This is the second of a two-part column before summer break, when county fairs blossom and country music season begins in earnest. The previous entry tracked the waning of the country/city antagonism vital to the genre’s “tradition,” noting some departures that this change has allowed or even required.
But tradition isn’t broken. It is hard to imagine there could be such a thing as country music that didn’t affirm tradition every four minutes. A second opposition, even more sedimented, still retains its hold on what we might call country consciousness: an understanding of the world that country music both assumes and ceaselessly reaffirms, so basic it need be stated explicitly only every now and then.
We could call it “love and work.” This is so vague as to be useless. The world of country music is structured by two cycles; one we might call the cycle of life, the other the cycle of money. If the former sounds saccharine, it nonetheless moves us. It travels an infinite loop whose signposts are birth, the (oft-coded) entry into sexuality, marriage, childbirth, death. Sometimes divorce appears, without much interrupting the orbit. It recalls Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, which shows that even the most fantastic tales are snapped together from repetitive units, always in the same order. The great formalization is Lorrie Morgan’s “Something in Red,” assigning inflection points between birth and death to various dress colors—from the red of sexual adventure to the maternity blues—after which the child commences its own cycle.
It is a story of generations and repetitions, in short. Its signal moment comes when we discover that a tale of crazy kids is being told by their parents, once crazy kids themselves. Thus the reveal of Trisha Yearwood’s “She’s in Love With the Boy”: “My daddy said you wasn’t worth a lick / When it came to brains you got the short end of the stick / But he was wrong and, honey, you are too / Katie looks at Tommy like I still look at you.” Lather, rinse, repeat.
The other cycle is much shorter, but no less prevalent. Punching in on Monday, it trudges toward the Friday whistle; the weekend runs from paycheck to the local bar, the working man’s church. Maybe a moment of romantic or domestic happiness, maybe just a hangover; then Monday coffee sings its bittersweet song as all begins again. Toby Keith’s “Get Drunk and Be Somebody” grasps in miniature not only the sequence but the tenor of every moment and every player. The verse is working week, the dehumanizing rule of the boss: “I give him forty hours and a piece of my soul…. / Hell, I don’t even think he knows my name.” Thus the chorus: “Well, all week long I’m a real nobody / But I just punched out and it’s paycheck Friday / Weekend’s here, good God almighty / I’m going to get drunk and be somebody.” But all we ever become is the person who goes back to work Monday morning.