Poor No More 

Country roots? Not likely

Country roots? Not likely

Two generations removed from the Great Depression and insulated by a variety of functional-if-maligned Great Society programs, today’s country singers and songwriters rarely address the once rampant theme of personal poverty. This is probably because so few of them have ever been poor—except in the most relative sense.

For most of its history, however, country music has been firmly linked to poverty. Dolly Parton fashioned her “Coat of Many Colors” from a rural childhood so barren of comforts that her winter garment had to be pieced together from rags. Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” and “Hungry Eyes,” Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and Harlan Howard’s “Busted” all portrayed times when society offered little or nothing in the way of a “safety net.” Bill Anderson bemoaned the hard life in “Po’ Folks” but leavened it somewhat with humor, much as Little Jimmy Dickens had done in “Take an Old Cold ’Tater (And Wait)” and “A-Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed.” Charley Pride echoed the cry of many a destitute country boy when he sang “All I Have to Offer You Is Me.”

In addition to the songs that directly addressed poverty, there were hundreds of others that alluded to it as a fact of life. But this connection was strongest when country music was still a predominately rural phenomenon—and when rural still meant remote and isolated. Things have changed considerably with the new wave of country acts. Tim McGraw, for example, sings about economic deprivation in “All I Want Is a Life,” but he’s not talking about just getting by. His focus is on upgrading his level of comfort: “I just want to get a little more out of my payday/Finally get a car that doesn’t break down on the freeway.” He doesn’t complain of having to live in a shack; instead, he laments living in a “broken-down apartment” with holes in the carpet. While these complaints are not insignificant, they are hardly life-or-death concerns.

Joe Diffie advances his hillbilly credentials in “C-O-U-N-T-R-Y,” but penury isn’t one of them. “I ain’t never hauled hay in the trunk of my car,” he boasts at the outset, going on to assert, “I like monster trucks, tractor pulls, county fairs/Huntin’ and fishin’ and ice cold beer”—all cash-intensive diversions. If there is poverty here at all, it is only poverty of imagination. In his eloquent and clearly heartfelt “Home,” Alan Jackson sings not of his own destitution but rather of the hard life his parents experienced long ago and told him stories about. It is poverty romanticized by distance.

These switches in theme and emphasis demonstrate that country music is doing what every form of popular art must do to survive: reflect enough current realities to be believable. It is also an enormous relief to see country move away from the once prevalent notion that it is morally virtuous to be poor—that hard times are more likely to build character than crush spirits. This was always a silly and transparently self-serving pose, and few will mourn its passing.

Currents

♦ The air practically crackled with epiphanies throughout Fan Fair week. Surely the most vivid of these occurred during the TNN/Music City News Country Awards TV special, when grizzled old road warriors John Anderson and Johnny Paycheck ambled onstage to present the male star of tomorrow trophy to squeaky-clean and dewy-fresh Bryan White. What a story that moment conveyed! Seizing the moment, White told Anderson that “Swingin’ ” was the first song he learned to pick on the guitar—when he was a mere 13 years old. Anderson smiled.

The other winners at the June 10 event were Alan Jackson, top entertainer and top male artist; Lorrie Morgan, female artist; Terri Clark, female star of tomorrow; Brooks & Dunn, vocal duo; the Statler Brothers, vocal group; Sawyer Brown, vocal band; Vince Gill, Patty Loveless and Ricky Skaggs, vocal collaboration (for “Go Rest High on That Mountain”); George Strait’s “Check Yes or No,” top single and top video; George Strait’s Lead On, top album; Ricky Van Shelton, top Christian country artist; Jeff Foxworthy, top comedian; Amy Grant, the Minnie Pearl Award; and Willie Nelson, the Living Legend Award.

♦ Capitol Nashville will promote and market John Berry’s upcoming Faces album via three separate album covers. The record is due out Sept. 3; “Change My Mind” will be the first single.

Gettin’ Out the Good Chicken, a comedy and parody CD masterminded by deejay Carl P. Mayfield and hosted by David Lee Murphy, is now on sale at area Kroger stores. Profits from the $9.98 album will go to the T.J. Martell Foundation for Leukemia, Cancer and AIDS Research. Included are live musical performances by Murphy, David Ball, Tracy Lawrence, Joe Diffie, Lee Roy Parnell, James House and Shania Twain.

♦ George Jones’ autobiography, I Lived to Tell It All, has just entered the Publisher’s Weekly hardcover bestsellers chart at No. 14.

♦ More than 50 members of the foreign press were issued passes to cover this year’s Fan Fair. They represented publications and broadcasters in Australia, Canada, Portugal, Switzerland, New Zealand, Wales, Spain, France, Germany, England, Brazil, Scotland, Slovenia, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. There were more than 150 domestic reporters and photographers registered.

♦ Photographer Karen Will Rogers and writer and publisher Garth Shaw have embarked on a project they’ve named “Music Row Dogs & Nashville Cats.” The two plan to photograph and interview 60 country music stars with their pets. According to Shaw, the photos and text will first be used as a gallery display and then possibly as a book, a calendar, and collector’s cards. Stars covered so far are Joy Lynn White, the Oak Ridge Boys’ Joe Bonsall, and Sam Moore.

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