Just about 10 years ago, Tennessee's own Lamar Alexander stood on the floor of the Senate and delivered a speech about country music in general and Johnny Cash, who had just passed away, specifically. You can find that speech on his website, so presumably, he's still proud of it:
But why is there not a department or a chair or at least a conference occasionally dedicated to criticism of the poetry or at least the literature of country music? Literary criticism is a fundamental part of departments of English in universities all across America. Some of the most famous of these were among the "Fugitives" who met during the 1920's at Vanderbilt University: Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, and Andrew Lytle were some of those literary critics who began their careers then.
If Vanderbilt University is such a center of literary criticism, then why has Vanderbilt not done more about the literature that is country music? Or why does Belmont University in Nashville or the University of Tennessee or University of Memphis not do it? These Nashville — and Memphis — songwriters are certainly among the most famous poets in the world. Why do we wait for The New York Times and Bob Dylan to tell us that Johnny Cash and Hank Williams are also among the best poets when Vanderbilt University, among others, lives right there among them?
Let me tell you that the first sentence in that paragraph is untrue, as is almost everything in the second paragraph. Every year, for at least as long as I've been here, Belmont University hosts the International Country Music Conference, which looks at "the literature that is country music." The University of Tennessee Press has a fine group of books about country music. At the time Alexander wrote this, Barbara Ching, whose fantastic book Wrong's What I Do Best: Hard Country Music and Contemporary Culture had just come out, was at the University of Memphis teaching about country music. And let's not even get started on what Charles Wolfe — rest his soul — was doing at MTSU at the time.
It is enormously irritating that Alexander told the whole country that universities in our state suck so much that they ignore our indigenous art, when that's patently and demonstrably untrue.
But its hilariously hypocritical that a man who stood before the country complaining that college-age kids don't learn enough about country music — from "The Knoxville Girl" to "Oomie Wise" to "Folsom Prison Blues" to "Delia's Gone" to "Goodbye Earl" and on and on, a seemingly unending fount of murder for entertainment — is now trying to sell us on the idea that violent video games cause college-age kids to be violent.
"We should ask the leaders of the entertainment industry whether they would want their children — or those who might harm their children — to watch the increasingly violent video games and movies that they pour into our culture," Alexander said Monday. "This is not the only cause of violence in our society, but it is one important cause."
As you might imagine, it turns out that this is about as true as his notion that no Tennessee universities give serious consideration to country music. According to the Washington Post, Americans spend just over $40 a year per person on video games, and we have just over three gun-related murders per 100,000 people a year. Every other country that spends about that much per person has .5 gun-related murders per 100,000 people or less a year. Countries with higher video game spending — who should be ridden with increasingly violent video games and running around just murdering the fuck out of each other — have similar gun-related murder rates to every other first-world country ... except us.
Whatever our problem is, it isn't that we like violent entertainment. Nor is it that video games or Marilyn Manson or comic books or whatever artform is due for scapegoating this year makes people violent — which Alexander damn well knows. Either that, or he's the most irresponsible senator we have with his urging people to listen to country music for the lyrics.