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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February 12, 2012

On Missing the Dixie National Rodeo

Even if we had gotten tickets to the Dixie National Rodeo, we would have missed the real rural Western experience.

Last night, my husband Chuck and I found parking behind some horse trailers in an alley a walk away from the Jackson State Fairgrounds.  We walked between stands selling cowhides and saddles and stands selling lariats and posters of country music legends to the north entrance of the coliseum.   I was wearing brown boots, blue jeans, a red gingham blouse with a kerchief, a  denim jacket under a sheepskin coat.   We met two other couples there, both living in Vicksburg like we are, and we were planning on buying cheap seats up in the rafters so that we could watch the bull riding, the barrel racing, and who knows what-all.

However, when we  got to the box  office, we realized that they had sold all the tickets already.  We were not going to the rodeo, after all.  Instead, as a sextet, we went to a Japanese restaurant down the street and had a lovely evening, anyway.

So what’s wrong with this picture?  Nothing, but the experience the rodeo promises to people like us, people with graduate degrees and uncalloused hands, would be unattainable even if we had seats so close we could feel the breath of bulls on the back of our necks.

The image may be western, but the viewers are removed from the realities of settling the West

Almost the second the West was won, America developed a sentimentality about cowboys.  Buffalo Bill ‘s Wild West Show was just a show, not wild at all, for people who would never be cowpokes, unless poking a cow can be extended so far as slicing into a New York strip steak.

The people who back their trailers up to the Coliseum in Jackson, Mississippi may indeed have learned to straddle the agrarian image of America that Thomas Jefferson gave us and the contemporary realities of cell phones and Facebook status updates just like they wrap their thighs around the back of an angry bull, but the rest of us, the ones buying, or trying to buy the tickets, we have no such capacity.  We are products of a society that dishes us up true grit on a salad bar where we can pick and choose between morsels of culture.  All six of us, the ones who went out to dinner instead of the rodeo, we are all white folks, so we are no more Japanese than we are cowboy.  So to what do we really and truly belong?

One of the women who ate teriyaki with me last night told me she was from a small town called Hot Coffee, Mississippi, and I am sure that she comes from more rural digs than I do in Brooklyn, but she and the other woman lamented the disappearance of a sign welcoming outsiders to Hot Coffee that looked like someone was pouring coffee off a sign post.  The other woman remembered that her father used to woo women by walking around where he came from with a pet goat, and somehow, in the vocabulary of this particular rural region, that was like having a nice ride in Hollywood.

But we, the educated people — lawyers, professors, computer scientists, chemists — we don’t have goats.  We may come from Hot Coffee, but we are not stuck there by land battles or other forms of economic necessity.  If we use a lasso, it’s not for livelihood — it’s a rope trick, nothing more.  So who are we?

This boy from New York City was adventurous but ultimately more Republican than Bull Moose

People often say of those who move away and move back that they can never really and truly go home again.  I furthermore say that any of us who refine our minds can never truly be present for The Dixie National Rodeo.  We are too aware of other things, and our options are too many.  People who get up to milk the cows at 4 am usually do so out of necessity, not out  of romantic transcendental ideologies.  As for Dixie, that country no longer exists; indeed Dixie, as opposed to the real Confederate States in secession, was as mythological as Atlantis, for no one who has picked cotton for no money sings happily about how they wish they were back in the land of cotton where old times are not forgotten — look away.  So moving South — which I undoubtedly did — it has not made me any more a Southern Belle than Teddy Roosevelt made himself a cowboy when he bought guns in Manhattan at Tiffany & Company (Yes, that Tiffany’s used to sell guns, silver plated, apparently, along with the rest of their jewelry) and moved to the Dakotas.  Teddy Roosevelt mastered the skills of a cowbpoke out on the range very impressively, but he always could count on other forms of income.  He managed to inhabit the rough neck culture, but he himself remained a city slicker inside.  He could hunt in the land of grizzlies, form the rough rider brigade in the bar of the luxurious Hotel Menger, but this was a bit like Marie Antoinette building herself a Hameau to play at being a peasant girl.

I will never be a cowgirl.  I might learn to shoot a gun, Tiffany silver-plated or otherwise.  I might learn all the manners of  a Kappa Kappa Gamma.  I might learn to inhabit this culture with thorough fluency, but somehow, I’ll end up eating foreign cuisine, reading a marvelous book, investigating arch Machiavellian realities or corn pone frontier humor from a consumerist, internationalist, twenty-first-century intellectual distance.

It’s a shame we missed the rodeo.  I think we would have had a terrific time.   The truth, though, is we missed the rodeo over a century and several libraries ago.

December 15, 2010

Doing Shots at Faulkner’s Grave

My participation in a Southern Tradition

The PhD students in English and American literature at Ole Miss have a tradition of drinking at William Faulkner‘s grave — a stone’s throw away from  the campus.  It is germane to everything that department does — the specter of Faulkner, though he dropped out of the school and  went his own way — haunts the halls.  Who is the next immortal among us, he seems to ask.

