection, but he looks like he could punch the camera man at any time. And if he did, his hair would remain perfectly in place. Years ago, I was in Chicago on business and heard a bluesy version of this song in a club sung by a woman. It was amazing. I have no idea who the band was. Probably just the house band. But they did this song justice.
Waiting Around To Die - Townes Van Zandt
This video was made in 1975. It was supposed to focus on Townes himself, but he decided to interview a blacksmith friend of his that was born in 1896. The song starts at about four minutes but it's worth watching the conversation at the beginning. It gives you context for his emotional response during the song. It takes a hell of a song to bring a guy like Uncle Seymour Washington to tears.
Steve McQueen - The Drive By Truckers
This is more Southern Rock than Country. But they're all branches from the same tree. Fair warning; this song is rated R for adult themes. That said, this is a badass song. A celebration of all things American. Is there a cooler American Icon than Steve McQueen? The answer is, no. And I say that, having only seen two of his movies. "The Great Escape" and "Bullet". Lando Calrissian is a close second. (Yes, Gregg. I stole that line from your comment from a few months ago. Suck it.)
Walking After Midnight - Patsy Cline
I've heard this song my entire life. But it is strange to me to see how young Patsy Cline is in this video. I know she died young, so it doesn't make sense for me to picture her being old. But her voice sounds so wise and so weary. It doesn't seem like that sound should come from a 24 year old girl. But it does. She has that "crying while laughing" cracking in her voice, that speaks to the pain of life. Truly beautiful.