In which I continue to share my experiences as a critical explorer of contemporary country music by addressing the potential risk of an unreliable narrator (me) and begin to slowly and carefully take your hand and lead you into the swampy nether-worlds where Toby Keith music videos lurk, but where I first get real personal.
Orc-molded giant in the earth Willie God, arisen to claim his throne and retake the lost palaces of Babylon
I. THE RELIEF OF THE INOFFENSIVE SONG MIDST A TIDE OF HORRORS, HORRORS, HORRORS
The joy of hearing Willie Nelson’s gentle timbre reel out of the radio as I scoff at the opening notes of a vaguely recent Keith Urban atrocity* and disgustedly switch the pre-set from 98.7 THE BULL (Portland’s Number 1 New Country, tune in at 5 for a 90 minute BULL RIDE) to 99.5 THE WOLF (OwwooOO Portland’s Number 1 New Country OwwwOOOO), is unbounded joy. A lightness of the soul.
Can you imagine my exultant shriek, the rapturous punching of my fists as they leaped off of the steering wheel to welcome in the warm, pretty decent melody and non-descript, unoffensive production with expansive arms?
The elation I felt in this particular instance was not in fact brought about by the eternal helpless swooning I commonly associate with Willie (I’ve requested that my father locate a photo of me at the Oregon State Fair concert we attended in 2008 in which I’m sure I would look really happy and this would illustrate my point about loving Willie Nelson pretty thoroughly, but he’s at work right now [my dad, not Willie Nelson] and I don’t know if he can search through five year old summer photo archives at the moment nor has he responded to my request – ed. he has responded but does not have photos).
It was the elation of respite.
The hook of the song I heard last evening on the radio, if you haven’t guessed based on performer and context, goes like this:
We’ll raises up our glasses
Against evil forces
Singing, “Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses!”
You’ve probably heard it – it’s been around awhile and it’s one of those hits that claws it’s way out of douchey-dive bars and muddy trucks and into the more general public consciousness. It’s a Toby Keith track on which Willie is invited, politics aside, to guest star. And you might guess, based on this popularity and my pretty moony reaction, that I know the song really well. However, a quick study of how I rolled clumsily over the verses while struggling to follow the lilting, arpeggiating melody in both harmony parts of the duet would reveal my knowledge of the actual words to be – if kindly described – loose.
After I heard it last night, I went to a bar and started writing, without going off to look up the words or listen again, and I guessed that the narrative of the song was maybe a folksy, revivalist romanticization of a civil war story (brutal by default) and probably a staunchly confederate one (Toby Keith by default). Maybe about a charge of some kind, and the song’s narrators are trying to jazz everybody up – including the horses – before hand by wildly toasting, or maybe it’s after some kind of (deeply tragic, embroiled and bloody) charge, and they’re trying to jazz everybody down – including the horses.
[And at this point, I realized that I didn’t even know if horses can drink beer (obviously I don’t think they drink it all the time, but like, would it give them immediate kidney failure? Or would it just be like “why are you doing that, that’s a horse”) and if they could drink beer without immediately dying, would they even like it, so I ordered myself both a whiskey and a beer, and I noted how goddamn good those things are together in my little notebook:
they’re even better together, maybe horses definitely don’t drink beer (that seems like a “duh” now) and the joke isn’t “haha we’ve done so well we shall make hyperbole realize itself literally and pour BEER into a BUCKET or some kind of other hard-sided and wide-mouthed vessel and give it TO A HORSE” but rather “haha duh we are obviously gonna drink both, horses do not imbibe you fool of a pasty urbanite!”]
II. THE RELIEF OF DRIVING HOME IN YOUR TRUCK WHILE LISTENING TO SHITTY MUSIC THAT ISOLATES AND BEDS DOWN YOUR BRAIN AFTER YOU HAVE JUST SPENT A DAY MIRED IN TOIL
Anyway, since I had just listened to this song while squeal-sobbing in my truck about 20 minutes before I sat down like a weirdo in the bar to start writing this in a comically small notebook while talking to myself every now and then, you MIGHT wager that I MIGHT have had at least a vaguely confident grasp on the narrative thrust of this fairly straightforward collaboration. But I did not. And the reason I had no idea what the hell went down in that really fun, absolutely rockin’, potentially vitriolic and disturbing (based on my lack of knowledge, I couldn’t say it wasn’t) song was because, in my solitude and glee, I could not help but absolutely try and sing along in every single verse of a song that I absolutely did not know the words to, driving through a network of stop-lit one-ways directly after leaving a three-hour long night class directed mainly at teaching the skills associated with people who are “detail-oriented”.
