I still remember the sound. It was at the Star Drive Inn on the south edge of Garrison, N.D., on a hot summer night with the windows wide open.
If you could borrow the family car and you had a quarter in your pocket, you could go to the Star, get a burger and listen to the honky-tonk music blaring for hours. If you could borrow the family car and had two quarters in your pocket, you could take a date to the Star. You didn’t need more than two quarters because tips from teenagers to carhops were unknown at that time.
And the sound?
Hank Williams singing “Hey Good Lookin’.” Like or not, we heard it all the time. Like it or not, welcome to country music.
Ken Burns has produced an eight-part documentary on the history and development of country music in America. And, like it or not, we should all pay attention because country music is part of the soul of this country.
Hillbilly and poor working class in its origin, it was originally associated with the hills and hollows of Appalachia. Some early critics called those country folks playing banjos, guitars and harmonicas “poor white trash.” The musicianship was doubtful. Much of it still is. Serious musicians scorn country.
But it won’t go away because the heart of it isn’t the music, it’s the stories and the emotions. One songwriter described country music as “three chords and the truth.” And it won’t go away because of where it came from. One of the greatest country songs in history, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” began as an African-American spiritual. And much of the music has roots in gospel and folk music.
The themes of country music are as endless as life itself. They’re described as honest, gritty, feisty and unfiltered. Here are a few topics I can think of to give you some feel for the scope of country music:
- Patriotism: “God Bless The U.S.A.,” sung by Lee Greenwood.
- Love and Forgiveness: “Stand By Your Man,” belted by Tammie Wynette.
- Sassy & Brassy: “Harper Valley PTA,” sung by Jeannie C. Riley.
- Drinking Away Bad Memories: “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down,” sung by Merle Haggard.
- Many Things to Love: “I Love,” sung by Tom T. Hall.
- Death of a Lover: “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” sung by George Jones.
- Old Dogs: “Old Dogs And Children And Watermelon Wine,” sung by Tom T. Hall.
- Stuck in Prison: “Folsom Prison Blues,” sung by Johnnie Cash. Cash’s voice has been described as “a voice from the middle of the earth.”
- Supporting a Big Family: “Working Man’s Blues,” sung by Merle Haggard.
- Indispensable: “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” sung by George Jones.
- Determination: “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man,” sung by Loretta Lynn.
- Alibi for Neglect and Indifference: “You Were Always On My Mind,” sung by Willie Nelson.
There is so much more –- betrayal, cheating hearts, a boy named Sue, cars made from stolen parts, exes in Texas. If you listen to a cross section of country songs (all sang with a twang) and some song, some story, some line doesn’t grab your heart, you have two problems: You have missed out on an essential aspect of American culture, and you only have half a heart.
As Ken Burns says, “Nothing connects the country like country.”