Until You Add The Steel Guitar

I fell in love with country music in a Chattanooga bar. You can
blame cheap beer and a dollar’s worth of jukebox tunes, but I fell
hard for banjos and fiddles and, yes, even line dancing. I bought
myself a straw cowgirl hat and a pair of scuffed boots. I went to
Texas to see the hill country. Since I’m a writer, I also started
to scribble-sonnets full of dusty trucks, gravel roads, and
corn-fed boys with broad tanned shoulders.

But Budweiser isn’t iambic. I got scared the day I knew I wasn’t
writing poems anymore, the day I realized I was writing country
songs. I was writing bad country songs and I was embarrassed. At
first, I told everyone I knew that it was just a kick in the ass,
something to distract me from my ‘real’ work, but I was

I ended up in Iowa City, in dank graduate school dives, arguing the
poetics of Gram Parsons, Townes Van Zandt, and Alejandro Escovedo.

I wanted to confess, to stand up and proclaim my devotion from a
mountaintop, but I couldn’t find one high enough in Johnson County.
I wanted to plant my boots on a soapbox and rustle my skirts. I
wanted to shout to the world, ‘I love Dolly Parton! I believe in
Patsy Cline!’

Finally, I outed myself in the hallowed halls of the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop by turning in a page of song lyrics for the
amusement of my unsuspecting class. I truly believed the sky was
going to fall, but my teacher walked into our classroom the next
day with a portable stereo. We listened to Greg Brown sing William
Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience,’ talked about
Wallace Stevens, then hit a big wall made out of two
words-sentimentality and cliché.
I was prepared to go down swinging, but what could I say? ‘Nope.
You’re wrong. There are absolutely no clichés in the country songs
I love.’ I knew I was licked. I figured I’d have to quit school
since I couldn’t kick country. Then my teacher said slowly, ‘You
know what? ‘Stand by your man and tell the world you love him’ is
simply not poetry . . . until you add the steel guitar.’ I was

For me, country songs are the last bastion of sincerity. You think
I’m going too far? Maybe. But words like last and
sincerity are uncomfortable in the same way that
never and love are. They’re extreme, but they’re the
kind of words that make me love country music, the words that make
me wish a song would never end. Go ahead and laugh, but country
music is my shelter in the storm of self-awareness.

I know that even as I write this, somebody is finishing a thesis on
the curious emergence of alt-country music in the new millennium,
and that’s fine. But for those of us seeking comfort from the
clever sarcasm of graduate school and indie rock, country music is
more than an idea.

Dogs die and lovers leave and trucks break down. Other things
happen in this world too, but an awful lot of people get left and
an awful lot of people cry and an awful lot of people drink too
much. Clichés are clichés for a reason. And yes, there are bad
offensive stupid country songs. Of course there are. But at least
when they’re bad, they’re usually honest.

I had to get wasted at a Tennessee bar and then wake up in an Iowa
cornfield to understand, but I’m a believer now, the real deal. The
night John Ashbery tried to send me to the store for a bottle of
Tanqueray, I left the party. But if you play the banjo, I’ll help
you load out after your gig. I’ll let you sleep on my floor. And if
you’re nice, I might even make you breakfast.

From No Depression (March/April 2002), a bimonthly
magazine covering ‘alt-country’ music, especially where the
Nashville sound overlaps with bluegrass, rockabilly, rock and roll,
and blues. Subscriptions: $18/yr. (6 issues) from Box 31332,
Seattle, WA

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