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Torch & Twang

Let’s be real, here. People who grow up like I did are not often country music fans. Aside from my mother’s odd taste for the sounds of the Grand Old Opry (acquired during her years at Wellesley, no doubt) I knew no country music unless it was from one of those “Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits” ads that ran constantly on our local CBS station. Well, sometimes I caught a little bit of “Hee Haw” if no one changed the channel in time. Suffice it to say that “another somebody done somebody wrong song” was never my music of choice.

I like irony, subtly, and a literary lyric. Like my tea, I tend to like my music un-sweet, unless the sweetness is only one of many layers and has no cloying quality. There was a kind of song that made me queasy from the time I was very small:  “Baby, I’m a want you,” and “Cherish” come to mind. Well, and that other kind; the kind where a dog dies and is carried out to sea, or someone (or something) named “Wildfire” is apparently lost. There was a kind of broad, needy, whiny quality about those songs, and that Ick Factor seemed to exist in every country song I heard. “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain?” Seriously?! Every song seemed to be a celebration of Good Ole Boys, brainless women who perpetually fell in love with (and were jilted by) Cads, and a blessedly unfamiliar world of tractors, church, and girls made to wear hideous homemade garments and/or sell themselves to feed their families. It was hyperbolic, sentimental and ridiculous.

Joni Mitchell sang “I wish I had a river/That I could skate away on,” and I knew exactly what she meant. I did not require her to explain that she was unhappy, why she was unhappy, or that she was unhappy because she had broken up with a guy named Jeff. I got it. I spent hours parsing Beatles’ lyrics for meaning (stymied mainly by my inadequate supply of psychedelic drugs) and posting lyrics I loved on my bedroom walls. “Skating away on the thin ice of a new day;” “I have become comfortably numb;” “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.”  The words were poetry, and they spoke to me, as good poetry does, in beautiful abstract tongues that offered me the answers to my adolescent problems if I was willing to do a little thinking. I had no truck with musical pablum.

In college, at the peak of my black-wearing, Marlboro-smoking archness,I took a break from my regular classical show and filled two-hours of radio with a mockery of country. I assumed a Southern drawl, used the name “Candy Memphis,” and played anything country that I could find in the record closet. I spun “Stand by Your Man,” and got my friend Wallis (who is really from Memphis) to call in live and request something called “This Bed’s Not Big Enough for the Three of Us”  in his more authentic accent. It was one of the finest mornings of my young life.

In the mid 90s, I met Cassie. She was the secretary in the law office below mine (I couldn’t afford a secretary), and we went to lunch together most days. She was a revelation to me, with her tough life story, her big wedding plans, and her propensity to dip her fries in her Frosty. She was un-ironic, an open book, untouched by cynicism or snark. Her fiance watched Nascar races and football games, and she watched with him. She had a cat named “Squeaker” and kept pictures of him on her desk. She read bride magazines, and went to blockbuster romantic comedies. When we took her car to lunch in the summer (my 10-year-old Honda had no air conditioning) we listened to country music.

By the end of August, I had fallen in love with country music. It wasn’t the old-style country of Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty; it was the first wave of “new country.” I listened to Garth, Clint, Shania, Trisha, Lorrie, and Alan. I loved the sad stories, and teared up the first time the car was filled with the melancholy strains of  “Don’t Take the Girl.” I smiled at “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial.” I belted out “Friends in Low Places” and invited my (imaginary) drinking buddies to “Prop me up beside the jukebox” when I died.  With kd lang and Mary Chapin Carpenter as gateway drugs, I Went Country.

There was something I needed in that music, something about sweetness, and wholesomeness without edge or cynicism. There were songs about the joys of summer days, falling in love, staying in love, and raising a family that were some kind of balm for my single, 30-year-old heart. I remember sitting in my own car at the end of a work day, hearing Pam Tillis sing “Sweetheart’s Dance,” and bursting into tears. I didn’t really want to be what I was any more, I didn’t care about being cool and detached, I wanted a sweetheart. I wanted a sweetheart and a house with a porch, and a pie on the windowsill and a jar full of fireflies. I wanted Aunt Bee next door, and The Saturday Evening Post on the coffee table, and a boy who played baseball. I wasn’t necessarily going to wear gingham and call everybody “honey,” but I was sure as hell not seeing myself in a black suit with 3-inch heels and The Virgin Suicides as bedtime reading.

