This semester I was able to attend many events related to country music. It was especially nostalgic for me since I will be moving away from Texas after I graduate this semester. Here are some of the highlights:
Two Stepping at the Houston Rodeo
This year I was extra excited to go to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. A lot has changed since the first time I went in 2005, specifically I was finally 21 and could go to the mysterious after party. The only band I could convince my country-hating roommate to see was The Band Perry. It was her first rodeo so we went around and saw everything, from the mutton bustin’ to the fried oreos. We had a great time watching the rodeo and The Band Perry show. Finally we headed over to the after party, which had a live band and a huge dance floor. I learned the basics of Two Step in my hometown and I learned a walking Two Step in college, but the people at the party were not dancing either of those versions. The people were dancing Two Step in a way that was much closer to Foxtrot, the dance from which Two Step originated. Foxtrot is usually danced to Jazz music (especially Sinatra), and after making that connection, I could hear some of the Jazz influences in many of the slower country songs. I thought it was really interesting how the dance and music evolved together.
Little Longhorn Saloon
Before leaving Austin, I figured I should go to “Chicken Shit Bingo” at Little Longhorn Saloon. It was a beautiful day and the saloon was very crowded. Peewee Moore, an Outlaw country singer, was playing. He definitely dressed the part and had a huge beard and lots of tattoos. Most of the people at the saloon either looked like tourists or like they could be Outlaws themselves. On one of the most Texan days of my life, I sat in Little Longhorn Saloon drinking a Shiner while listening to Peewee’s cover of a Willie Nelson song and waiting for a chicken to shit on a bingo board.
Turnpike Troubadours at the Austin Rodeo
I was also lucky enough to go to the Austin Rodeo this year and see a show by Turnpike Troubadours. I’d only heard a few of their songs before, but there were a lot of young people who knew a lot of their music. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed the show. Many of their songs have a rock feel because of the drums and electric guitar. They also played some new songs which sounded more folksy than their popular songs. Like many young bands, they also performed some covers including Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”. I will definitely be on the lookout to see what they release next.
Walk the Line Movie
My boyfriend and I watched Walk the Line after he confessed that he did not know who Johnny Cash was (in his defense, he didn’t grow up in America). Walk the Line is a biographical movie about Johnny, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. I’d seen the movie when I was younger, but was excited to watch it again after learning so much about country music and Johnny this semester. One thing that I didn’t realize was that Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley were in the movie and playing similar music as Johnny. Learning about Johnny’s history also helped me understand his daughter Rosanne’s album, Black Cadillac, which is about Johnny and his life.
I’ve always loved country music, but this semester I learned how to recognize the influences of previous artists and other genres on country music. Without this class I would’ve never been able to make so many observations about the music at these events. I am able to hear the influences of artists that we talked about in class on new country artists. I heard the influence Emmylou Harris on Turnpike Troubadours and Kris Kristofferson on PeeWee Moore. This knowledge gives me a deeper appreciation for the music and its place in history.
“Convoy” by C.W. McCall is one of the most interesting songs in all of country music because of its defiant, unique story. It is about a fictional group of truckers that organize a protest over Citizen’s Band (CB) radio using their own made up code words. Although the story in the song is fictional, it is inspired by real protests and the CB radio fad.
CB radio was a relatively cheap radio that, unlike amateur radio, could be used by anyone without a license. For these reasons CB radio become incredibly popular in the 1970’s. CB radio caught on the same way social media and online communication does today. People were excited to have a platform that would connect them to strangers all over the nation for practical and personal uses. CB radio was used for everything from small businesses communicating with employees to hobbyists just looking for entertainment.
Trucker drivers also began to using CB radio to communicate, especially after the United States enforced a nationwide 55 mph speed limit during the oil crisis of 1973. This, among other regulations, angered truckers who then used their CB radios to form convoys. Convoys were groups of truckers that drove together down highways faster than the speed limit because the police couldn’t catch all of them. Convoys would also tell each other where police officers set up speed traps, if there was a roadside emergency, or even block off roads with their trucks in protest. Because police would also listen to the CB radio channels, the trucker drivers developed an elaborate slang including code names called handles to protect their identities. After hearing about this unique dialogue, McCall and songwriter Chip Davis bought a CB radio which inspired them to write “Convoy”. The song is filled with this trucker slang including lyrics like “Ah, breaker one-nine, this here’s the Rubber Duck. You gotta copy on me, Pig Pen, c’mon?”. If you are curious, you can find a list of the slang online to figure out what the lyrics mean.
