On Sunday, January 30, 1972, members of the British Army opened fire into a crowd of unarmed Irish protesters in Derry, Ireland, shooting 26 (of which 5 were shot in the back) and killing 14, including 6 teenagers. The crowd of Irish protesters had marched that day through the streets of Derry, Ireland, in protest of the British Government’s policy of internment without trial in Northern Ireland. The horrible, gut-wrenching event would be indelibly imprinted on the mind of every young Irishmen old enough to remember it, including one Paul David Hewson, who would one day become more well-known as “Bono,” lead singer of one of the most successful rock groups of all time.
Of course, U2’s anthemic 1983 song “Sunday Bloody Sunday” does not provide the listener with any clue that these events transpired, or that the song is in some way connected to them, unless the listener has a working historical knowledge of The Troubles or handy access to Wikipedia. Like so many rock songs, the listener is left with a clear and poignant sense that the singer is troubled to the depths of his soul but without a concrete understanding as to why. In true poetic form, U2 bypasses any attempt at a narrative recollection of facts and proceeds straight to emotional reflection.
I can’t believe the news today
I can’t close my eyes and make it go away
How long? How long must we sing this song?
How long? How long?
I was reminded of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” today as I listened, for the first time in my adult life, to an entire country CD (Brad Paisley’s Hits Alive). Being the son of native Texans and 20-year resident of the South (including now almost a decade in Nashville, my current home), I have of course been exposed (somewhat against my will) to a very substantial amount of country. But before today, I had never sat down and really digested a country CD from back to front the way I did, say, upon the first time listening to Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band or Tommy or even more recent offerings such as Ten or Siamese Dream.
Hits Alive was better than I expected, musically speaking. In a different time, Paisley could have had a successful and lucrative career as a blues rock guitarist, if he so chose. Although the album was liberally sprinkled with camp (the first two songs, “Ticks” and “Mud on the Tires” can only be understood by a non-country fan as deliberate self-parody), it nonetheless displayed an impressive range of emotion and Paisley’s voice as a live artist is strong and true. I found “Then” (particularly the piano-driven arrangement) and “When I Get Where I’m Going” (a duet with the ageless Dolly Parton) to be objectively outstanding songs for any genre of music. And yet, apart from my distaste for steel-pedal guitar, I found another reason I simply could not enjoy the experience as well as I should have: the plain-spoken and narrative nature of many of the songs caused me internally to pigeonhole them as jingoistic or corny.
Upon further reflection, I realized that they’re not at all. I realized that, fundamentally, rock is poetry, and country is prose. To the man who has spent his whole life reading cummings, I am sure Hemingway sounds like a simpleton.
Country’s narrative style mimics perfectly the conservative philosophy of life – oral traditions passed down and preserved through poignant and clear narratives. This explains why, despite the fact that the majority of country stars are, at least publicly, old-school Democrats of the blue-collar union mold, country fans are by and large far more conservative than their rock fan counterparts. And, while country –particularly modern country – frequently delves into the ribald, country fans are almost uniformly unwilling to tolerate wholesale rebellion against foundational principles. The sort of carousing that made Jimi Hendrix legendary destroyed the career of Mindy McCready. Political statements that would have been tame fare for the fans of Green Day or even Paul McCartney resulted in the near-total shunning of the Dixie Chicks from country radio stations. And while some of country’s brightest and most politically vocal stars (like Toby Keith and Tim McGraw) remain publicly Democrats, you can bet that if a professional musician is willing to be seen on-stage supporting the election of a Republican, it is a country star. You can likewise bet that if a professional musician has a successful American career in spite of numerous public statements spitting on American traditions – and even America itself – that musician is a rock star.
Of course, this is not to say that country music is saintly or that it does not have its fair share of songs that glorify licentiousness. “Ticks” and “Alcohol” would feel at home, from a message standpoint, on a standard The Who album. However, what set Hits Alive apart were the songs reinforcing the importance of being a good father (“Anything Like Me,” “He Didn’t Have to Be”), treating women with respect (“Waitin’ on a Woman”), and the virtues of mature and committed monogamy (“She’s Everything,” “We Danced”).
The conservative mind is simply more primed to both create and appreciate country music.
Of course, it vastly oversimplifies things to say that rock is reflective and country is narrative. But a classic example of the usual dichotomy can be seen in the way Tim McGraw describes the death of his father, legendary pitcher Tug McGraw:
He said: “I was in my early forties,
“With a lot of life before me,
“An’ a moment came that stopped me on a dime.
“I spent most of the next days,
“Looking at the x-rays,
“An’ talking ’bout the options an’ talkin’ ‘bout sweet time.”
I asked him when it sank in,
That this might really be the real end?
How’s it hit you when you get that kind of news?
Man whatcha do?
An’ he said: “I went sky diving, I went rocky mountain climbing,
“I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu.
“And I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter,
“And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying.”
An’ he said: “Some day, I hope you get the chance,
“To live like you were dyin’.”
To McGraw, his father’s battle with cancer is a story to be told. The lesson to be learned is to be gleaned from the real life experience. Contrast this with the way Eric Clapton mourned the loss of his son in Tears in Heaven:
Would you hold my hand
If I saw you in heaven?
Would you help me stand
If I saw you in heaven?
I’ll find my way
Through night and day,
‘Cause I know I just can’t stay
Here in heaven.
Time can bring you down,
Time can bend your knees.
Time can break your heart,
Have you begging please, begging please.
Beyond the door,
There’s peace I’m sure,
And I know there’ll be no more
Tears in heaven.
To Clapton, the actual event of his son’s death is not the point of the song. Instead, Clapton reflects on the way the event makes him feel, and explores it painstakingly through every possible angle, nook and cranny. There is no moral to the story, there is no experience to be gained, only the endless misery that Clapton makes us feel in his soul. It is, I suppose, comforting for the moment to wallow in the depths of distilled emotion, but rock is seldom useful for the reinforcement of anything that is useful to the life of the responsible citizen.
The difference in these approaches neatly encapsulate the difference between the conservative and the liberal approach to life. A conservative should not as easily dismiss a form of art that validates his entire approach to life as I have country music.
Through force of habit, or perhaps because of the relentless rational grind of my day to day life, I remain far, far more likely to gravitate towards the elemental and disembodied appeal of rock, even though it necessarily involves ignoring the theme of deliberate subversion that runs throughout. But from today, I will attempt to reject the subconscious liberal snobbery I have been holding towards country music and the powerful conservative message it teaches.
PS – Ya’ gotta believe.