Redneck Music for the New Century

 

I went to a friend’s wedding last week in the Vermont countryside. It was what my friends and I used to call a redneck wedding. The DJ only played country music and people danced in lines, just like they do during the Nashville Channel’s dance show. We had chicken wings and baked beans and cake. I sucked down a few beers and watched the party. Lots of hootin’ and hollerin’ and conversation about the town where most of the guests hailed from-a little place about twenty miles away from Burlington and twenty years in the past. It’s the kind of town that sends its kids off to fight Washington’s wars and populates its cemeteries with veterans of those wars. Although I don’t like much of the newer country music, I can tap my foot to it along with the rest of the good ol’ boys. I was hoping against hope that I wouldn’t have to hear that obnoxious Toby Keith piece of nationalist warmongering and I didn’t. In fact, the DJ actually played my request for some old Hank Williams (the elder): “Hey, Good Lookin'” and “Kaw-liga,” to be exact. After the party, I went home and listened to my favorite country music of the hour: the new Steve Earle CD, The Revolution Is Now.

I’m a sucker for good country guitar. The introductory guitar licks to the title song got me to thinking. Screw Toby Keith and his cheap nationalism; somehow we have to get Steve Earle played on the country music stations around the country. Not only should his politics be heard by this demographic, his songwriting is truly roots country, not some over-orchestrated rehash of the same old Nashville country top-forty formula. Earle and his band, The Dukes, sing songs that twist country themes and they truly sound country. The second track on the CD, “Home to Houston,” is a truck-driving song about a truck driver in Iraq, obviously hired by one of the war profiteering corporations. “If I make it back to Houston alive,” goes the chorus; “I won’t drive a truck anymore.” To find another truck-drivin’ song that manipulates the genre almost as well, I’d have to go back to “Mama Hated Diesels,” from Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Unlike Commander Cody, however, this truck driver is taken away by war, not another women as in the Commander’s song.

It’s a rich man’s war where the workingmen and women do the dying. This isn’t earth-shattering news, but it’s nice to hear someone besides left wing commentators say it. Earle’s song, “Rich Man’s War,’ lays it right out there for all to hear. Acoustic guitar behind him, he sings the stories of two US soldiers and one Palestinians, the first in Iraq, the second in Afghanistan, and the third a suicide bomber dropped off at his target by a rich man driving a Mercedes. The music is the music of loss and the lessons learned. Unlike most songs of this genre, though, the loss isn’t the loss of love, but the loss of belief. Belief in one’s country and belief in one’s cause. And it’s about the manipulation of those beliefs by the wealthy and powerful for their own ends.

The next song on the CD is its most powerful lyrically. More of a recitation than a song, Earle intones this poem to the gods of war and then deconstructs the myth of war itself. There is no glory or honor in this endeavor that humanity insists on repeating is the message here. The Greeks and Romans convinced their people that there was, just so they would sacrifice their sons and fathers. We continue to do the same.

The fairest flower of your progeny
Your sons, your daughters, your hope and your dreams
The cruel consequence of your conceit.

This is the honor of war. This is its true task. To kill the young for the old folks’ profit and greed.

It’s as if Bob Dylan’s song, “Masters of War” were expanded to an entire album, combined with Leonard Cohen’s “Song of Isaac” and set to a driving country beat composed by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, with Emmylou Harris joining in on the one song on the album that is about more traditional country fare. The song, titled “Comin’ Around,” is a beautiful ballad made even more so by the always sweet vocals of Emmylou Harris, an artist who’s vocals enhanced another country singer a long time ago-Gram Parsons-in one of country rock’s finest hours.

It’s not entirely depressing fare here. Earle and his band have a lot of fun with their song for Condoleeza Rice. Accompanied by a rumba beat, Earle and the boys have created a little love song to the ice maiden of the Bush administration. Shake your ass, Condi, Condi and give it up is the general theme. The beat makes the whole piece sound like a Sesame Street take on a Harry Belafonte lyric. It’s all in good fun, of course. Too bad Condi won’t get the joke.

The other fun song here is titled “F the CC,” and is a challenge to the recent attempts to silence musicians and radio disc jockeys. Almost punk in its intensity, the song has a great chorus that effectively tells the song’s entire story:

So fuck the FCC
Fuck the CIA
Fuck the FBI
Livin’ in the motherfuckin’ USA

The last line is definitely not Toby Keith. Neither is this album, musically and otherwise. Now, if I can just figure out how to get it some airplay on the local country music station.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu

 

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.