Every generation or so, the artistic and intellectual mandarins of New York, Washington, and Hollywood rediscover the 2,900 miles and couple hundred million people that compose the rest of this country. A spate of books and movies and congressional resolutions celebrating the land and the salt-of-the-earth types who tend it are sure to follow, until everyone gets bored and goes back to worrying about the trade deficit or snorting cocaine or claiming they buggered Tennessee Williams, or whatever the local fashion may be.
We are now in the middle of such an epoch, which incarnation Ann Hulbert of The New Republic has accurately labeled "rural chic." Rustic kultur bombards us from all sides: Garrison Keillor's folk-yuppie Prairie Home Companion on the radio, Establishment-approved hicks-are-cool-too books like Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country and Carolyn Chute's The Beans of Egypt, Maine, and a passel of three-hanky, farmers-are-struggling-against-all-odds movies, courtesy of various Malibu populists. Much of this is just a bit too reverent for me, and I detect in it a hint of earnest condescension, but you gotta admit Jessica Lange sure beats the hell out of Ma Joad.
The most offensive rural tripe is coming, as usual, from politicians. Indeed, a congressional Populist Caucus, dedicated to "a strong government that fights for the economic rights of all Americans," has sprung up on Capitol Hill. The Populists of the 1880s and '90s had their problems, but at least they were authentic backwoods firebrands. By contrast, the 27 members of the well-scrubbed Populist Caucus include 11 lawyers, 0 farmers, and a grand total of 4 non-college graduates. Predictably, its ideological commitment is indistinguishable from every other special interest that festers on our body politic—more government spending, more regulation, more bureaucracy, blah blah blah. Wanna bet on how many of these ersatz hayseeds would give up an evening at the Kennedy Center for a Saturday night square dance?
These embarrassingly phony tributes to the heartland are depressing because small-town America is worthy of praise and attention. The values and attitudes that distinguished this land from the Old World—a healthy, self-reliant individualism tempered by an appreciation of the bonds of family and community, skepticism of centralized authority and a belief in localism and grass-roots democracy—survive still in rural America.
Yet the sturdy values of a simpler, agrarian America are enjoying respectful and inspiring treatment these days—and from a pretty unlikely source. For some of rock and roll's most interesting figures are examining modern America by working within and reshaping its most homespun musical idiom—country music.
These new country artists have burst upon the scene not a moment too soon, for the establishment country music industry is in bad financial shape. Country's troubles are largely due to rock and roll's penetration into the hinterlands—after all, how you gonna keep the young 'uns down on the farm once they've seen MTV? But country artists are also at fault for forgetting their roots and churning out bland, glitzy pap (Kenny Rogers, Barbara Mandrell) that's about as down home as a Las Vegas stage show. As a result, says Nashville manager Bill Carter, "a lot of established country stars…are so caught up in conforming to what…radio stations will play, the new records don't have any life to them."
The new country movement consists of two wings: mainstream rock stars (Neil Young, John Cougar Mellencamp, maybe even Bruce Springsteen) who, to varying degrees, have adopted country arrangements or country-populist themes; and cowpunks—underground artists who've found a kinship between punk rock's anti-authority stance and the ridin'-the-rails, lonesome-heart spirit of the best country music. (Has there ever been a cooler punk than Johnny Cash?)
Now all this might be written off as just another spasm of trendiness, much like the pitiable hipsters who "discovered" reggae music a few years ago and passed through it blissfully ignorant of its social and cultural origins, unable to distinguish Haile Selassie from Shecky Greene.
But the new country movement has heart. It has soul. It's American, for God's sake. Imagine a fusion of rock and roll's defiant energy with country's soulful traditionalism. Loretta Lynn and George Jones meet Elvis and the Sex Pistols and emerge singing the same great songs about cheatin' hearts and broken whiskey bottles, but spiced with a healthy dash of impudence.
Not many of these bands are overtly political. Those that are, like Austin, Texas's Rank and File and Los Angeles's roots rockers, The Blasters, are classic populists—pro-common man, anti-government and big business, reluctant to advance political solutions. Yet a sense of pride and loss permeates all this music: pride in America's heritage, sorrow that much of it seems to have slipped away.
The lament is stated most forthrightly by Nashville's Jason and the Scorchers:
All your old habits you've given up too soon
The time has come to change the tune
That sentiment suffuses so much of this music. America has lost something very precious, though no one's sure quite what. We're no longer the shining city on the hill. All our old habits we've given up too soon. Patrick Henry and Sam Adams are dead and gone. We're stuck with Ed Meese. What went wrong?
Only by searching through our past can we understand our present. So it's no surprise that Bruce Springsteen reportedly spends much of his time these days reading American history books. The Long Ryders perform in front of an old "Don't Tread on Me" revolutionary flag and sing about great Americans from Lewis and Clark to Bear Bryant.
And Neil Young, the renegade ex-hippie who vilified the redneck "Southern Man" 15 years ago as an anachronistic disgrace, wonders on his beautiful new album Old Ways:
Are there any more country families
Still working hand in hand
Trying hard to stay together
And make a stand
While the rows and rows of houses
Come creepin' up on the land
Where the cattle graze
And an old gray barn still stands
Are there any more real cowboys in this land?
Are there any more real cowboys in this land?*
The answer, of course, is yes. The heartland, and even those blighted cities, are still full of genuine, honest-to- goodness rugged individualists with hearts of gold of the sort celebrated by our better beer commercials, cut from the same cloth as our pioneer and revolutionary ancestors.
Yet America has changed considerably since the days of real cowboys. It's not so much that the frontier of Frederick Jackson Turner's thesis has largely disappeared or that a land of hardy farmers has become overwhelmingly urban. Rather (and I hate to drag politics into this but I will) it's just that the whole thing has come to seem so unfair. Whatever happened to the Revolutionary ideals of individual liberty and social egalitarianism? Senators' sons go to Harvard while poor kids are drafted to die in Vietnam. Our "leaders" talk free enterprise and bail out big-shot bankers who make bad loans. A nation born in anti-imperialist rebellion props up dictators around the world.
The temptation to blame America—its people and social traditions—for our government's faults is something that the new country musicians have happily resisted. Whether political or not, each seems to understand that the things worth cherishing in this land (and there are still lots of them) spring from the American character, not the American government. We have a proud heritage—a successful revolt against a colonial master, the taming of a wild continent, a genius for innovation and invention, the flowering of a distinct culture—and we did it all by ourselves, without any European kings or benevolent despots or welfarist governments.
And what better way to explore that heritage than with a steel guitar and a bottle of Jack Daniels? "Country music," proclaimed Tennessee record company president Don Pierce 25 years ago, "is American music. Of the people, by the people, and for the people."
These are some of the better new country bands: Blood on the Saddle, Lone Justice, Rank and File, True Believers, Long Ryders, Jason and the Scorchers, Lonesome Strangers, Dwight Yoakam, The Knitters, The Beat Farmers, Danny and Dusty, Blacky Ranchette. They're good. Take my word for it. Buy their records. Go see 'em. They'll remind you that it's still a pretty neat thing to be born in the USA.
Assistant Editor Bill Kauffman is a cool rockin ' daddy in the USA.
*Reprinted by permission of Warner Bros. Music. Copyright ©1985 by Neil Young.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Life & Liberty: Getting Back to the Country".