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TODAY

Saturday, June 23

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Chicago is a blues town, but I'm a country girl. I realized this the other day, that deep down, especially in warm weather at dusk, I'm a sucker for a cliché, for the easy hook, for abject sentimentality. And blues, well, blues isn't the right fit at this most halcyon part of my year. Give me the Hallmark card sappiness of a modern country song every time, any time.

I grew up in Central California, a place more Dallas than Melrose Place. When I was a kid, my neighbors were farm workers, cowboys, and other folks with rifles or hard-earned dust. Radios blared regular pop, but more often than not, they played the country music of the day. I rolled my eyes at Conway Twitty, Reba McEntire, and Hank Williams, Jr. I preferred the slick, scrubbed-up radio pop targeted toward teenagers -- training-bra music. But sometime in college, I fell in with a group of girls who listened only to country music from one of the five stations that reached our cowtown of barely 60,000 people.

Fig. 1. What you need. One has to have the required boots, hat and of course, a six-shooter.

In the summertime we roared up and down the dusty Central Valley littered with tomatoes and oranges spilled from the open tops of semis that took a curve too fast. And the dial was always on country. I was soon on a first-name basis with Reba, but also with Patty, Pam, Tanya, and even a young Faith. We didn�t feel the songs by men as deeply, but we loved them, too.

Country song writers -- I imagine them toiling away at a diner with bad coffee and good chicken, but they probably write in an office on a laptop like the one I'm tapping on -- get women. I submit that many country songs are the most feminist ditties in wide circulation. The wife that flings off the shackles of the unappreciative husband; the feisty woman doing it in a man's world; the broken-hearted woman who allows herself to wallow, but only for a minute before she picks herself up again. These are not pop topics, where nascent artists flaunt emerging sexuality because their lives have not seen struggles enough for deeper messages. Country voices, even the young ones, sell it. If you don�t believe, listen to LeAnn Rimes' rendition of an unrecorded Patsy Cline song "Blue." At 13, Rimes was able to veritably channel Patsy's depth and hit you in the gut with emotion Rimes probably only knew existed through records.

But country music also embraces struggle, the sad ending, and even Hollywood doesn�t do that. The song that really converted me was Collin Raye's "One Boy, One Girl." It�s a saccharine song about a life-long love affair started during childhood. The song follows the couple�s progress through high school sweetheart status to young marrieds expecting their first baby. So far, the song has taken the listener on this beautiful, Rockwellian picture of courtship and lets you make your own prediction that these two are destined for rocking horses on a country porch. Oh, but no! Let me give away the ending and tell you the wife dies in childbirth, leaving the grief-stricken husband behind to care for their newborn. The first time I heard this song, in a driving summer rainstorm, I pulled over because I couldn't see through tears. But I also felt ashamed. The song hit below the belt. It violated the rules of commercial art: the happy ending. And country does this and the fans -- far from rising up against this -- are pleased to sing along to a realistic ending. People die, people leave, and people are irrational.

Fig. 2. Willie. And who better in the world of country to embody this struggle? Willie will die owing taxes.

Of course, I've had my issues and fallings out with the genre. Country caters to a wide audience and a small, albeit vocal, sector of that group loves a good, jingoistic anthem. Not a song, but an anthem. A raise the fist, wave the flag, smack down the brown people type song. Country stations dominate airwaves in traditional, salt-of-the-earth places that love America because they don't see America, and don't like change because it might leave them behind. You can't blame the attitude, but you should want to run from it. As soon as the Darrel Worley pro-war hit "Have You Forgotten?" comes on, I'm back to adult contemporary or NPR. The whole Dixie Chicks thing� I'm still not sure if that was hyped or a high crime. People still bought the album and requested the single. The Chicks ain't goin' nowhere.

It's hard surmounting the part of my personality that thinks I'm too cool for school, and certainly too cool for shit-kickin' popular country music. After all, I'm not talking about the Old 97s or Whiskeytown. They're good bands, but they�re not Garth Brooks. Some would say "Hallelujah!" to that, and I would agree with the sentiment often. But there's a time and place for everything, including my sneering hipster taste. This is straightforward music about family, fun, and love. Nobody can say there's anything wrong with that. Maybe it's not your cup of tea, but that doesn't mean it can't be my long-necked bottle.

Chicago has one country station and many think that is too much. US99 (99.5 FM) plays the usual mix of "today's country hits" and that's fine with me. I didn't listen too often during winter's chill. Country makes the heart bleed, and in this climate, it will surely freeze. So I save country for the ends of warmish days. I listen on my way home, driving with the sun setting over my shoulder and yellowing light ahead of me. The songs are all about nostalgia, maybe for times and places that never existed, but the sense of longing is pronounced.

I pull my car into my normal spot on the street, stalling in the dying light. I'll go inside in a minute, but let me finish the song. Let me sing along, remembering something that never was, hoping for something that will never be, and reveling in how life pulls punches on even the most deserving cowgirl.

 

About the Author(s)

Shylo Bisnett has a tear in her beer ('cuz she's missin' you, dear) at Use Your Hands.

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