I Wasn't Country When Country Wasn't Cool

I have a confession to make: I love country music.

I'm not one of these fussbudgets who only likes one particular style of country, either. Sure, the only two new CDs I immediately set aside to listen to when sifting through my mail last week were Because It Feels Good by Kelly Hogan (the woman responsible for that fine cover of the Magnetic Fields' "Papa Was a Rodeo" last year) and Gold, the second solo album from ex-Whiskeytown front man Ryan Adams, but I also think Aaron Tippin's "Kiss This" (y'know it—" . . . and I don't mean on my rosy red lips . . . ") was one of the catchiest Nashville numbers of 2000. And lord knows I don't have to explain why interviewing Loretta Lynn a few days ago left me grinning for the rest of the week.

But that's not the whole of my confession. See, I love country music—and I am a fraud. A poseur. I can talk the talk, but when I attempt to walk the walk, it's as tragic as watching a cowboy trying to run in stiletto heels.

The sad reality of my musical tourism dawned on me during Merle Haggard's appearance at the Showbox last Tuesday. I expected to enter a room full of chain wallet-wearing, tattooed, pomaded hipsters. What I found, instead, was a sea of white straw cowboy hats and folks old enough to be my parents wearing belt buckles the size of hubcaps. I don't think I've ever seen so many people trying to find a seat at a Showbox concert. I know I've never seen so many of 'em ordering food (who knew they had a kitchen?).

Merle knows what side his bread is buttered on, too. His set list completely ignored material from his recent album for Anti (an imprint of punk-rock indie Epitaph) in favor of classics like "Mama Tried" and "The Bottle Let Me Down." But while the rest of the assembled sang along at the top of their lungs, I could barely mumble the choruses. How many times have I watched some thirtysomething frat boys geeking out on the dance floor to "Rock Lobster" and groused that these were the exact same people who beat me up for liking the B-52's in high school? Yet now I have the gall to call myself country when I don't know the words to "Okie From Muskogee?"

I'm not sure why I was resistant to country in my formative years. Lord knows there was enough of it around, growing up in Virginia as I did. Perhaps I associated the music too closely with the kids from the outlying rural regions, the ones who spat tobacco juice at my orange canvas high-tops as I scurried by in my Siouxsie and the Banshees T-shirt. Country music back then seemed tacky; Barbara Mandrell and Dolly Parton with their skintight jeans and lacquered blonde hair. If you'd told me then that, 20 years after 9 to 5, I'd shell out big bucks for Parton's 1967 album Hello, I'm Dolly on vinyl, I'd have spat at you, too.

But as sure as seeing Liza Minnelli sing "Copacabana" on The Muppet Show made me gay, I can pinpoint the exact moment of my conversion to country. My sophomore year of college, I woke up one day with a case of the stomach flu so severe that I couldn't get out of bed. My boyfriend put side one of his new copy of Patsy Cline's Greatest Hits on my turntable, set it on Repeat, and left for work. For four hours, I lay there, weak as a kitten, listening over and over and over to the same six songs: "Walking After Midnight," "Sweet Dreams," "Crazy," I Fall to Pieces," "So Wrong," and "Strange."

At lunchtime, he returned—just long enough to administer some 7-Up and turn the album over. By quitting time, I'd absorbed every nuance of "Back in Baby's Arms," "She's Got You," "Faded Love," "Why Can't He Be You," "You're Stronger Than Me," and "Leavin' on Your Mind." I'm uncertain if prolonged exposure to Patsy in my wretched condition accelerated my recovery, but regardless, I purchased a couple Cline LPs of my own as soon as I got well.

There's a song on Loretta Lynn's last album, Still Country, called "Country in My Genes." When she sings, "Well, I can't help the way I talk/I wouldn't change it if I could," I twinge, conscious that my own Southern accent only comes out at strategic moments (like when interviewing Loretta Lynn). Try as I might, I'll never be the authentic article. I wasn't country when country wasn't cool, and I'm not truly country now—but I love the music just the same. I guess it's time for me to cut those pogoing frat boys who step on my feet at '80s night some slack.

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