Is This the Greatest Music Writing You’re Going to Read Today?

I mean, other than when you scroll down and read my awesome take on the Dave Clark 5. But this takedown of the whole “Country Boy Can Survive” knock-off genre is pretty damn great. You know I blame Hank Jr. for all this nonsense, but I actually think considering what makes Hank Jr.’s “Country Boy Can Survive” work over the rest of these “we cart our dicks in wheelbarrows out here in the country; I don’t know how you do it, city slicker” songs is that Hank Jr. writes only deceptively simple songs. I mean, there’s always some bit of pain working its way out of Hank’s soul, like a long-forgotten splinter coming to the surface. Even “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” became “and the hangovers hurt more than they used to” in “All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down.”

So, yes, “Country Boy Can Survive” does, indeed, seem like simply the progenitor of all these terrible songs, if you’re only focusing on the “we say grace and we say ma’am. If you ain’t into that, we don’t give a damn” part. But Williams, at his best, is not that simple. And so we know the singer has a friend in New York City and we know his friend never calls him by his name, just hillbilly. And, in the context of the song, we can imagine that a New Yorker calling the singer hillbilly would be cause for “fuck you, man” but the New Yorker is called only “friend” by the singer, twice, when we learn of him and when we learn what happens to him.

And isn’t that the meat of the song? It’s not that the country is so much better than the city, exactly. It’s that, in the country men don’t lose their lives for $43, at least not without being able to get a shot off themselves first. “Country Boy Can Survive” is a song about grief disguised as a song about how great rural America is, colored with the notion that we’re losing rural America.

All of Hank Jr.’s best songs are like that–the veneer of the seeming subject of the song covering the actual subject, which is always loss, always grief.

This, I would posit, is why the knock-offs don’t live up to the original–they don’t understand the feeling of things and people slipping away that causes people to cling to “simpler” times and places, to crow about them like they’re the best thing ever. The knock-offs think they’re telling the truth; Williams knows he’s got to build a myth he can live with.

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11 thoughts on “Is This the Greatest Music Writing You’re Going to Read Today?

  1. Well, Bocephus can be a good songwriter. But I think it’s more likely that in addition to the artistry you point out, “A Country Boy Can Survive” feels more convincing to you because the guy actually does spend an inordinate amount of time hunting and fishing, and probably could do some surviving on his own (well, I don’t know for sure about the plowing part, but probably). Whereas most of the “I’m so country because of this list of signifiers” songs list things that aren’t actually part of the writers’ or singers’ experience. Which, I suppose, is why they insist on writing and singing them — they have convinced themselves that the signifiers matter more than their actual experience, so they are trying to stake a claim to what’s being represented.

  2. NM, I think that’s absolutely right. It’s become the country equivalent of the raps about Benzes and Cristal and all the shit they have that you, dear listener, don’t, which, of course, they don’t always really have either.

    it’s aspirational fronting as already acquired. These country singers aspire to be actual country boys and so they sing about it and hope to make it so.

  3. You know that Peter Cooper did a column about list songs in the Tennessean not too long ago, complaining about how stereotyped they were. And then some other columnist elsewhere did a response column, completely missing the point about the mindlessness of list songs, about knowing that the lists were fake but not wanting to hear songs about what the songwriters really do with their lives. You know, sort of “I don’t want country music to be three chords and the truth, I want it to be four chords, rock drummers, and my favorite fantasy.” (I’ll try to track the links for those columns down later, when I am not slammed.) It’s not just that the authenticity of the signifiers is doubtful; it’s that the emotional experience is fake, as well. Bah, humbug.

  4. Being a native Southerner, the thing about the checklists in these songs aren’t really things that make someone Southern to me.

    When I return to Mississippi there are things that are distinctly Southern that are not really done in Nashville – or not heavily. For example, the opening day of deer or dove season – those days might as well be national holidays in MS. Or the whole no white shoes/linen after Labor Day or prior to Easter – most people (not all however) here don’t care. In MS, huge fashion faux pas. Or putting on my good jewelry when a “cloud comes up” as my Granny says – if I’m getting blown away, my jewelry is going with me – I don’t plan on digging around for it.

    It is little things – and those vary region to region depending on the area one finds him/herself. But I don’t consider myself “country” at all. Save for my thick Southern accent.

  5. I think deer season is a really rural thing. I can remember–back before Columbine, obviously–when I was in school, the start of deer season meant most of the boys would be missing. And, when I got to high school, it was completely an ordinary thing that people’s cars and trucks would be sitting in the parking lot filled with rifles because they’d come from hunting straight to school.

  6. nm, I think Bonaquro’s take is interesting. As you say, she seems to be missing the point, but what’s weird to me is that the list songs feel out of touch. I will give it up for “Redneck Woman” which may be the last good list song I can think of. I know women live like that. It’s great that Wilson did, too, but I don’t necessarily need that.

    I do need to know that people actually do, though. And I have to tell you, some of these list songs, I just don’t believe anyone lives that life. People can’t afford to farm anymore. Not the family farms that were falling by the wayside even when i was a kid.

    Gas is so expensive that people don’t mud as much as they used to.

    They just don’t have the kinds of disposable income that the people in these songs seem to have. That’s what reminds me so much of rap.

  7. Believe me, I am mere yards away from some of the things on these “list songs,” but, oddly, the ones in my family who actually DO lead these lives do not particularly care for those songs. One of my cousins could be their poster boy (huntin’, muddin, workin’ at the plant AND family-farmin’, etc-in’), yet his preference in country is Hank Sr., Patsy and Waylon, with the occasional foray into Jamey Johnson’s territory. The rest of these “pretty boys,” as he calls them, do not represent him or his buddies. Why Aerosmith, Motley Crue and Guns ‘n’ Roses do, when he and the buddies are not even 20, is beyond me, but there you are. He also kind of freaks out when he hears a country song reference Patron, which is another thing we have in common.

    B, I agree with your thesis on Junior, heartily.

    And Beth, re: the whole no white shoes/linen after Labor Day or prior to Easter – most people (not all however) here don’t care … outside Davidson County proper, they do. There are still women, young and old, who will just about cut you on the street (“cut” in the social, not violent, sense) in what we call the Midstate “doughnut counties,” as well as the other 80-plus, if they see you breaking those rules.

    I am a grown woman who has survived 48 summers in Tennessee, knowing full well the hot weather doesn’t really break around here until mid- to late September, sometimes October, and I cannot stand humidity. But if I wear my white pants and sandals after Labor Day, even the week OF Labor Day, I feel so weird (and slightly in danger) that I put ‘em away for the year pretty soon after.

    There is Southern, and there is rural. Rural is not necessarily Southern, but Southern still incorporates a huge amount of rural, no matter how long ago we dug up and put pesticide on our agrarian roots.

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