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.

February 8, 2012

On Going Native

I may look relatively sophisticated, but like Kudzu, the redneck is creeping up on me.

In this photo, I believe I have a certain air of sophistication.  That scarf is Hermes, or at least the Canal Street knock-off version of Hermes.  I bought that coat on the Internet from a respectable retailer to women of taste.

However, and I say this cringing, knowing that some of my old friends in New York will get wind of this, I have developed some red neck habits.

Let me be clear.  I am deeply committed to a life of the mind.  As I type this, I am staring at a book in Middle English, a fourteenth-century play about Cain and Abel.  However, it is worth noting that this play has a reference to carnal sheep violation.  As I type this, I am listening to Buddha Bar tracks on my i-pod, but those are shuffled with Band Perry songs about lying like a rug and being buried in satin, stuff about which a gal might sob into a honky-tonk beer.  When I drink it’s either fine wine or Rebel Yell bourbon.

Two years into this life change, I seem to be straddling the Mason Dixon line in so many ways.  Let me show you:

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just got invited to give a reading of my poetry at Middlebury College‘s gender studies program.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“I read from my poetry collection entitled The White Trash Pantheon.”

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just bought a new pair of shoes.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“I needed new ones because the old ones got covered with animal manure and mud.”

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just won a quiz prize at the University.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“It was for knowing that Florida State had penalties imposed upon them for NCAA violations, affecting their Big-10 football program.”

It’s stuff like that that makes me think warily of how all those Jeff Foxworthy jokes, the ones that seemed so alien when I lived in my Russian-mafia-negotiated-apartment-with-access-to-a-private-beach-in-Brooklyn-for-almost-no-money, are beginning to apply to me.

Moi?  Mais oui!

Here is a list of signs that I am beginning go native down here:

  • I wake up most mornings at 5 am, walk through mud, and chain up the hound dogs so that they don’t spook the neighbor ladies.
  • I find myself liking Elvis more and more with each passing month.
  • Grits don’t taste gritty.
  • Ham is the sixth food group for me these days.
  • It seems odd NOT to call people “ma’am” and “sir” every other sentence.
  • If Terry McMillan doubted I could, I am no longer waiting to exhale — I’ve exhaled.  Life down here operates at a slackened pace.
  • If I wore black every day, it would seem as if I were in mourning, not just hip in day-to-evening wear.
  • Even though I read mostly British literature (see reference to Chaucer’s era above), Faulkner and Twain make more and more sense to me.
  • I have said “y’all” and not felt self-conscious about it, y’all.

For those of you in New York who miss me, if you want to stem the tide of this, I recommend sending me emergency care packages from The Second Avenue Deli or from any Indian restaurant on Sixth Street.  Send me something of which New York Magazine’s “Approval Matrix” approves.

I am going native.  Next comes the drinking of pre-sweetened iced tea.  After that, there’s a whole slew of floral prints yawning their maws at me.

Help!  I’ve gone South and I can’t get up!

December 20, 2009

Crossing the line

The Mason-Dixon Line is the line, historically, between two ways of American life, between personhood and non-personhood.  For slaves, to cross this line from South to North was the difference between becoming a man or a fraction of one.  How then is it that I in crossing in the other direction find myself more complete?

The place of my transgression

I crossed the line just a little bit South of Gettysburg this week, while listening to the song, “Where I Come From” by Alan Jackson on my radio:

“…Where I come from,

it’s corn bread and chicken.

Where I come from,

a lot of front porch sittin’…”

Oddly enough, this Brooklyn girl is now from the land of corn bread and chicken — not vodka martinis and tapas.

I’m at home, a property owner for the first time in my life, and I am turning a house in a small town, as best I can, into a Monticello-like island of Jeffersonian culture, but more about that later.

Crossing the line between personhood and non-personhood in the reverse direction was astonishingly liberating.  I thought of Caesar and his Rubicon and Washington and his Potomac.  The line, it seems, is the unpatrolled border between two nations, one where I am an infiltrator of another way of life, here to do battle for truth as I understand it but also to accept a hometown welcome, too.

I’m coming home to where my hostess skills and my prayer life are a sort of gold standard.  Eccentricity combined with a certain kind of sociability in the South is no sin.  I am hopeful I will adapt, too, not just cause an adaptation.

The hills turned greener as I entered the land beneath the line, and in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, it seemed that Fall had barely taken hold, but the ruggedness of the terrain was due to a permanent state of non-ambitious relaxation, the opposite of skyscrapers preening their necks.

An old farmhouse in the Smoky Mountains

I have crossed into a new way of living, to be sure.  The time zone is different.  The seasons are different.  People want to set a spell, share a word with me, and I am going to discover.

I am marrying into a new culture, even as I marry into my own.  You see, I have lived my adult life almost entirely on an island off the coast of my own country, and this, well, at one time, this was not my own country — it had left my country behind and only returned after being utterly brought to its weatherbeaten timbers and its empty stretches of uncultivated wilderness.

For years, I have claimed to write about the American experience, and so I have, fictionally.  I see it is time for some creative non-fiction in a prosaic land where, crossing a line into a sort of no-return denim-friendliness, I have been set free into a kind of a personhood devoid of the pretensions of my previous home.

Where I come from, Alan Jackson tells me at the crossroads where the blues player met the devil, where Oedipus met his father, where slave met free, where I am now, this is not a land like any other I have known before.

May God have mercy on me as I step into the unknown and yet uncannily familiar mud of my new back yard.

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