I only need one song to explain how I feel about country music: George Strait’s So Much Like My Dad. A modest hit in 1992, the tune’s not nearly as recognizable as Strait’s other classics. You’ll likely run into All My Exes Live in Texas, but probably not So Much Like My Dad.
A few keys of the piano walk you into the song’s weather: the first few drops of an icy rain, a first snowfall. A brush hits the drumhead and somehow it’s cold. It hits a few more times and it’s been cold a long time. The guitar picks up, string by string. Seasons, days, minutes, and seconds spring to life and then pass away. The singer’s returned home to his mother, but it’s “not his usual time of year.” He has a problem and is seeking an answer.
The music brightens like a mother’s smile. I can’t help but think that his mother blushes with the flattery of being sought out by her boy. The son goes one better; he is ready to reminisce and begins recalling memories of his father and the mutual things that mother and son could share about the man, the good times so to speak.
We are hearing, through the son’s words, the story the mother tells herself to live; we see through her rose colored glasses, the song letting all the sentiment in with reckless abandon: “Remember when I was dad’s pride and joy, and your little man?” The son then uses the mother’s own words, “Boy, you’re getting more like him, each and every day.”
We are lulled into this story, we move to the one-two, one-two of the beat, which makes the song great for two-step. The conversation is also a bit like a dance, form and content perfectly united. We feel like the son is glancing over to his mother after each phrase and it is almost as though she is nodding in agreement.
Then Strait takes a big breath. The son, in fact, is not at ease talking to his mother. The breath is important. He needs to courage to launch into what all of this is really about, and what it is really about is that he actually is like his dad, not the dad they’ve enjoyed recalling, but what his dad was really like:
“She’s says she gonna leave me, Momma, and nothing on God’s green earth can make her stay. I can’t live without her, Momma, but this time you can’t kiss the hurt away, but if I am so much like my Dad, there must have been times you felt her way. So tell me word for word, what he said, that always made you stay.”
Her son has become the monster. Though they talk pleasantries about the past, the real father returns like a ghost. The son not only knew about his father’s sins, but also, despite the mother’s efforts at protection, has re-created them. The sentimentality early in the song only serves as a way of making this generational pain a sharper twist of the knife. No, the past wasn’t better. People weren’t stronger. For each of those years together that was hard fought, there is a clear argument that perhaps they shouldn’t have fought at all.
The complicated humanity of this song, in my opinion, rivals Robert Frost’s Home Burial, the stories of Alice Munro or William Trevor, or even Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters. There is deep mystery at the heart of it, and the mystery comes from a verifiable lineage of individual choices.
We stand, along with the son, awaiting the answer. The answer never comes.
Earl Scruggs and June Carter on the set of the Flatt & Scruggs Grand Ole Opry Show, 1961, Paul Warren (in background), fiddler, Foggy Mountain Boys; © Les Leverett; Courtesy Annenberg Space for Photography, LA
I’ve always wanted to express my admiration for that song, for country music in general, and there has never been a good moment. Now, having seen the Annenberg Space for Photography’s exhibition of country music portrait photography, it is as good a time as any, though in this impressive collection of photos you won’t find a single snap of George Strait.
What you do find is an attempt to present the idea of country music through images, and, surprisingly, this works like a charm up to a point. Henry Diltz, Henry Horenstein, Les Leverett, David McClister, Raeanne Rubenstein, Leigh Wiener and Michael Wilson are among the photographers presented and they are all quite good. They build the stories of their musicians, all while being on the fabled quest of every portrait photographer, that legendary journey into the reality of their subject. Country music takes the same road; musicians, songwriters, singers, and record companies create themselves in the image of what sells and what sells in country music is authenticity. It is a fascinating paradox.
The photos come across loud and clear. Basically as soon as the African banjo met the American fiddle, country music was popular and sold well. It exploded in the 1930s, and quickly becomes the story of people changing out of suits into overalls and back into suits. When Hollywood sold cowboys, country singers put on hats and starred in Westerns. When the sixties wanted long hair and artists on the fringe, country music revived the outlaw (look to Willie Nelson in the RCA years for proof and subsequently later, when, by his own admission, he was more like himself). In the eighties, country stars aligned themselves with high fashion, brought in synthesizers, and laid it on as thick as hair metal and glam (Tanya Tucker’s album cover for TNT is all you need to see). In the late eighties and nineties, the cowboy hat returned. There is even a moment in the Annenberg’s film on country music where a country record producer jokes that Keith Urban looks like the guy that comes with the picture frame.
