Thursday, July 13, 2006

Music, Politics and Culture

There were few if any country music stations where I grew up in suburban Boston. Nobody I knew wore cowboy hats. My musical tastes were heavily influenced by my peer group. It was rock and roll, folk music and protest songs we listened to in the car and at dances. Later, at college, it was more of the same.

My first exposure to country music was after my best friend Philip quit high school, joined the army, and went to Vietnam. When he returned, he had developed a taste for Johnny Cash and other country singers. He was almost embarrassed to tell me because it wasn’t considered cool to like that kind of music. I wasn’t confident enough to withstand criticism of my peer group in those days, so I resisted listening to country music if anyone else was around, but I kind of liked Johnny Cash too.

My college friends believed it really was possible to put an end to war for all time and their musical tastes reflected that. The lyrics condemned war and capitalism while extolling pacifism and socialism. Country music seemed its polar opposite, producing songs with lyrics like: “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee. We don’t take our trips on LSD.” Singer/songwriter Merle Haggard actually did smoke marijuana - maybe not in Muskogee, but certainly in several other venues. He said he wrote the song to describe how his long-dead father would have looked at the 1960s.

Country music celebrated patriotism, family, God, and other traditional American values. Aficionados understood that the necessity for a strong military defense was constant. The idea that there was anything shameful in our military heritage was completely foreign to them. Just as it would always be necessary to defend oneself against bullies on the playground, it would always be necessary to defend our country from threat of invasion or takeover. Such was the human condition. Views like that were horrifying to people at the colleges I went to.

The boy meets girl theme was also common in country music but it was always monogamous. As Haggard sang: “We don’t make a party out of lovin’.” It wasn’t Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” No. Country music fans saw that as cheating. If someone strayed, country singers wailed sadly over the heartbreak that always came with it.

A condescending view toward country music prevailed where I grew up and it’s still with us here in much of the northeast where people like to listen to NPR. they think country music fans are dumb rednecks. NPR listeners are intelligent and sophisticated. There’s a definite red-state/blue-state correlation also. David J. Firestein, career State Department diplomat (working on his own), analyzed the distribution of country music radio stations in areas that voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004. He concluded: “[I]f you were to overlay a map of the current country music fan base onto the iconic red-and-blue map of the United States, you would find that its contours coincide virtually identically with those of the red state region, probably right down to the county level.”

Would you want to bet that the NPR fan base would coincide pretty closely with the blue-state map? I would.

In his “Nashville Skyline” column, Chet Flippo describes country music fans thusly: “So Red pretty much means conservatives, upholders of traditional values, NRA members and beer drinkers. Blue is shorthand for liberals, tree-huggers, NPR listeners and wine sippers.” Flippo categorized James Taylor and Bruce Springsteen as country singers who appeal to blue state fans and Charlie Daniels and Toby Keith as country singers appealing to red state fans. Further distinctions between the two he describes this way: “It’s not geographic so much as it is mental. If it wears a cowboy hat, it’s Red. If it wears a beret, it’s Blue. Beer is Red. Merlot is so Blue. If your SUV is a Mercedes, BMW, Range Rover or Hummer, you’re Blue. If it’s a Jimmy or a Jeep, you’re Red. If your pickup truck is a Cadillac, you’re Blue. If it’s a Ford F-150, you’re Red. It’s snowmobiles vs. skis, power boats vs. sailboats; USA Today vs. the New York Times; Dunkin’ Donuts vs. Starbucks. Is your lawn mower a riding John Deere or a walking illegal alien? The first is obviously Red; the second, Blue.”

My pickup truck is a Toyota T-100 and I’m a wine sipper. The radio buttons in my car and my truck are set on talk radio stations, an oldies station, the local Conway, NH station which plays a nice mix of stuff, and NPR. One button in each vehicle is also set on a country music station. When NPR gets too smug, it’s a welcome antidote.


wormstooth said...

To answer your question, I grew up in Everett, where we sprinkled kids from Lowell on our cornflakes.

Anonymous said...

Johnny Cash ROCKS WOOOOOT!!!

__Dylan DiMartino

wormstooth said...

Just to prove that not everyone who disagrees with you is a degenerate, flag burning communist, I'm married to the same woman 36 years, have four great kids, and drive a 92 Jeep with 159,000 miles on her. I don't like wine, and love beer too much, according to my doctor, who's half dead himself. I love jazz and blues and Johnny Cash. We don't all fit in the same box. I'm addicted to your column, even though it makes me crawl up the walls. Intelligent minds can disagree !

Tom McLaughlin said...

Someone recently showed me a piece I wrote back in 1992 and I realized that I disagree with myself. I haven't been a degenerate, flag-burning communist for quite a while now. Also, my wife disagrees with me quite often and her dog looks at me askance from time to time.

There are positive addictions, Wormstooth.