The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

June 11, 2015

Cowboy on the T Line – How Country is a Mythological Place that Knows no Country

A week or so ago, I was up in Pittsburgh, and while I was taking the T-Line, a bevy of bleach blondes in cut-offs and skimpy shirts got on with boyfriends toting ice coolers and wearing John Deere Caps and cowboy hats, jeans, and sleeveless plaid shirts.  They packed the car, and I felt like I was in a crowded version of rural Mississippi – only nobody had a Southern drawl.  The coolers were filled with Yingling beer, local to Pittsburgh, and nobody’s neck was actually red from harvesting the back forty.

These country music fans are in Pennsylvania, not Louisiana.

These country music fans are in Pennsylvania, not Louisiana.

They were going to hear Kenny Chesney sing at Heinz stadium, where the Steelers play.  For the occasion, they had become urban cowboys and not so much cow girls as the girls who populate so many male-vocalist country music songs these days – the mythical gorgeous post-cheerleader good-time girls who want nothing better than to hop into some stranger’s truck and have a wild night with him, no expectation of even a text message later.  For the record, these women don’t exist, at least not without giving and receiving STDs and expecting to be paid up front.  But the way they populate country vocals, one would think that the whole South was filled with suntanned beauties in daisy dukes just swaying their hips on the edge of the country road, hoping some good ol’ boy just drives by in a truck with a gun rack and some Kenny Chesney music playing on the radio – maybe his song of this variety, “Summertime”:

Two bare feet on the dashboard
Young love in an old Ford
Cheap shades and a tattoo
And a Yoo-hoo bottle on the floorboard

Anybody who lives in Pittsburgh is surely not a farmer, but surrounding Pittsburgh, a ride in an old Ford will take one into farm country.  Ten miles away from the skyscrapers are suburbs overpopulated with deer and wild turkey, and twenty miles will take that old Ford into acres with barns and silos.

But country music these days tends to describe a life that doesn’t only include mythical pick-up nymphs; it shows us mythical family farms, mythical fathers polishing mythical shot guns, protecting daughters.  But these days, farms are not small family affairs but corporate holdings, and fathers are divorced from mothers and live away from daughters who might need protection.  Love, young or otherwise, is not a forever kind of pledge, and more people work at Walmart than own their own country stores these days in the South that all the tropes of the musical genre depicts.

Unlike some country music stars, Kenny Chesney seems to wink in the direction of this disconnect between country music’s description of life and the life most of its fans live in his song “Reality”:

Chesney lets his fans know he doesn't so much sing about reality but rather about escape from reality.

Chesney lets his fans know he doesn’t so much sing about reality but rather about escape from reality.

Reality, yeah, sometimes life
Ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be
So let’s take a chance and live this fantasy
‘Cause everybody needs to break free from reality

He beckons his fans to escaping this reality, too, with his music:

We need a rock ‘n’ roll show in the summer
To let the music take us away
Take our minds to a better place

It’s like Kenny Chesney fans are an inland iteration of Buffett’s “parrot heads.”  Jimmy Buffett’s songs about margaritas and laziness are adored by people notoriously not lazy, not even drunk on any regular basis.  These young Yankees put on an act for their own entertainment, an act of escape artistry like the song Chesney sings himself about wasting away not in Margaritaville but by the ol’ swimmin’ hole and having an agrarian life that few these days ever have in America.

I thought about this work in relation to my own writing.  I set the ancient Greek myths in the Deep South because I have noticed that the South tells stories to itself about itself that aren’t really true.  And I, a transplanted Yankee, find that Yankees are imagining themselves as participants, too, in this distinctly Southern mythical paradigm.

It seems that country music and Southern myth are transplantable, the way that magnolia trees can grow up North.  Who we are as Americans, what it looks like and sounds like to be American – those things migrate and morph.  We do this in a number of ways from childhood in America.  People dress in team jerseys even though their chance of being drafted by the Chicago Bulls are slim to none.  We imitate celebrities.  We imagine ourselves in ways we are not every day, tell ourselves somehow we are these things despite much evidence to the contrary.  This contributes to our overconsumption, our national politics, and our choice of artistic experiences, of course.

In truth, though, Country has no country.  The song “Dixie” was written in New York City.  The South is an idea, however delineated it is by state lines.  The South is a series of habits and phrases.  Kenny Chesney talks about “living high on someone else’s hog,” and that, too, is like the South.  It’s not that Southerners are freeloaders, like the song sung by Chesney – a song sung by a hard-working entertainer about not working – it’s that the high Southern hog is something that is not really owned by Chesney’s fans.  Southerners possess things, but the Yankees on their way to Heinz Field decked out in cowboy hats means that the South is not exclusive possessor of its own myth.  Furthermore, Southern real lives need an escape hatch like the one Chesney sings about in order to fully embody that myth.  Real things happen to real people in the South, but Southernness is the way those real things get interpreted, rather than the way they always are.

We live in a post-modern and globalized world.  There are bands in Indonesian bars playing Hank Williams’ tunes, with lyrics translated.  There are boys in basements in the Blue Ridge Mountains watching Japanese cartoons.  Which of these things is Southern?  Both?  Neither?  The world has gotten complicated.  Perhaps the reason why fans escape into Chesney’s world is because we crave some kind of simplicity, but their very embracing of a false reality is what complicates things.  I have no stones to throw, as a transplanted Yankee writer become a Southern writer.  I complicate things, too.

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