At the same time, the truisms about country music are present as well. “Three chords and the truth,” said Harlan Howard, a sentiment along the lines of “Country people talking about country things.” There is country music as the “cry of the heart.” There is the common advice to budding musicians is to “hang onto your roots and branch out.” And let’s not forget the decree of the stage manager at the Grand Ole Opry for singers to keep it to “One song per hillbilly.” However, my favorite quote remains Johnny Cash’s description of Merle Haggard: “Merle Haggard is the man you think I am.” What better way to show the tension between the expectations for country music to be authentic and the reality of the situation?
And what are some of those expectations? Well, the photos in the installation again tell the story. Leigh Weiner has some very expressive, almost campy, photos of Cash in a confederate uniform or underneath the watchful eye of the cross while dressed in black. There are many superficial markers of “country”: trucks, beer, sadness, loss, drunkenness, cheating, forgiveness, and church. However, Weiner’s best one of Cash gets to the heart of it: simply Cash with his guitar placed in front of him, as pensive as a boy about to meet his girl’s parents or as someone who wants to be seen a simple songsmith, nothing more nothing less. Michael Wilson’s portrait of Lyle Lovett in the snow is posed in a similar manner, doused with a big dose of lonesomeness, “a wanderer in the world” mystique. Country musicians must appear simple; they must have an “aw shucks” gratefulness to their demeanor. There is an air of perpetual nostalgia and gratitude, brokenness and redemption, and the country music industry goes to great lengths to make sure the spell is not broken.
Emmylou Harris, Sunday School Room, Nashville, 2000; © Michael Wilson; Courtesy Annenberg Space for Photography, LA
However, I am not even remotely cynical about this, though this simplicity can often be right wing, hostile to any sort of intellectual sophistication. The reason is that there is something deeply and intrinsically true about Americans in this tension between self-creation and its paradoxical taste for foundation values that may or may not exist. In country music the rigidity of its image can often make the humanity of its content come forward in surprising, even forceful, ways. Country music is like the neighbor that has said hello to you a hundred times, even done you favors, only to hide real, unbelievably intense trauma and suffering just under the surface.
Maybe that is what is lacking in the Annenberg show. We get the image, we get the history, but, unfortunately, it is hard to get to the mystery of country music, difficult to dive into the real meat of country, which are the songs themselves and their ability to speak to individuals.
To make an attempt at what I mean, perhaps we should return to So Much like My Dad. After all, I just described the beginning of the song, and for a while, I thought the ending was boring, just George Strait repeating the earned chorus, “If I’m so much like my dad,” after a long solo on piano and guitar.
Strait did not write So Much like My Dad. Strait has never written any song. You should also know that Strait’s career has made most of its hay by selling authenticity. In a world of stadium shows and massive bands, the introduction of synthesizers and new levels of production value, Strait came out on the stage alone in jeans and a white hat. On his farewell tour this year, thirty-three years later, Strait continued to come out on the stage in jeans and white hat. That’s what it always is with Strait: he’s just a simple man with a good voice. He can’t write but is very happy that others can. Even though he is not a singer/songwriter, he is as authentic as it gets. He loves his fans, he loves his job, he loves America.
But then there is the song, with that chorus, repeating over and over, asking the mother for advice that she doesn’t have. Strait even pauses once between the chorus to make the silence between the narrator and the mother more punishing and more present. Strait’s song, as mirror for life, begins to fracture into mirrors: some show us personally, others attempt universals. Is the mother quiet because the memory of her horrible husband is too much? Is she in denial about the truth of the past? Is she disinclined to offer because she knows the consequences? Does the fact that the chorus goes on and on allude to the chain of this pain, that sons will be fathers and fathers will be sons and there is no answer?
Gram Parsons (standing), adopting the rhinestone look of his country music heroes, in a personalized suit designed by Nashville’s favorite tailor, Nudie Cohn (seated), at Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors shop, Los Angeles, 1968; © Raeanne Rubenstein; Courtesy Annenberg Space for Photography, LA
George Strait is not Gram Parsons, he doesn’t have any indie credibility or Nudie suits. He is not Loretta Lynn, made solid by a well-publicized and painful past. Nor is he Buck Owens, who came to embody the Bakersfield sound and therefore is seen as a trailblazer. He is not Taylor Swift, the newest in a long line of singers who brilliantly bridge the trickle between country and pop. All told, Strait is boring, boring enough to have more number one country hits than anyone else in history.
However, that is the mystery of country music. Its images fracture into pie pieces and the assemblage of the pieces is our broken, collective selves, which, in turn, are also made from pieces. Through the cracks, we find haunting stories and it can be scary if we listen closely. It deals with nothing less than the silence of things we don’t know. Country music knows that each of us speaks with a thousand voices. It is never surprised when it recognizes one of them.
(Image on top: Johnny Cash; © Leigh Wiener; Courtesy Annenberg Space for Photography, LA)