“Convoy” topped the country and pop charts and was included in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time in 2014. After “Convoy” was released, people became obsessed with CB radio and trucker culture. Millions of people in the United States began buying CB radios to join in on the fun and even created their own handles and slang words. Many other songs and movies about truckers were made including an action-packed, fairly successful movie that was also called “Convoy” and was based off of the song. The movie featured none other than Kris Kristofferson as the lead trucker, Rubber Duck.
In 1979 another oil crisis emerged causing another wave of protests, but this time it became violent. Many truckers went on strike and would use CB radio to threaten those who didn’t. Some of the more extreme truckers would even throw rocks or shoot at the trucks of drivers who were not participating in the strike. This violence lead to the decline in popularity of trucker culture, culminating in the murder of a truck driver in 1983.
Despite its unfortunate ending, the rise of trucker culture was a fascinating trend. “Convoy” was instrumental in creating and recording the history of this fad. Although seemingly light and fun, the song has a captivating story about serious political issues and how technology can unite people all over the country.
It’s always fun to think about what the future will be like and what crazy technology future generations will create. It’s also interesting to think about what kind of role country music will play in our kids’ kids lives, especially because it is so important in many of our lives. Will country music even still be around in 100 years? Will people still listen to Hank Williams or Merle Haggard or Blake Shelton? Will country music embrace new technology or will it cling to the good ole days?
One way technology could change country music is by creating new ways of making and listening to music. We’ve already seen country music struggle with technologies like Auto-Tune, but what if we get to the point where we don’t even need traditional musicians to create songs? What if computers can generate songs for us based on our personal tastes? What if computers can create new songs including the talents of artists who are no longer with us? It sounds creepy, but it’s already starting to happen and has pretty good results. One reason this might not happen is that people love to see their favorite musicians perform. With technology like virtual reality even performances are starting to change drastically. Performers could record a show once and then send it to millions of people. You could download and watch the concert as if they were actually there except without that drunk guy who spilled his beer on your favorite boots.
Another interesting idea is whether or not some of the traditional country music themes will stand the test of time. For example, would people in the future still enjoy Kip Moore’s “Somethin’ ‘Bout A Truck” if they have only ever ridden in driverless cars or Hyperloop Pods? Another theory about the future is that people will mostly live in cities, especially if we automate farming or grow food in labs. Would this makes songs like “Small Town Southern Man” by Alan Jackson or “Down on the Farm” by Tim McGraw difficult for future listeners to relate to? As more and more people can easily interact with anyone in the world patriotism might become less important. Instead country songs of the future might be proud of the planet that they live on instead of the country that they are from. Maybe future artists will sing “God Bless Mars” instead of “God Bless the U.S.A.”. Even if some country music themes become more difficult for future audiences to relate to, there are still many themes that are timeless. Humans will (probably) always have Mommas, fall in love, and be sad when their robot dog dies.
Country music is loved by so many because of its authenticity, nostalgia, and relatability, but these qualities will be tested as the world changes. Will people still be want the authenticity of a human musician when computer generated music could potentially be just as good or better? Will people in the future still understand the nostalgia of small town life? Maybe country music artists will find new ways to relate to their audience that is unlike any country music our generation has ever heard. Only time will tell.
There is no denying that country music has an influence on society, but sometimes it is surprising how far-reaching that influence goes. Peter Orlovsky, the life partner of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, suspects that the name of Ginsberg’s best-known poem “Howl” was influenced by Hank Williams’ song “Howlin’ at the Moon”. Orlovsky says that he sang “Howlin’ at the Moon” to Ginsberg during one of their many nighttime walks through San Francisco. Days later Orlovsky saw the first draft of “Howl” on Ginsberg’s desk. Unfortunately Orlovsky and Ginsberg never actually had a conversation about whether the song influenced the poem and Ginsberg is not alive to confirm or deny Orlovsky’s comments. Nevertheless, it is extremely probable that Ginsberg heard Williams’ music around the same time he was writing “Howl”.
