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.
Born and raised on the other side of the world in hot and humid Singapore, I never listened to country music. I was surrounded by every genre of music except country. We associated country music listeners with rednecks, hicks, and cowboys.
I came to the U.S. under the impression that I would always despise the awkward sounding twang that always seemingly sang about trucks and religion. This different perspective of mine would change when I committed to swim for the University of Texas.
I am a part of the Men’s Swim and Dive Team, and even on my recruiting trip, guys would listened to all types of country music. I sat there pretending to like country but in reality, tried to block it out by either talking to others or play on my phone.
A year and a half later, I’ve slowly become accustomed to country music. Guys on the team such as Will Glass and Jack Conger listen to songs such as, “Outlaw Women” by Hank Williams Jr. and “Creepin” by Eric Church. I wouldn’t say the Swim Team uses country music to distinguish us from the rest, but most guys on the team are from Texas so they grew up listening to country.
However, we could relate ourselves to country music. In my opinion, country music symbolizes a laid back lifestyle with strong morals and beliefs. Most guys on the team are religious and very family orientated. I’m an only child, but I feel as though I have 35 brothers. We eat, swim, and even study together on a daily basis and that allows us to form a strong bond.
I can’t think of another group on campus that has to jump into a freezing pool and 6am in the morning, go to class, and then hop into the pool again at 3pm. Now, you might question what does this have anything to do with my community and country music. Well, country music reminds me of my family and home. When I listen to country, it transports me 10,000 miles away back to Singapore where I’m with family and friends. It reminds me that I also have a family here and that very thought gives me a sense of security that I can rely on any of my team mates for help.
Who would have ever thought that country music would have brought me closer to my team by appreciating what they have given me- comfort and love.
This past summer, I had the amazing opportunity to intern at the radio station KOKE FM. For those of you who have never heard of the station, its a country alternative station – meaning they play every type of country from classic to outlaw to current. Not only did I learn a lot of rewarding career experience from the internship, but I also learned so much more about country music in general. For example, I had never heard of Chris Stapleton, knew the significance of Merle Haggard, or knew people still appreciated Willie Nelson’s music before this summer.
I interned for the 6am morning show, meaning I had to get up at 4am to make it to work by 5am every weekday morning – yes I went to work when most people were coming home from the bars. My boss was the man who owned the station and on-air talent Bob Cole. Bob was actually inducted in the Country Music On-Air Personality Hall of Fame in 2003, so my boss was pretty awesome. I actually really came to enjoy the early mornings because my job was fairly simple and everyday was something different. One day the guys bought 10 different vanilla ice cream brands to see which ones could [temporarily] replace Blue Bell. Random country singers would come on the show. Some days the guys even let us interns talk on-air.
There was one day in particular that I will probably remember most about working at the station. One day I was logging the show like I always do, and a short, older man with the whitest hair and tattoos covering his arms walked through the door. It took a long stare and at least 30 seconds of processing to realize that THE Dale Watson had just walked 3 feet away from me and flashed his Dale Watson smile while saying “good morning” in his deep Alabama accent. He just walked himself into the studio with Bob like he had been there a thousand times before. And there I was fangirling so hard when my other boss, Eric Raines, told me that Bob wanted to see me. As I pulled myself together, I walked into the studio and Bob introduced me to THE Dale Watson. And THE Dale Watson shook MY hand as he repeated my name, and I swear my heart stopped for a solid 5 seconds. Bob wanted me to go get Dale some coffee, and I happily did so while nervously overthinking how much cream and sugar THE Dale Watson wants in his coffee. As I gave the coffee to Mr. Watson, he thanked me and said my name AGAIN. So that is the day I met THE Dale Watson and fell in love with my job even more. I’m a dork.
All the guys I worked with knew so much and currently have standing relationships with so many different country artists. Honestly, working there makes me appreciate everything I’m learning in this class so much more because if I want to end up doing my own country radio show, learning the true history and meaning behind the genre is the best way to be successful at it. I can’t say enough how lucky I was to score that internship and be able to learn so much more about country music as well as producing a radio show. If you’re interested in radio and country music, I highly recommend interning at KOKE FM. But if you just like listening to country music, turn the radio to 98.5 every now and then to hear some of the best country music ever made deejayed by some of the coolest guys I’ve ever worked with.
