I sort of apologize for this inclusion, but I’m not sure how “Blessed Assurance” resonates or if it’s intimately recognizable to people who didn’t grow up in a certain kind of church, and if my “This is my story, this is my song” reference theme was accidentally arcane. I love this song but when people perform it for the internet they seem to get really taken with their own ability to stretch out a note too long and use a midi piano track and background sunset photos, so Alan Jackson it is.
WASHED IN HIS BLOOD: GOD BLESS SOMETHING
There is a narrative in the trajectory of country music.
A colonist, shivering and with a dirty collar, put a scrap of a song in her pocket and remembered the melody of a lute, and as she stepped on board a heaving ship four hundred years ago. Wars were fought and she moved into the mountains and lived on a dirt floor with board walls, she was lonely and tired and usually starving and her black eyes looked down the mountain. She took out the scrap, unfolded it and sang it to her daughter as she wrapped thread around the head of the cornhusk doll in her hands.
Her daughter carried it down the mountain and held it in her teeth as she plucked a banjo in a barroom and somebody threw her a coin. She hopped on the back of a wagon and learned to throw a rope trick and click her heels as she sang in Kansas and Texas. She married a man and he sang along as she gave birth nineteen times. The youngest baby was on her hip as she sweated in a model-t down a bumpy road to New York and sang a song into that can for a man for a dollar, setting down the baby and picking up a fiddle, “Back me up Frank, please, back me up.” The baby told this story when she grew up, over and over. “Why, it was simply bred in me from before I would walk!” she’d say.
She grew up and made friends and decided she wasn’t going to stay, she let her hair get big and put on some sparkles. “We’ve got to go,” the two friends whispered in the night, anxious and giggling. They joined hands and snuck away before dawn. They stepped up into bright lights on a stage and sweated again, their sleeves wide and flowing, sitting on a stool they told a story about some young folks and their love, a cliff, or a mistake. Everybody had moved off the mountain. The mill shut down and the jobs went somewhere else. What were the people who were riding horses in Oregon singing? The ones who lived outside of town. The ones in Idaho and Utah and even some place like Michigan. What do we sound like now, they asked each other on the way to the rodeo.
Did your mill shut down, did they send your job to a country we don’t know about? How do you send a job?
They went south and they got hot and tired of all of it and jumped in a lake and the water was still warm.
We’re going to enjoy ourselves, they said.
The world is falling apart! somebody said
Let me have my moment? they said.
We don’t have any time for that, they said.
Please everything is falling apart, they said.
Won’t she make me a supper, like she used to? Like the way some things are true, her burning the top of dinner in a pan, and crying a little, the top of her shirts pushed to the right side and showing her collar bone. Some things aren’t changing. I won’t have to be afraid to die.
She never did that. You remembered it wrong.
Where is she now? She’s probably holding a fiddle somewhere isn’t she? Why doesn’t she say something?
She is, they don’t want you to hear it.
Why wouldn’t they. I want to hear it.
You’ll see all the holes in the story. You might be scared. You might find out that someone held her down but she bit them til they bled. You might find out she was born on the floor, and said, ‘my mother didn’t know how to have me, it’d be better off if she hadn’t.’ She might say, ‘I killed my baby.’ She might say ‘he’s drunk, and I’m drunk too, and we have nothing but loneliness. It’s dark.’ She might say
‘He killed her and we don’t know why.’
She would say that?
She might. She has before. Would it scare you? Would you be afraid?
Could we hold each other close under the blankets and look at the moon?
Maybe. Maybe. That might make it better.
We have a hard time decided what is and isn’t “country music” because we want it to be the story of America, and we don’t know what America is and it’s scary. Looking at trends in the slippery but loyally defended genre illustrates larger truths. Maybe there’s only terrible music on any radio station and the good music is in some bar at 10 pm on SE 2nd, and that’s why the country music that’s good is at a tasteful, wooden-floored – hoe – down – bar near my house. But that country music, while fun and skilled, is usually just referential; it’s just a version of the past being retold, but it’s not a new story. Country music has to change because America is alive and it needs to move with it, and it has to be on the radio, otherwise it’s not all the way honest. It has to be telling the truth.
It’s unfair to say I love America because the concept of America is too unwieldy. It’s obscurely and giantly mythic. If we live on a border and we grew up ten miles north or south, would we have loved the dusty ground between our toes any less? Of course not. We cling to the one word as a thing we want to say we love, and are proud of, and fight for, because if we don’t then we will look behind the curtain, I suppose, and be alone. The story might be too small for us at first and it will be a brittle old woman in a rocking chair, singing a song that scares us and makes it feel like we swallowed a ghost. You can’t project a brittle old woman on a great big screen on a football field. Instead you put a flag there and try and think of a reason to cry, knowing you should. The priest holds up the virgin’s hand and slices it and the blood comes out. If we can do this, see, if we are willing to sacrifice, to cut someone until they bleed – what then can stop us, how can we die.