However, despite the lovely, rich prose, Faulkner, were he in fact a king-maker, would never point his scepter at a woman or a person of color to indicate that we were smart or interesting in any way  but perhaps sexually.  I’m sure I would have scared the crap out of Faulkner, so in going to his  grave at Saint Peter‘s cemetery, I had no problem trying to spook him.  I am the kind of woman who would have wanted  to scare the crap out of him, anyway,when he was living — a Yankee feminist who worked as  a speechwriter and pamphleteer to end apartheid.  To Mister Faulkner, whose worst nightmare I am, I say “Boo!”

One does not drink alone at Faulkner’s tombstone.  Apart from the shade  of the author himself, his longsuffering wife is buried next to him, his parents across from him.  One wonders who chose the inscription “Go with God,” which must be read ironically, if one has ever read the guy’s work.  Not only  did I drink with the former Faulkners, I  also  drank with my pals in the PhD program Victoria, Thomas, and Ebony, who are all  very cool.  Thomas provided the booze (see the Maker’s Mark in my hand).  Victoria provided much of the prose from Faulkner and the photos.  Ebony brought the fabulousness.  I just brought the bad attitude.

We had trouble finding the grave.  Saint Peter’s cemetery is not next to Saint Peter’s church, and it was cold and dark outside.  We wandered the streets of Oxford, Mississippi, following the confused navigator function of Victoria’s phone.  I think we were bamboozled by it because of the magnetic waves emanating from the tombstone.  The waves are a transmission from the next dimension, which declares in a garbled text message:

OMFG — you will never have immortality as writers.  Post-modern criticism  has killed the cult of the author.  Give it up.  I am more fabulous than you will ever  be.  Even Satan bows to me in Hell.

I knew it was a lie from the pit itself.  We  disregarded it.  We climbed into Ebony’s car for warmth and listened to Ella Fitzgerald  and Frank Sinatra.  Whatever is true about the so-called cult of the author, the cult of the diva is alive and well, as evidenced by Ebony’s i-Pod play list, as evidenced by Ebony and her fabulous diva self.

I care about the Pulitzer.  I  care about the Nobel.  I care about the National Book Award.  I care about authors.  I care about Divas.  No tombstone can talk me out of this.  All it can do is lend perspective on the notion of  authorial immortality.

I once saw a graffito that went like this:

“God is dead”  — Neitzche

“Neitzche is dead” — God

Shakespeare  is an immortal writer.  His bones are turning to powder as  we speak.  It is not good enough to be an immortal writer.  One must actually go with God, not just have relatives, who would burn every copy of one’s heretical books if they could, inscribe such a thing on a tombstone that they never meant to be ironic.  There is truly only one  kind of immortality — the resurrection kind.  That said, without the other kind, how will I  explain to future generations why I thought the giraffe-print furry hat and  giraffe-print furry bag  I had with me the night I did shots at Faulkner’s grave were really cool?  I intend to be an immortal writer who is immortal indeed, not like the godless, misogynist, racist genius at whose grave I poured libations a few days ago.

Here’s a picture of  me with  Ebony, wandering around looking for the grave:

Hunting for Faulkner's grave; finding the fabulous

Ebony is a brilliant woman who is funny, hilarious, and — despite all Mississippi siren calls that might have drawn her away from this — always impeccably dressed.

If Faulkner were living and breathing, he wouldn’t like either of the women in this picture — one  he would utterly dismiss, and the other he would just loathe.  Faulk him and his  genius, I say.  We’re fantastic.

Finally, the four  of us found our way to the grave.  We all took a shot, and Victoria read a lovely passage of prose from the man in the grave about the enduring quality of words.

As the moon stood in a sliver against the black of the night, and the wind rustled in the breeze, I couldn’t allow myself to make this a worshipful experience.  I don’t believe in ancestor worship, even of really fantastic ancestors, but while Faulkner was fantastic as a writer, he wasn’t such a great antecedent.

After Victoria finished reading, I took what was left in my glass and splashed it on the grave.

“Bitch, give  me your talent!” I shouted.

Ebony, Victoria and Thomas are used to such outbursts from me —  not so much the cursing  as the incongruity — and they just took it in  stride.

Thomas read a passage from “A Rose for Emily,” one which involved the repetition of the n-word over and over again.  I took the bottle and poured out  half of it  on the engraved name beneath us, interrupting Thomas to say, “That’s what you get for saying ‘n*gger’ so many  times.  You’re just lucky it’s not my urine.”

We went afterward to a reading of living writers. It was time to go.  Let the dead bury the dead.   We were out of booze, anyway.

Insulting Faulkner while taking note of his talent seemed appropriate — not worship, just acknowledgment.  The cult of the author, per Derrida and his sychophants, is dead.  Perhaps it should be.  Instead, long live the diva, I say.  Long live Ebony.  Long live you, whoever you are.  Go with God.

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