Like everyone since Jesus, I blame my father. No, he didn’t dress me up as a lamb for the lion party raging downstairs the way old Jesus’s dad did–the same party that’s been going ever since He built this three-story monstrosity of a universe–but he did imprint in me a strong affinity for country music.
I know I’m not alone. It’s not as if I’m some Stetsoned pratyekabuddha haunting the world’s only banjo-stupa. There are plenty of hills and dales that celebrate those good ‘ole country chords; they just don’t happen to be the kind of places you’ll find my friends. Now, let me be clear, I’m not just talking about Johnny Cash, or Steve Earl, Patsy Cline or Hank Williams Jr., Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, The Be Good Tanyas, or Son Volt–though I love them too. No, I’m talking about musicians like Merle Haggard, Mickey Gilley, George Jones and Randy Travis.
It must be my father, because ever since I was a kid, I’ve been surrounded by people with above-the-grade, out-on-a-limb musical taste. My best friend in the sixth grade used to have underground rap tapes sent to him from his cousin in New York. The tapes came in boxes padded so tightly they could’ve been used to safely transport uranium. We’d listen to the tapes all night, and then when he went home in the morning, I’d sit with my parents and listen to country music records. I never confessed to liking those old Hank Williams records, of course, to my parents or my friend, because even then I had the good sense to know that the music I advertised, advertised me.
No one knew it then, but sometimes I’d put on Hoyt Axton’s, “A Rusty Old Halo,” and twang away to the short stories, myths, and failed loves, not realizing that I was mourning the loss of the Great Frontier, the fading Western horizon–pining for the hero knocked off his horse and kicked into the assembly line that tore through the Rockies and widowed John Henry’s wife. By the time I was a perpetually erect teen, I understood that the music I flew signaled my citizenship as surely as any flag, and I was as careful as a diplomat in my alliances. It was okay to be clichè’s secret agent–we were teenagers after all–but it was imperative that no one knew I was playing for the spurs and six-shooters.
It’s clear now, like it wasn’t then, that I identified with country music’s recurrent themes of inconsolable loss and inevitable suffering, and the possibility to endure them. Indeed, it was as if the music I listened to took seriously Schopenhauer’s idea that there was a fixed amount of suffering in the world, and it had decided to give its accounting. Of course, other forms of music deal with loss; it’s not unique to country music, but it was the way open to me, again, probably because of my father, which is to say because of his father, and his father before him, and his father, and on down the line. And since none of us have ever, in the entire history of the world, had a choice of fathers, or mothers, it bears remembering that all our flags, all our choices, our T-shirts and mp3 collections, fly by chance.
And in spite of our best attempts at believing we can shape our destiny from clay, as it were, we know that the arrangement of elements at the game’s beginning tells us much about the game’s possibilities–anthropic principle, anyone? So here we are, stuck listening to country music, Willie Nelson reminding us that “There’s Nothing I Can Do About It Now,” and suspecting that Nietzsche was right, along with Plato, when he said that there’s nothing we can learn that we don’t already know–we have to have the ear for it. Or, as one of my close friends likes to say, “you either get punk rock, or you don’t.” Unfortunately, I grew up listening to country music, but since I can’t do anything about that, it’s best to love the past, all the way down to that first lunatic father that set up this ridiculous concert.