Say “country music” to most Americans, especially ones under 40, and the majority will think of the fulsome garbage disgorged by Nashville’s contemporary legion of fake-accented bimbos and hunky cornballs in $500 t-shirts: they’ll think of people like <shudder> Keith Urban. That, or xenophobic losers like Toby Keith.
This is an ironic shame, because, at least in your humble critic’s opinion, American music’s finest lyric achievements come primarily from two genres: hip-hop and classic country. On the latter, think Merle Haggard, George Jones, Johnny Cash (at least he’s still hip even with people who couldn’t name more than two of his songs), Willie Nelson (just try not getting obsessed with The Red-Headed Stranger), Townes Van Zandt, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and Gram Parsons. While modern Nashville industrial country has appropriated many of the outward themes (loneliness, boozing, heartbreak, wandering), it fails to produce the tonal affect of the old masters, the existential grime and grind. Modern country is all surface; the classic stuff is almost literary.
And there is nothing—nothing—without a man I didn’t mention above, Hank Williams. (No, not his idiot Monday Night Football son or lame “punk” grandson.) Williams is rightfully remembered as a sort of hillybilly poète maudit, dead at 29 in the backseat of a car he didn’t own, flush with a cocktail of liquor, chloryl hydrate, and morphine, and leaving behind a slim but astonishing catalog of stone-cold masterpieces. But melancholy as most of his work is, Williams also has a sense of irony. Most country masters do: see, for example, George Jones’s duet with Merle Haggard, “Must’ve Been Drunk (When We Said We’d Stop Drinking).” In “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” the last single he released during his life, which hit #1 on the Billboard Country charts just after his death, Williams plays up the voice of the sad-sack, woman-haunted loser.
However, the ironic humor does not make the song any less chilling. Williams’s irony is not the poisonous, cynical, seen-it-all posture that American culture has assumed over the past few decades, the loathsome “wit” of shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Family Guy. Rather, the irony marks an individual’s desire to find some modest humor in a genuinely terrible situation. It is irony that is heartfelt and naked and human.
So whether or not your fishin’ pole’s broke, the creek is full of sand, and your woman run off with another man, enjoy it. I’ll take Williams over a third of the hacks (cough, Ezra Pound, cough) who get taught in English classes.