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.

September 11, 2010

Who is really King of the Hill?

The cartoonish pair of us on our wedding day

I have come to a shocking realization — my husband and I are suspiciously cartoonish, or rather we suspiciously resemble the cartoon characters of Mike Judge — Hank and Peggy Hill.

Might we be two-dimensional caricatures of the American dream?

Here’s the evidence that compels me to bring this possibility to the attention of  local authorities, such as yourselves, of the bloggosphere:

  • Chuck and I are living in the South.  Peggy and Hank Hill live in a different part of the South, but Arlen, Texas and Vicksburg, Mississippi are the same size.
  • My husband speaks with a slow Texan accent, and so does Hank.
  • Hank sells propane and propane accessories, and my husband, as a petrochemist, makes propane.
  • Peggy Hill is a substitute teacher of Spanish in the Texas public school system.  I teach English in Mississippi colleges.
  • We have a ranch-style house that resembles, but for the surrounding landscape, the Hill house in King of the Hill.
  • Hank has an old hunting dog.  We have a yellow lab.
  • Chuck has been known to hang out with guys, not say much, and drink beer, although not in some alley near the house.
  • Peggy is a Boggle champion.  I am a poetry slam semi-finalist.
  • Hank played high school football, then quit football afterwards.  So did Chuck.
  • Peggy wears a large shoe size.  So do I.

There are dissimilarities, of course.  Between the two of us, we are better educated than the Hills.  We would not squash the creative ambitions of a son to be the greatest prop comic of all time.  We do not have a Lu-Ann, Laotian neighbors, a friend who is an exterminator, and when Chuck mows the lawn, he does so with an upright mower.  Peggy actually can’t speak Spanish worth a dang.  I speak French fluently.  I pray to God that my hair is not a tenth so bulbous, even on my worst hair day, as Peggy’s. The house may  be ranch-style, but we are surrounded by land, and I’d like to think that the interior design reflects my devotion to HGTV and exquisite taste — not Peggy’s completely irony-free mid-century rut.

How little or much are we like these two-dimensional figures?

Perhaps the “coincidence” here is only that Mike Judge is clever and insightful.  Perhaps the series’ success stems from his keen eye for real Americans.

Still, I don’t know if I can accept that answer.  I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I wonder, somehow, if I am a figment of Mike Judge’s imagination.

Mike thinks, therefore I am.

For all this this time, I have been on a quest to be a better person.  Perhaps, like Jessica Rabbit, whatever my flaws, they are not my fault — I am just drawn that way.

Our cartoon yellow lab, here in Vicksburg/Arlen, is chewing on a paper cup she found in the trash.  In a minute, my t-shirt clad, bespectacled propane-knowledgeable husband will come in here, his jeans oddly low on his body, and take it from her mouth.

Perhaps the proof of my non-cartoon existence comes from my politics.  Chuck and I voted for Obama.  Hank and Peggy Hill wouldn’t have probably done that, I think, at least not Hank.

I admit it would take a lot of pressure off us if we turned out  to be cartoon characters.  PhD-level deconstructionist theory readings would  become existentially sound, as I, too, would be fictional.  A lot less would be messy if we were animated instead of lethargic but life-like.

I had better get back to my readings of literary theory.  Perhaps an end note to one of my assigned articles will point to me.

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