Sunday, December 04, 2005


December 2005 email newsletter
No. 019


I’ll read from my prose & poetry beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday night, Dec. 8, at the Van Zandt Community Theatre at 416 W. Third in Wills Point, about 50 miles east of Dallas. It would be nice, if the moon and stars line up right, for a few of you to attend. I will read about aging, influences, inspiration, play, place, seeking, love and friendship, and some of the stuff that exists in the corners of our minds.

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A sign outside an East Texas church said that the only sheep who face danger are the ones who stray away from the flock. A sign outside another East Texas church said that a complaining Christian is a contradiction in terms.

The last time I was in Dallas, someone I like and respect moved just around the edges of a political conversation with me. Finally, he asked if it were true that he should do and believe what his church and other communities say he should do. My quick thought: No. We should be open minded. We should think for ourselves. This friend and I come at truth from different directions sometimes. I won't let intolerant people make me choose between my fundamentalist or progressive friends, although I grin when one of them begins to move a little closer to my point of view.

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A few months ago, for the anniversary of the end of World War II, I interviewed 30 or more elderly veterans for an article celebrating their service in a war that most people agree was at least necessary.

One of the men I interviewed travels across the country speaking, from long-time, deep-conviction conservative, on the subject of freedom. We did not talk partisan politics, but when I mentioned the nastiness, he sighed and quietly commented, "I don't know what's happened to this country."

We agreed, and let the subject drop.

A new book, Rednecks and Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music, digs into that kind of nastiness played out in country music. The book is a fascinating read, avoiding sound-bite journalism and presenting people on both sides of the issues as real human beings sometimes struggling with, and sometimes confident in, their beliefs. Nobody the author, Chris Willman, interviews comes across as a one-dimensional cutout the way daily media tend to portray people.

Willman has 20 years' experience writing about music, the past 10 for Entertainment Weekly. He wrote the article for Entertainment Weekly’s nude cover photo of the Dixie Chicks. In Rednecks and Bluenecks, he interviews the Chicks again, and goes beyond that crucifixion (three people were crucified on that hill; take your pick of which the Chicks represent) to talk with many country and country-fringe musicians including Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Merle Haggard, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Kris Kristofferson, James McMurtry, Buddy Miller, Willie Nelson, Bruce Robison, Ricky Skaggs, Todd Snider, Travis Tritt, Gretchen Wilson, Lee Ann Womack, Chely Wright, and Adrienne Young.

It's a balanced, well-researched book with just a couple of nagging flaws that I caught: he refers to "John T. Ford's Country Store in Polutus" and to "Walter Reade" hospital, when he means John T. Floore's Country Store in Helotes” and "Walter Reed Army Medical Center." These errors nag, but are not substantive.

Willman writes that country music is a mirror into lower- and middle-class life; he doesn’t say, but means, mostly Anglo, of course.

He writes that most mainstream country musicians -- the ones who depend on radio airplay for a big part of their success – are conservative, or at least keep their mouths shut because they see what happened to the Dixie Chicks’ bank accounts.

He writes of the impact of commercial country radio and of talk radio, which are, in these days of corporate ownership, more conservative than their listeners. (One of Willman's interview subjects, Music Row Democrats founder Bob Titley, points out that a 2002 survey done for country radio broadcasters showed that a third of country radio listeners consider themselves conservative, a third liberal, and a third independent.)

Willman writes that, in general, musicians who work within the system tend to be conservative and that those who work outside the system -- the so-called alt-country musicians, for the most part -- tend to be more liberal. One of Willman's interviews, with No Depression co-editor Grant Alden, illuminates that theory of what happens when economics drive expression.

"The road to riches runs through conformity," Alden said. "I would turn this into an aesthetic argument: most mainstream country singers -- who are not songwriters, in the main -- want to be stars. The people I'm drawn to write about, the performers who typically grace the pages of No Depression, are artists. One is not better than the other, though I prefer the latter. They have different motivations. The artists I like create art -- visual, musical, whatever -- because they have to, not because they think it will sell. A singer understands that, by signing a major-label deal in Nashville, he or she is consenting to be shaped, framed, and marketed, and that his or her individual identity is important only insofar as it creates a story for initial publicity, or a story that must be shielded from the press."

Willman uses reaction -- fueled by what Raul Malo called "Orwellian" talk radio -- to Natalie Maines' well-known -- and more widely agreed with than some people care to think -- comments as a starting point to add historical perspective from earlier wars and political campaigns and to dig into the extremes of belief and misunderstanding dividing this country.

From time to time, Willman seems to interchange the words "conservative" and "populist" as if they mean the same thing. They do not. Populism is a concept of, at its simplest, the powerless versus the powerful. That's neither a conservative nor a liberal concept. Populist is, perhaps, the best real description of the country music audience.

One of the most gratifying revelations of Willman's book is that, even in an age of single-issue politics, many people he interviews find common ground on issues. It makes me wish these musicians, rather than politicians, were running the country.

Suppression of dissent is unpatriotic. Since when is it dumb to have an opinion or to say what you believe? Any roomful of people will have more in common than they do differences. Polarization, as a strategy, simply means “divide and conquer,” exploiting differences rather than commonalities.

William Gibson wrote in his novel Pattern Recognition that, "We have no future because our present is too volatile. We have only risk management, the spinning of the given moment’s scenarios, pattern recognition . . ."

If I spin, it's from dizziness. If I lean, which I do, it's toward the populism of the commoner, because there are so many more people there who can catch me if I fall. Elitism, of any kind, isolates.

I won't let intolerant people make me choose between my fundamentalist or progressive friends.

I will recommend that you give copies of Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music to everybody on your Christmas list.