The other day my dad and I were discussing my Rhetoric of Country Music class and he asked me if we have looked at the actual rhetoric of lyrics. When I told him we were learning about the history of country music, he replied with, “You have to look at the rhetoric and strategies behind a certain James McMurtry song. These days whenever we think about which genre of music contains the most bizarre and catchy songs we think of Hip Hop and Rap. Look no further because I am about to show you how one country song tops those charts and truly “keeps it real.”
Have you ever heard “Choctaw Bingo,” by James McMurtry? If not I suggest you to give it a listen you will not be disappointed. Now some might say this isn’t a country sing, but I beg to differ, the bluegrass feel of this song definitely puts it in the country genre. I am serious, this song is the epitome of outlaw country. It makes sense that the artist, son of famous author Larry McMurtry, would cross the boundaries of country music and come up with the most unreal situations you could think of.
So how to describe “Choctaw Bingo?” Basically it is 9 minute song about a family reunion in a heavy meth county brought together by “Uncle Slayton” who resembles almost an alter ego of Uncle Sam. The song begins with,
“strap them kids in
give ’em a little bit of vodka
In a Cherry Coke, we’re going to Oklahoma
To the family reunion for the first time in years
It’s up at uncle Slayton’s ’cause he’s getting on in years”
I mean the first verse should have listeners’ eyes wide open and curious what else James McMurtry will rattle off next. The narrator starts the song by asking the other person to pack up their children and sedate them with vodka and, later, Benadryl… come on man.. Let me tell you he does not disappoint in bringing us the most outlandish and absurd song I have ever heard.
The song continues to talk about the family members and their backgrounds from Uncle Slayton who goes to Choctaw Bingo to bring money home to his Asian bride, to cousin Roscoe and his many packages of cigarettes to the second cousins who stop at a truckstop to buy a rifle. “Choctaw Bingo” is the “people of walmart” song of the 21st century.
So country music can also step up to the plate with bizarre and outrageous songs just like popular Rap songs. Don’t believe me? Just watch.
When I think of outlaws I think of the gunslingin’, trash-talkin’, do-no-gooders who ruled the old west in the 1800s. Little did I know until this past week that outlaw refers to a certain genre of country. An outlaw, according to dictionary.com, is some one who is a rebel or a non-conformist. Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson characterize the true meaning of an outlaw in country music. Their collaborative song “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” pokes fun at the definition of a classic cowboy saying, “They’ll never stay home and they’re always alone. Even with someone they love.” The song continues to define the classic cowboy when ironically Jennings and Nelson epitomize the opposite of such. The country music outlaw does not allow record producers and popular culture to define the meaning of a cowboy and country music. They are the free spirits and trailblazers of country music that set the pace for the rest of the pack.
Willie Nelson (pictured on the left) was tired of the clean cut style the Nashville culture encouraged him to pursue, so he moved to Austin, grew his hair out, and wore a bandana—a tangible sign that he was fed up with the mainstream definition of country. Waylon Jennings also grew weary of the controlling Nashville labels that told him he could not play his guitar in recording sessions and that he must dress a certain way. Both of these men had enough…and they did something about it.
The outlaw movement reigned in the 70s, but what about outlaws today? Can we still find them roaming the charts of country music like those that went before them? Has the definition of outlaw evolved so much today that there is no such thing as a true outlaw like Nelson or Jennings? Luke Bryan makes it clear to everyone that he, indeed, is NOT an outlaw due to the fact that he does not “do cocaine and run around“. Thanks for the clarification, Luke! Bryan’s laughably skewed definition of outlaw proves the idea that outlaw is a term loosely thrown about in the country music world today, giving us reason to doubt anyone could truly hold that title anymore.
Although it is highly contested, many would argue that Eric Church is a modern day outlaw. He began his career as an outlaw by getting kicked off the Rascal Flatts tour for refusing to follow directions and outplaying the rest of the band. Church also stays true to his own music and writes many of his own songs–unlike many mainstreamers who work very closely with the record labels, resulting in generic, crowd-pleasing hits.
What about Kacey Musgraves? She is quickly gaining a presence in country music with many awards, nominations and top of the chart hits. She clearly earns the title of outlaw with the unique and controversial topics she explores in her songs. In her chart topping hit “Follow Your Arrow”, Kacey unveils the truth that no matter what you do in life people will criticize you so “you might as well just do whatever you want.” It is this kind of mentality that influences Kacey’s music career, earning her the outlaw title.
So there it is. Being an outlaw does not mean you have to fly under the radar or even be a pioneer of country music’s past. It means embracing your true identity regardless of what others may think. Although true outlaws are difficult to come by today, they exist and they are thriving.