I, personally, don’t like country music much (although Joaquin Phoenix is alright); I don’t think it travels, but in the right place a good country singer with that big round sound with a scratchy edge, plus some slide and honky tonk and lyrics about girls, trucks and revenge is just what’s required. There may well be more country music fans in New York City than Nashville, and some people may call this little city Trashville or Nash Vegas (which is pretty good actually) but if you were playing a game of word association and someone called out ‘country music’ you’d snap back ‘Nashville’, as quick as a flash. It may be past it, or a blousy version of what it once was, but iconic things generally are.
You don’t have to stroll through a barrage of songs along Broadway and 2nd Avenue, but why not? On a warm weekend night every bar in this neon-lit strip has at least one live band playing, and sometimes three – all at the same time on different floors. You can hear a dozen just by standing and turning full circle by the traffic lights. Past the flashing signs, through every window in every direction, you can see drummers and bass players and the back of a singer in their cowboy hat; singers coming up and old-timers, dreams unfulfilled, on their way out, all playing Ring of Fire to drunk students.
And you don’t have to visit the Grand Ole Opry. To be honest, I didn’t. But I like the idea of the Opry as a historic hub for talented, troubled, ill-fated, drunk and plucky people, and I’m definitely going to read music journalist Robert K. Oermann’s Behind The Grand Ole Opry Curtain: Tales Of Romance And Tragedy. It’s not new, but it is definitive. They say the Opry is cursed, that a large number of people linked to it have met untimely deaths, from Patsy Cline and Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Jim Reeves in plane crashes, Dottie West in a car accident, Stringbean (of Hee Haw fame) who was murdered, Hank Williams from drug-related stuff in the back of a car at 29 – and so on. Anyway it was at the heart of a world, that must have seemed a pretty exciting one for a time.
I’ve got a problem with Hank Williams. ‘Hey Good Lookin’ ‘ is about as fun to listen to as ‘Yellow Submarine’, however he did also write ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ so: OK. Anyway my point was going to be that despite the Hey Good Lookins there’s a lot of heart-wrenching stuff about being poor and having no pa in old school country, and I’m not sure today’s country singer-songwriters have such peaks and troughs in their lives anymore. If they do, it doesn’t seem very convincing when the backing singer is chewing gum and doing hi-de-hi waves to men at the bar.
But one theme that has been at the root of country and survives intact today is the push and pull of moving on or staying put. Nashville itself is a place that everyone is either keen to reach or desperate to leave. ‘gotta get back to Nashville or my heart will break in two’ say the Everly Brothers; Catherine Britt wants to hop an old freight train (which, I have to say, sounds quite tempting) and ride it to Nashville so she can learn to play honky tonk guitar; the Delmore Brothers ‘aint got no hat, aint got no shoes’ but they do have the Nashville Blues and want to get back to Arkansas, and Hank Williams III wants to high tail it out of ‘Trashville’ to Texas, and so on. Life on the road, partings, break-ups and loss, lonesome quests, regrets, the seduction of comfort and a good woman (rarely a good man) – it’s all there in verse chorus verse chorus verse chorus chorus.