Tokenism: The Lonesome Cowboy
or the rest of 2005, Stylus will be presenting a series of two to three essays each month in the Pop Playground section centered around an idea or theme related to music. These questions will be open-ended, allowing each writer to make of the subject what they will and to explore it more fully than they might do in a normal review or feature. This month: Tokenism.
When the Country Music Awards hit New York City a few weeks ago, there were volumes of press coverage—hushed tones, clutched pearls—wondering how the NYC would take to the CMAs. The whole tri-state area is pretty famously untwangy; there are low-wattage stations down the Jersey Shore and in Westchester County and Long Island, but up here by the city, nothing. There was one, flipped over and reformatted almost a decade ago. Once upon a time, a beleaguered NBC radio affiliate, its old standards records growing mold and starting to reek, changed over to adult contemporary. In 1988, some crazy business transaction or another caused two local stations to switch frequencies and call-signs. That station was now WYNY and it played country music to, according to unofficial estimates, pretty much no one. They tried to rebrand as horrible shit-house, but were eventually sold and dispersed to the winds to again play country music to whoever it is around here that listens to it.
So how did New York feel about every country superstar in existence—some of the biggest pop stars in the land, if record sales and concert attendance are any indication—gracing its fair streets? Naturally, the city shrugged. By all accounts, most walked down the streets unmolested, as garden-variety tourists. Now bear in mind we're talking about not only critically-lauded cult favorites like Alison Krauss, but enormous megaliths like Trisha Yearwood and Keith Urban, the latter of whom is so famous that he gets to date Nicole Kidman. The Country Music Association was doing everything in its power to ingratiate itself to one of the toughest cultural markets to break into, and New York couldn't give a fuck. It isn't cool, it isn't sexy, in that gritty, slim-lined, anti-establishment, and simultaneously ennui-heavy and bracingly loud manner that cosmo New York tends to prefer. The very eye of New York's culture storm, the stuff of which the place's mythology has been made over the years, runs from Whitman and Fitzgerald and the Bird, to the Beatniks, Warhol and the Velvets, Stonewall and disco and Studio 54, punk and CB's, Ms. Harry and Mr. Byrne, Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy, on up to the Strokes and Williamsburg (wow, what a letdown). In other words, a lot of what's become generally known as “the counterculture,” through much of this century and at least until maybe 10 years ago, got its start in New York, and that's our 'round-here birthright.
That is, above the Mason-Dixon. The old, well-respected outlaw Wild West counterculture lives on in some form or another in country music. If the jazz cats begat the Velvets, then it could similarly be said that the cowboys begat the good ol' boys, those rugged individualists, all calloused hands and hearts on sleeves, fighting the good fight for God and country. (Or something like that, right?) If you replace the super-patriotism with an equal amount of anti-traditional rhetoric, the dirty denim with tattered denim, and the Stetson with an artfully-tousled 'do, you've got a mirror-image. Yes, this is all mythology and, consciously or not, imagery, but we all know how powerful that can be when it congeals into tradition. So while they're so similar fundamentally, those specifics are all but polar opposites, never to be reconciled. That might hold some water, and it might be total crap, but I can't think of any other reason why I can find a point of interest in just about any musical form that crosses my path except country, to the point where, as a semi-pro connoisseur and aficionado, I feel obligated to keep just one country album hanging around, lonely and under-heard.
Let me make a few things clear here. Johnny Cash, in my mind, is punk, not country. I have Kris Kristofferson's lovely first album, but since Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the guy holds a special place in my heart. Movie kicks some ass, people. And anyway that album's more folk than country. Or at least that's what I tell myself. The central figures of country mythology—your Merles, your Willies (no snickering!), your Dollies and Lorettas and so on—are fascinating characters with the sort of life stories that the New York crowd mentioned above would mostly kill for, and each of them and more have written some beautiful, timeless music whose beauty and timelessness I fully acknowledge while realizing that there's something I just don't get. Lastly, I know for a fact it isn't a geographical thing; I've piled through music from places in this world I'll never visit, but appreciated it all the same. Of course, I can hear it all on WFMU.
So why Gram Parson's Grievous Angel?
Well, for reasons I can't remember, I started scrounging through my music and realized that I had no country. I scrounged through it again, to see if I was egregiously missing an at-hand experience of some other traditional form that I really felt like I must know of. Couldn't find any. So I start sniffing around and the only country anyone I know knows is Johnny Cash and some Willie Nelson greatest hits album, I had to dig around, pile through lengthy biographies, even lengthier hagiographies, and fawning Yankee reviews that smacked of some kind of noblesse oblige that I most certainly was not engaging in, thank you. Eventually I settled on, no kidding, Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose. This was right around its release, and it had Jack White all over it. Jack White I knew, so I had an easy entry point. Fantastic. And it's definitely got a rootsy vibe, and a few White-style shred attacks, but it is assuredly Lynn's album, and assuredly country. It's got some beautiful, timeless songs on it, and I think I listened to it like twice before it got lost down some void somewhere. For a while I didn't have another passing thought about country music. The stuff just doesn't pass into my field of vision. Then, during a fit of Soulseeking, I came across Grievous Angel
A lot of folks don't consider Gram country specifically, but it's as country as I'm apparently ever going to get. Gram's story appealed because it didn't sound like the others I'd heard: he dropped out of Harvard, he toured with the Byrds, he did metric shit-tons of drugs. A guy I could get behind. So this is probably a truly great record, a cosmopolitan country record with threads of psychedelia and barn-storming rock (whatever “barn-storming” means). I think I've forced myself all the way through it three times. I appreciated it, and maybe I even enjoyed it. I think I almost got it. I know I hadn't even tried to listen to it in months before writing this article, and once I did, I ran right back to Björk, my version of comfort food. But it'll stick around. Either Gram's giving me false hope for an epiphany, or I'm this close, closer than any other country song or album I've heard has gotten me, and I just need another listen or two. And then I'll get it.
Or maybe not. I can't help but feel I'm overthinking this, that it shouldn't come to some hard-won epiphany, that I just don't get it, and that's just going to have to be O.K. But if I can “get” some obscure little record by some crazy born-again Christians living in a fucking cave somewhere in fucking Finland, then there's no reason I can't find a way to overcome whatever cultural wall might be in the way of my understanding music that, relatively, was made right in my backyard. No. This one album, chosen at random, shall stick around until it shines like a beacon toward whatever it is I'm missing Over There. Oh yes. Yes it will.
By: Jeff Siegel
Published on: 2005-12-07