Gram Parsons: $1000 Wedding
lt-country should have known better, that's for sure. You can't create and sustain a subgenre of music based solely on the assumption that it is purer, more honest, more incorruptible, and hence superior to another, more popular, more culturally entrenched form of the same music without anticipating a motherfucker of a backlash. The persistent nose-thumbing and ceaseless, twittering cries of "Nashville sucks" that came out of the alt-country camp for years finally backfired, and now it's phenomenally uncool to profess an affection for such overwhelmingly moribund, completely irrelevant marginalia.
Arguments made for alt-country's well-deserved demise hinge on a number of perennially divisive factors: class, politics, perspective, intent, and perhaps most importantly, audience. Apparently, alt-country either ignores or insults the mythical 21st century southern-bred Everyman, who naturally looks towards pop country for a truer representation of his own experience. Positing alt-country as an untranslatable dead language that fails to resonate with its should-be audience is a pretty airtight supposition, as it accounts for, and summarily negates, both of its logical retorts.
Claim that pop-pacified new-country acolytes should spurn Nashville's force-fed offerings and discover some "real" music and you're automatically (and certainly a good bit justifiably) branded a condescending elitist fuckwad, passing judgment on the listening tastes of blue-collar Americans who work with their hands and "live" their music far more faithfully than you ever will, pussy. Counter with the argument that alt-country really is a better mirror for Middle American values and everyday concerns and you're just hopelessly out of touch. Seriously, says the South, we don't wanna hear that weak ish no more.
Critics have in their heads this imagined perfect modicum of the New South country fan, brimming with shitkickin' Rebel pride and staunchly unapologetic for it, but tempered with the kind of inescapable social and financial realties that tend to make music an unconsciously ingrained part of everyday existence. Unsurprisingly, critics like to champion these unsuspecting folks and their preferred musical choices because it makes them feel all populist and junk. Which isn't meant to suggest that there isn't some terrifically durable pop-country out there, it's certainly just as fertile territory as mainstream hip-hop (a much more culturally analogous point of reference), but simply that some of its window-on-the-world adherents seem a teensy bit disingenuous.
Ultimately, alt-country's rapid devaluation can be traced back to these two nicely dovetailing ideas, that blue-collar-at-heart suburban Southerners represent the default audience that country music should aspire to reach and reflect, and that pop country has proven to be the essential thread that has woven itself into the very fabric of these people's lives.
However, the best alt-country proves the former a fallacy and the latter a technicality. Sure, the audiences for alt-country and pop country might be miles apart, but that doesn't mean that one is necessarily less valid than the other, or less deserves its own representative voice. As quantifiably dismissible as it would be to claim that alt-country's audience is composed entirely of NPR-cowed Noo Yawk liberals who are only interested in guilt-free culture-slumming (this isn't hip-hop after all, everyone's real considerate of the womenfolk), it seems that a substantial portion of alt-country's fan base (and this seems equally true of the artists themselves) are native or transplanted Southerners themselves, often ones who initially rejected and even reviled its cultural predominance in their Bible Belt backyards.
That said, it makes sense that our experience (shit, I guess I just showed my hand there) with country would necessarily be different from that of someone who lived and breathed the music from birth. Because we've apostatized country and then later returned to it, we can never truly recreate that naturalistic ease, that unconscious milieu, and so instead we pick and choose. Anything might rise to the surface: a fascination with the Church, a need to understand our racist past, a desire to reconcile our selves with our South (is it any wonder that the Drive-By Truckers' mythic excoriation Southern Rock Opera is one my all-time alt-country favorites?). In this case, alt-country becomes an artificial prop, sometimes reflecting no more than a fetishistic urge for escapism, that's certainly true, but just as likely, its stylized language and large-than-life symbology can be the perfect emotional signifiers for our experience, or anyone else's for that matter. Call it conscious Southern artifice for conflicted art fags if you will, but don't act like we ain't earned the right to sing "Dixie."
Now, if anyone should be taken to task for engendering that dilettantish reputation that plagues alt-country, it's trust-fund baby, Rolling Stone groupie, and grudging godfather of the subgenre Gram Parsons, but in his all-too-brief career, Parsons proved that alt-country's carefully cultivated artifice and free-form structural rule-breaking could be its most emotionally potent weapons. In that context, his heart-shattering tale of desertion at the altar, the 1973 classic "$1000 Wedding," is not just a textbook example of alt-country, it's also a truly perfect pop moment.
First off, there are the consciously antiquated, completely untranslatable details, namely the fact that a thousand bucks for a wedding is considered the absolute height of tragically misspent extravagance. There's archaic dialect in the invitation to spike the drink of the abandoned groom, to "do him in/some old way," and of course there are the standard-stock tropes of the "mean old mama" and the benevolent "Reverend Dr. William Grace," who fulfills that alt-country demand to have faith haunting the perceptual edges in his insistence that "the fiercest beasts could all be put to sleep/the same silly way."
But because "$1000 Wedding" is a perfectly artificial pop song, it doesn't have to follow a predictable narrative arc, and therein lies its undeniable emotional pull. Parsons grabs images out of the structural ether and plunks them down in all kinds of emotionally satisfying ways, and while a more traditionally chronological reading might be able to build more dramatic tension and might better reflect the actual event in its concrete beginning and end, "$1000 Wedding" enjoys that aforementioned luxury of picking and choosing, and so we get deliberately open-ended explanations ("she only knew she loved the world") and devastating stream-of-consciousness asides ("why ain't there a funeral/if you're gonna act that way"). If you're looking for a singularly "perfect" pop moment, there's the 1:46 mark, after Parsons has set the disoriented scene on his own, when Emmylou Harris joins him and together, with ragged, furious beauty, they sing "I hate to tell you how he acted when the news arrived/He took some friends out drinking and it's lucky they survived."
Yep, just another overused alt-country device, that vaguely stoic indication of hard drinking and hard living. But goddamn if it doesn't make me tear up all the same.