Posted by: Mark Nielsen | August 2, 2008

Country & Northern Music

Saxeville, WI Saturday, 10:38 pm
Ladies & gentlemen, I’m coming clean today. There’s no more denying it. Nor is it a passing phase. I’m a country music fan.

To hear me say this may not shock some of you. But if you knew how far I had to come, you’d understand. See, I’m a city boy (suburban, really) from city-bred stock on both sides for several generations. Plus I’m from a Northern city. Sure, it’s the midwest, and one need drive just forty minutes from my house to find a cornfield or two. But come on, we’re talkin’ City of Broad Shoulders here (that’s a Carl Sandburg line, btw). We’re talkin’ electric blues capital of the world, and the birthplace of Smashing Pumpkins and Kanye West. (In fact, I’m only two degrees of Kevin Bacon removed from the fascinating Mr. West.) .

And most importantly, I’m a proud, Masters-educated, card-carrying intellectual. I’m not *supposed* to like a song with the gall to use a line like “Save a horse, ride a cowboy” as it’s non-ironic chorus. And yet I do. Guess I’d better stop teasing my sister Laura, who’s been a casual country fan for years.

I’m conflicted, sure. I don’t agree with the nationalistic, flag-waving politics and “work hard, party harder” sentiments that are expressed in some country songs. But I’m kind of on board with the unabashed way that some songs express sincere faith. Oh, also, I’m not much of a fan of the sound of a pedal steel guitar. So there’s that to scare me off. But give me a fiddle, and I’m right back onboard again. So is it a wash, or am I kidding myself that I can have my cake and eat it too?

I think part of what’s happened is that hanging with the decent country people up here in genuinely rural Wisconsin has forced me to change my perspective. I don’t listen to country music much in the Chicago suburbs. But up here at the “lake house”, it just makes sense to program The Wolf, a country music station out of Oshkosh, on my car radio. There’s even an old AM station that plays only “classic country”, that I listen to on an ancient cassette-only boombox in the garage (it doesn’t get much of an FM signal way out in the boonies, with a broken antenna… how “country” of me to keep it running though, right?!).

It’s just so much easier to accept the simplistic messages (and often humorous tales, a big plus) in most country songs, when they sound a lot like a line I heard at the little podunk grocery store yesterday. Because contemporary country music is clearly lyrics-driven, leaving little doubt as to what the song is about, or who it was written for.

Not something that can be said about Pearl Jam, or even a highly literate songwriter like Elvis Costello or Pete Townshend. In fact, most of my favorite songwriters are more legitimately poetic, meaning they don’t mind having an extra layer or two of meaning (or even confusion) mucking up the song. In country music, on the other hand, such pretentious hogwash will not be tolerated. Sappiness, “Butterfly Kisses” sincerity, and “family values” — that’s country… along with girls, cars, tractors, drinking and the like, which rock and roll includes as well, of course… except maybe for the tractors.

Country music is just fun. Which is okay, too. So when I’m drivin’ to the Fleet Farm store, and good old Eddie Rabbit comes on the radio singin’ “I love the rainy nights”, I will no longer be ashamed to sing along, good ‘n’ loud!



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