Within three years, I was married to my sweetheart, and the mother of a potentially baseball-playing boy (We tried, but I think that part of my fantasy life is over). I now have a house with a porch, and although there is rarely a pie on the windowsill…there could be. I have swung back to some kind of center, musically and personally; there’s a little Keith Urban and a lot of old Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson on my iPod, but it coexists with “Vampire Weekend,” “Spoon” and a little Jay-Z. I still admire the incredible voices of most country singers, voices that put Britney and Gaga to shame. I also admire the singer-songwriters who craft poems and set them to music in ways that are sometimes as sublime as anything I loved in my youth. I have choices, about what I listen to, and whether I’m feeling more Edie Sedgwick or Aunt Bee on any given day, and that’s part of what makes life worth living.

I guess something just had to give, back in the days when I Went Country. I don’t know that it happens to everyone, and it certainly doesn’t happen in a 120 degree car with Pam Tillis on the radio. I’m sure that during that 3 minute song I felt myself change. I understood something, I  took a leap of faith from the safe ground of self-protective cynicism to the unknown territory of admitting that I wanted something as common as a family and a home. I identified with that raw, patent need for love and safety that I had dismissed and mocked for more than thirty years. I would never, in my current incarnation, pick country music as my favorite genre, or even my second favorite. It might make third behind classical and alternative; then again, it might get bumped by classic rock. In a Tom Petty-George Strait smack down, well, never mind. All I know is that when I needed a catalyst it was there for me in all of its resplendent sweetness and spiritual generosity. For that I will always be grateful.


About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

28 responses »

  1. perhaps my favorite post that you’ve ever written…

    • You’re biased. 🙂 By the way, I tried to find a video of Pam Tillis singing “Sweetheart’s Dance” to imbed, and came up empty…..

  2. Ann,

    Me too! Scott Purvis, our AP Biology teacher told his senior class that he loved Country music and we would, too, when we got older. Of course, most of us just gaped, disbelieving, at his fuddy-duddy pronouncement.

    Oops, he was right.

  3. Candy Memphis finally appears in your blog! I have been waiting for this day!

    As always, brilliantly beautiful writing, Ann.

    • Yes, well, I wasn’t sure I could get a whole post out of The Candy Memphis Story, but she seemed to fit in this one….

  4. What a world, what a world……..

    Down to the redneck drivline shop the good ol boys got the homeys Iridescent Caddys up in the air installing lift kits to make 22’s fit under the fenders. The Lowrider shop is installing monster ‘subs’ in the skyjacked pickups so that the rednecks can ‘bump’ while down in the sippyhole. Daddys Beemer is blasting language that would shrivel a sailor, windows down at the stoplight, the 5 pretty debutants bouncing the suspension in unison.

    And here we are wondering if we are the only ones that had a moment of revelation listening to our ‘tunes’…….

    • It is so hard for me to believe that the music of which you speak could inspire a moment of anything besides nerve deafness, but maybe if I’m open to country, now, I can make room for hardcore rap and hip hop?

  5. I missed out on a lot of great music in the ’60’s and ’70’s due to my musical snobbery (although I admit to a secret enjoyment of The Association and — yes — “Baby I’m a want you,” and “Wendy” calls up some fond memories of a young lady of the same name). It was good music, even if I was stuck back in the 18th and 19th Centuries with Tony and the gang most of the time.

    But, essentially, I discovered classic rock in the mid-90’s, and classic Country — I mean “Lonesome Whippoorwill” classic — a few years later. I still can’t handle contemporary country much (I don’t get the current queen at all…can’t even remember her name; you know, the one who embarrassed Stevie Nicks at the Oscars) but I do seem to have become a Miley Cyrus fan somehow. Still not sure how that happened.

    It’s sort of fun, really. I don’t have to wait for the next hit to come out, all I need to do is tune into one of the classic channels on Sirius and space out to some Creedence, as I should have been doing when I was much younger. If that’s second childhood, or adolescence, I’m all for it.