“Howlin’ at the Moon” is an upbeat, humorous song about a man who is so in love that he is acting like a hound dog. The song light-heartedly talks about how love can drive us crazy. “Howlin at the Moon” even includes howling in the background by the fiddler Jerry Rivers. The song was very successful and was one of eight of Williams’ song to reach the Top Ten on the country music charts in 1951. Although Williams’ career was taking off in the early 1950’s, his personal life was taking a dark turn. He struggled with alcohol and drug abuse which lead to divorce, expulsion from the Grand Ole Opry, and eventually death. Ginsberg also did drugs, had a troubled love life, and struggled to fit in. Because of the similarities of the two men, Ginsberg may have felt like he could relate to Williams and might have even considered Williams to be one of the outcasts that he writes about.
“Howl” was written in 1955 and is well known for its long, rhythmic lines that criticize the widespread materialism and suburbanization of society in America in the 1950’s. “Howl” begins with the famous line “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked” and goes on to describe the experiences of himself, his friends, and other outcasts of the generation. “Howl” vividly describes controversial topics like homosexual sex, drug use, and mental illness using profane language which lead to a court case in 1957 to determine if the poem was obscene. The judge ruled that “Howl” was not obscene and had “redeeming social importance”. To this day, “Howl” is widely regarded as one of the most important poems in American literature and has a lasting influence on society.
So how, if at all, could “Howlin’ at the Moon” have influenced “Howl”? The song “Howlin at the Moon” makes listeners think of a happy couple that is about to get engaged and probably will have a wholesome, suburban family like so many others in the 1950’s. After marriage, we can assume that the man would stop acting like a dog, become a domesticated family man, and probably stop howling. Ginsberg might have thought this man was giving up his originality in order to conform to the cookie-cutter lifestyle of the 50’s. “Howl” suggests that people should continue to “howl at the moon” instead of conforming and that there is something special about those who do not fit in. Whether or not “Howlin’ at the Moon” actually influenced “Howl” is not known, but we can speculate how country music influences even the most unlikely works.
As a college student, one of the biggest choices I’ve had to make was where to work after I graduate. Last year, I was lucky enough to land an internship with a technology company in Silicon Valley, California and get a taste of work life. I was excited to be in the heart of technological innovation, but I didn’t realize was how different the community would be.
The first time it really hit me that Silicon Valley is very different from my home state of Texas was at a company party. The party was “country” themed and I was extremely excited to two-step the night away. Once I got to the party, I realized that this “country” themed party was not what I expected at all. People were wearing comical combinations of plaid and animal print, the barbecue had pineapples in it, the cornbread was dry, and nobody sang when the band played “Sweet Home Alabama”. My coworkers, most of whom were from Asia, California, or the North-Eastern United States, asked me if that was what Texas is actually like. I couldn’t say no fast enough.
One thing that really stuck with me was that nobody seemed to have even recognized any of the country music, not even the pop-country artists like Carrie Underwood or Lady Antebellum. In fact, many of the Americans seemed to actively avoid country music. To them, country music is associated with ultra-conservative hillbillies who spend their days drinking beer and cleaning guns which is definitely not the type of person a liberal California techie can identify with. My other coworkers, who hailed from Korea, Japan, India and China, had never even been exposed to country music before. Even after showing them some of my favorite country songs, they weren’t keen to start listening to country music because the songs weren’t relatable for them. There are almost no Asian country artists and many of the subjects of country music like big trucks, football, small towns, and American patriotism did not resonate with them.
After the party I was feeling very homesick. How could I live and work in a place where so few people share the love of the music I’ve grown up with? Eventually I came to realize that there were many people from different cultures at my workplace who also wanted to share their own favorite music. Even though nobody else could name a George Strait song, we were all able to bond over our universal love for music and appreciation for each other’s cultures.