Wait, don’t laugh.
It was the soundtrack of my childhood until I became a teenager and latched on to the likes of Queen, Zep, U2, The Police. But even then I listened to country music secretly when my friends weren’t around because amongst my peers country music was not socially acceptable.
But I couldn’t help it. It was in my blood. I loved it when Kris Kristofferson sang in his gravelly, sorrowful voice “Loving Her Was Easier” or “Help Me Make It Through the Night”…
Take the ribbon from your hair.
Shake it loose and let it fall.
Layin’ soft against my skin.
Like the shadows on the wall
Or when “outlaw” Waylon Jennings crooned about the hard life of a woman who loved a man in a hillbilly band:
Amanda, light of my life,
They should have made you
A gentleman’s wife.
Surrounded by the massive snow-covered peaks of the Rockies, walking in the spring by the Elk River as it raged toward the U.S. border, carrying with it the whispers and songs from the mining town where I was born, I listened to the songs from Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Loretta Lynne, Waylon Jennings, Ray Charles and Willie. These artists spoke to the experience of growing up in the mountains in a way no rock artist could quite capture.
The deep music, the real country music that emerged from the sons and daughters of sharecroppers and miners, from Acadian fiddlers and steel guitar pickers, was far from sappy. It contained the sorrows of early death, the sharp crack of hearts breaking, the lonely wails of trains running through the mountains, and a sense of hope because, even though life was hard, there was love.
In my hometown, we had one radio station and so I never knew about the great rock revolution rolling over the Western world until I was about eight and we first visited Vancouver with its hippies, Hare Krishnas and psychedelic mini skirts.
Over the years my tastes have broadened to include classical, blues, a wee bit of opera and, yes, rock but I have a special place inside for country music, especially the lyrics of the great Jimmy Webb whose many masterpieces were sung by Glen Campbell.
One of his greatest classics, written in ’69, is about a soldier going into battle and thinking about the woman and city he loves. It’s called “Galveston.”
Galveston, oh Galveston,
I am so afraid of dying
Before I dry the tears she’s crying
Before I watch your sea birds flying in the sun
At Galveston, at Galveston
Webb said he wasn’t thinking about Vietnam when he penned the song. He had imagined it taking place during a battle of the Spanish-American War. Yet like all great songs, it had the ability to transcend time and space. The song could as easily have been written about a soldier in Vietnam. I used to lie on my bed and listen, imaging a soldier standing on the beach with the waves washing over his army-issued boots and seagulls crying on the wind.
Another Webb classic sung by Campbell is “Witchita Lineman,” a song about a guy just doing his job and thinking about his life and the woman he loves.
I am a lineman for the county.
And I drive the main road.
Lookin’ in the sun for another overload.
This song contains four of the greatest lines ever written in a country song:
And I need you more than want you,
and I want you for all time,
and the Witchita lineman,
is still on the line.
Every time I listen to a Johnny Cash song, I hear something new in his lyrics and I remember the sound of the train at night slinking through the mountains like a hard-breathing animal. I hear the train a-comin’, it’s rollin’ round the bend…
This son of a dirt-poor sharecropper, with his mournful eyes and deep, resonant voice, became a voice for the downtrodden, the dispirited, the prisoner, the American Indian. He was the antithesis to the phony but false image of country music as squeaky clean. He famously performed at Folsom Prison and was never a prisoner himself despite singing I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.
One country singer who was the darling of my coal mining family was Loretta Lynn, who grew up in Butcher Holler, near a mining community in Kentucky. Like Johnny Cash, she grew up in poverty but with her rich voice, long dresses and beehive hair, she captured the heart of the Grand Ole Opry.
Yeah I’m proud to be a coal miner’s daughter
I remember well the well where I drew water
Country music blends traditional and popular musical forms found in the Southern U.S. and Canada’s Maritime region. People began calling it country music when the term hillbilly music was deemed an insult. It evolved as people when people from different ethnic groups came together with their instruments to create the music of the people. They brought Scottish and Irish fiddles, German dulcimers, Italian mandolins, Spanish guitars, West African banjoes, Southern guitars, accordions and even washboard, old saws and hair combs.
Some people tell me country music is sappy. Some of it is. But so is some music in other genres. In the rock genre, for instance, how do you compare REO Speedwagon to Led Zeppelin, though they both are often played on the same Oldies stations?
Real country is a poem of survival, an ode to the human spirit and the people who get up no matter how many times they are kicked, to love again no matter how many times their hearts have broken. In the Jimmy Webb classic “Gentle on Mind,” sung by Glenn Campbell, is the story of a hobo, a wanderer, thinking of a woman:
I dip my cup of soup back from the gurglin’
Cracklin’ caldron in some train yard
My beard a roughning coal pile and
A dirty hat pulled low across my face
Through cupped hands ’round a tin can
I pretend I hold you to my breast and find
That you’re waving from the backroads
By the rivers of my mem’ry
Ever smilin’ ever gentle on my mind.
And it’s a funny thing. The older I get the more I think about those old country songs and wonder how much they shaped me. Because the heart of a girl who has lived in the city for many years now — and loves her high heels and bling — is still steeped in the values shaped by country roads, waking up each morning to look at my mountain, and hearing in my mind the soundtrack of a simpler time, before life got so “danged” complicated.
When I hear that sappy old song “Take Me Home Country Roads”, I still see my grandma hanging wash on the line in the mining town where women raced the coal dust to keep their homes clean.
All my memories gathered round her
Miner’s lady, stranger to blue water…
…or my grandfather fishing in the creek for rainbow trout, casting as if to heaven… or my beautiful mom singing Tammy Wynette or Patsy Cline as she drove along the highway in her old blue Maverick.
I hear her voice in the morning hours
she calls me
the radio reminds me of my home
and drivin’ down the road I get a feeling
that I should have been home yesterday
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