    • It’s kind of interesting that I, a child classical musician with parents who only allowed classical in the house and in the car, managed to get acquainted with a lot more pop music than you did…you must have been one hard-core snob. 🙂 Although the modern country drew me in, the stuff that sticks is older – Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, not so much Taylor Swift. (You DO know her name, and she DID embarrass Stevie Nicks). There are others though, who pull me in with a great voice or a great song…I still love Pam Tillis because of that amazing voice.

      I think a second childhood is a great thing. I am so much more relaxed and open than I was at 20…let’s enjoy it from Creedence to Miley.

  6. Oh, I love the title of this, too.

    Words that begin with “t w” are awesome


    ah, can’t think of anymore right now, but….you have smart friends and relatives…they’ll help out, wright? I mean write? I mean rite?

  7. I’d like partial credit for reminding you about Candy.

  8. Yeah, I can’t make that leap and I’m constantly annoyed by the cross over involved in country/pop these days. I do not enjoy the fact that Shania and Taylor Swift’s twang can be played after Ludacris….I’ll find myself singing to Taylor only because it is relentlessly played but, for now, I’ll stick to my hip hop, rock mentality. If I ever switched it would be kicking and screaming. I’ve given it a fair shake, years ago a friend dragged me to a concert…shoot, the mom and daughter, country….what are there names? And Garth opened for them…I still rarely admit I went to those…it was a long night for me!

    • the Judds. That’s who it was! 🙂

    • I expect no one else to find what I found. 🙂 I don’t consider a lot of the country-pop crossover to be an authentic version of either, and I agree that it’s kind of jarring. mostly, i think everybody responds to different music, and that’s part of what makes the world a good place to be.

  9. I started on some “gateway country” in the mid 90s, listening to some folksy chicks. I remember driving to work in Ann Arbor and listening to a Country station claiming that I wasn’t “really” a country music fan, because I only liked a few acts. Then I found myself singing along to the lyrics “I got a barbecue stain on my white T shirt…she was killing me in that mini-skirt…” There was no turning back at that time. I have a lot of country and bluegrass on my MP3 player but am pretty out of the loop on current stars, since I don’t listen to a Country Station in my car anymore.

    • Funny how that happens…and the lyrics really are kind of amazing. Slyly funny sometimes, and much smarter than one might expect.

  10. That happened to me, too in the late 80’s, early 90’s. Bluegrass music was our gateway drug.

    And yes, Pam Tillis had a wonderful voice, and Dolly Parton….did your stint with country music extend to the point where you found her wonderful Little Sparrow album, and The Grass is Blue album? My son plays mandolin on those albums and it isn’t only motherly bias when I say there is great music on those albums!

    I, too, grew up the child of classical music snobs. My mother’s a classical pianist and my dad taught composition and theory at universities across the country. It was very difficult for me to let bluegrass music into my world. And then I ended up listening to country because I was hooked on bluegrass and you could sometimes hear something remotely similar on a country station. Our country music listening occurred mainly on car trips, but we particularly liked George Strait and Pam Tillis and Ricky Skaggs. We loved the sweet and simple themes, too. I totally understand.

    • imagineannie

      I also like Bluegrass, a lot. I do know Little Sparrow (which is probably my favorite DP song) but not The Grass is Blue. I remember that your son is a “real” musician; I will now a) listen to Little Sparrow with renewed appreciation and b) have an excuse to buy The Grass is Blue.

      There aren’t many people in my world who “get” the music snob upbringing. I am always, always glad that I heard (and, for many years, played) classical music…but there is so much more music to love! Among other things, the willingness to remain “open” helps me connect to my own son, because instead of telling him I “don’t listen to” the music he likes, I ask him about it, listen to it, like some, don”t like some, and have really interesting discussions with him about it.

      It’s good to see you here again. 🙂

  11. Actually, I couldn’t remember her name at the time. (Just wait another 15 years.)

    The snobbery was the worst kind: that born of ignorance and laziness. I already knew classical and jazz and, having barely escaped being a redneck cowboy, I had no interest at all in country or anything remotely like it — and certainly nothing that required learning a new way of listening.

    Ve grow too soon old, und too late schmart. But, on the other hand, I still discover a new Beatles tune now and then…


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