There’s a particular hypnosis in the droning tropes in the cab of a truck as you drive away from something that exhausts you. That’s what the mind-melting pop country blasters were built for; those driving, overly-loud post-decency numbers ease the listener into a self-imposed catatonic state as a simple and passive release from the drudgery of cyclically living with impoverished and shitty options. This glorious Willie/Toby combo, however, is slightly different from the filler-Eric Church-style-Neo-Trash that takes up most of the radio air play time. There are some elements to this song that make it actually honestly listenable, which is why, in fact, I became so religiously excited to hear it. And this, finally, brings me to the question,
Have I fucking lost all sense of taste at all?
I’ve had questionably and self-proclaimed “bad taste” musically in the past. Part of the reason I am able to wade through the marshy glory of terrible, terrible country radio day after day is because I can trick myself into tolerating what those with refined ear-pallettes would run from, mouths twisted into silent gargoylesque expressions, or would simply say “please turn off that fucking terribly unpleasant song”. So when I spend all driving hours inundating myself with trite, brash, staggeringly hollow generalities and shoddily lashed together attempts at melodic narratives, the second that anything with the slightest hint of light or fire or life or the tisch-est PINCH of honesty, I begin feverishly weeping and talking to myself as I shout along, indecisively skipping among octaves, guessing words lovingly and without caution. A few of the phrases that, if I hear them broadcast on airwaves, inspire those feelings, are:
” . . . there’s somethin’ bout a truck . . . . “
” . . . I’d like to see the other half of your butterfly tattoo . . .”
” . . . honey, I’m still a guy . . . “
” . . . if you’re up for a rodeo, we’ll put a big smile on your face . . . “
” . . . I love the nightlife/I love my budlight/I like em’ cold, and tall . . . “**
Have I tapped into an eternal river of sludge and committed myself so fully as a filter that if there be but the most negligible flake of gold, caught it shall be in my teeth?
Or am I now ready to savor a bottle cap, a discarded bus pass, a bit of concrete as valueless, but nonetheless joyous relief from the noxiously mundane deluge, and these scraps of garbage are thus to me indistinguishable from precious metal?
III. THE RELIEF OF DRINKING A WHISKY AFTER YOU HANG SOMEBODY
Pure Pensive Dream Lord, Willie Nelson
You don’t even have to search for “Toby Keith Grinning like an Idiot” to get gold like this. You just search for Toby Keith.
If I may now return to the song at hand. In all hysterical reality, this song is a surprisingly brutal fantasy of vigilante justice, about taking matters into one’s own rope-clutching, Texas hands and murdering criminals by hanging them from oak trees, as one’s “pappy” and “grand-pappy” did***. The barbarity of the verses really did surprise me when I went and finally looked up the lyrics:
Take all the rope in Texas
Find a tall oak tree
Round up all of them bad boys
And hang ’em high in the street
For all the people to see . . . .
. . . It’s time the long arm of the law
Put a few more in the ground
Send them all to their Maker
And he’ll set them on down
You can bet, He’ll set ’em down
It’s after this situation that the saloon is visited and the celebratory glasses are raised and shared with horses. What’s better than the song alone is the video, which features a gallant Willie Nelson repeatedly upstaging beef-hearted grinning simpleton Toby Keith as they team up to track down a prostitute-murderer (just named Jack the Ripper, they didn’t even make up a joke name) using wacky cross dressing and high-tech fingerprint analysis in Willie’s one room boonies-ranch-cabin/forensics lab. Toby Keith LOVES narrative videos, and this is actually his ONLY video where he does not use the visual gag of having someone spill his beer, then going into slow motion to demonstrate how important his beer is as he makes a “noooo” face, and then beating the cause of the spillage up way too extensively for live action. Even though it would have been a stretch in this long-arm-of-the-law old-west outlaw porn scenario, I was kind of hoping to see it. And what’s better, or I guess more extreme, than the video, is that there is a feature-length movie that they made, both Toby Keith and Willie Nelson, together, called Beer for my Horses, in which I can only imagine they attempt to tortuously extend this crass delusion as far as it will stretch.
I’ve just got to stop now before I need to drink more whiskey to get over this and manage to do some fucking laundry or something, please read the footnotes at the bottom if you haven’t after going back and seeing what they are related to, the last once especially is important as you can see by the size of the font.
*It’s auto-tuned, it talks about a disco ball in a forest and he says “tan, bare feet” about 20 times; I find the focus on this body-part as the stand-in signifier for appropriate balance of feminine meekness/wildness to be a weird and startling fixation. He also talks about smoking cigars “like they were good for [him]” AND “smoking and drinking . . . as if they were good for [him]” as if he got to the second verse and forgot that he had already used that clever little turnabout 30 seconds ago – purposeful parallels, you say? No, I’m afraid that I’m not buying it. It’s stupid as fuck but I guess it deserves its own essay.
**This song is actually pretty fucking great and it was the cause of a strange but I believe ever-lasting bond I had with a Mississippi oil driller whose floors I washed in North Dakota.
***Real Quote from Toby Keith: “The song was written prior to September 11th. It’s about justice, but more so about the law of the Old West. It truly depicts how I feel about our justice system today.”