Unable to get my usual stations on a recent drive I listened to Darius Rucker’s country CD and a country station. Modern country music continues to have a deep separation from the older style. Even “classic” country music is pretty recent these days. More Leonard Skynard than George Jones. The modern examples are mere recitations of Southern icons. Sweet tea! Sunsets! Live Oaks! Daddies! Bars and Saturday nights! And boots, boots, boots everywhere. Ain’t we southern? Let’s work “Carolina” into as many songs as possible. Just make sure you’ve got that pickin’ style, bent notes, and the accent in there. There’s not much content, just a checkbox listing of Southern items.
I wonder what the equivalent would be for New England? Many decades ago New England, especially Maine, also had country music, before Roy Acuff decided that Nashville was going to become not just a center but the center. Had all that played out differently, what would be New England icons songwriters would put in to show that they were real New England? To even make the list is to sound silly, because maple syrup, beans, or lobster don’t naturally lend themselves to any verse but comic. Cape Cod and Boston, maybe, but not much else conjures the way a hundred place-names in the south do. Part of that may just be volume. People from Vermont are gratified when entertainers mention them, but they applaud a bit and nod approvingly rather than whoop and holler. (Okay, some of the boys did whistle loudly and cheer but we pretended not to notice.) People drink in New England, and drink hard, but they don’t seem to write songs about it. Check that. Sometimes the Irish do, but we associate that with Irishness, not New England.
I’m not sure how you’d even write the song about how thoroughly New England your girl is, and every guy in the bar knows it. Bean boots? Tough to dance in, but maybe if she’s just standing in line. Ski boots, even worse, but skis might a marker. My gal and her Rossignols. Mother walks into the diner and orders fish chowder. Walkin’ through the Berkshires, my Daddy told me… Hey, now, James Taylor did get “the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston” in there. That’s a start. We have trains and people even ride them, but there aren’t any songs about “Waiting on the Old Acela Line,” nor does anyone think you are authentic just because you said “Acela.” Offer some guesses as to what this contrast means.
Country music used to be about stories, “three chords and the truth.” It was a first cousin to western music, and second cousin to folk music. It was an art of those writers and performers to get you to care, and deeply, before the first verse was over. Its vanishing may be one more signal that the underlying Southern country culture is disappearing, leaving only a few decorative items behind. Many ethnic groups had celebrations when I was younger, but they eventually became hollow, dragging a few kids out and stuffing them in costumes and making them do a dance or two. A few foods kept alive. Pierogies. Baklava. Corned Beef.
I wouldn’t think those country music images are going anywhere soon, and the underlying culture – whatever that actually is - will persist a while. It’s a big area, with a lot of people in it, and there’s a pile of money to be made still. Yet it will be increasingly Disneyfied, celebrated in circular fashion for being itself.