Friday, July 15, 2011

Driving Country Music

Last night, I found myself pulling up country music videos on YouTube and playing them for my girlfriend.  We found a bunch of them that we both used to watch a lot.  She and her mother used to have Country Music Television on non-stop when we first met.  They lived in a little house, and inside was small kitchen, a little den with a couch facing a large television, and then a bedroom to the back.  And on their television, always, were the latest of the mid 90’s country music videos.  Jo Dee Messina, Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Reba McEntire, Brooks and Dunn, Shania Twain, one after the other taking their turns putting out the multitude of their artful, and often, flashy videos.

This would have all been new to me but for the fact that I had just a year before been returning from Lake Tahoe at a time before state route 99 had been resurfaced and I had gotten tired of being bounced around from the unkempt highway.  So I exited, pulled out a map, and took a little side road with the intention of making a B-line to the smoother Interstate 5, which cut directly south across the width of the San Joaquin Valley at a steep angle in relation to the freeways.  If you’ve ever really looked at a map of the State of California, and specifically, of the Central Valley, you will find that the state and its roads generally go from north-northwest to south-southeast due to the angle of the coast.  Hence, driving south would eventually connect me from the CA 99 to Interstate 5.

I was now on a two-lane county road, which took me past snapshots of little towns that had maybe two or three stores, a granary and a windmill.  The road was about thirty miles long and as straight as a ruler.  No kidding.  It disappeared out of site in front of me solely due to curvature of the earth. Tulare County must have cut this road following the path of a laser beam.

As I drove in my sweet sapphire blue 1995 Mustang, the sun began to set at about two o’clock to my right.  My radio was tuned to whatever stations happened to have recently inhabited the frequency it was set on.  It was country, but not the traditional country my dad had been playing on cassette in his Acura since the early 1980’s, but rather a recently evolved, up-beat, driving country that a lot of older, truer country listeners rejected.  Some people likened it to simply being recycled ten year-old rock rhythms with a countrified sound.  I liked it.  It moved me, and it grabbed my attention.

And as I drove, a song started playing that had a simple piano joined by easy guitar and drums. It was about a guy who, having been broken up from an old girlfriend for some time, is thrown back into proximity with her and is hopelessly swept away once again.  It was a fresh song with beautiful changes, and it made me feel like I was there with the singer and knew exactly how he felt.  The heartbreak of lost love, and then getting pulled into it all again after just a few moments together.  Wow, this was a song about something.  It was a ballad called, “Texas Tornado,” by Tracy Lawrence.  

And so, I was drifting at high speed down the road in my Mustang with a blazing yellow ball dipping into the featureless horizon on my right, and a country ballad playing, and suddenly, I got it.  I understood what the stories in country music were all about in a moment of epiphany.  It took this strangely isolated time and place, this beautiful summer afternoon in my purple travel capsule humming down a straight highway towards infinity to feel the pain and glory that these country songs were describing.  I felt like I had been let in on a secret that a lot of mid-Americans had always been a part of.  These songs were about the people and places that had a lasting effect, the broken and cheating hearts, and love re-ignited.  They described everyday things that made an impression, and they were about perfect sunsets in the middle of no-where.  I got it.  And I started listening.  This moment has been frozen in time for me.

So when I met my girlfriend, and she and her mom had non-stop country music TV on, I already had a sense of what it was all about.  It wasn’t culture shock for me.  I’m not too naïve; I understood about all the glitz and glamour the record companies put into these “front” men and woman; the singers and performers.  There was some commercial to the country presentation because Nashville was obviously making money with these tunes and videos.  But underneath it all, the good songs were about real things.  I got so good that I could name the song and artists on the radio before life-long listeners such as my girlfriend and her family.  But I must concede that when it came to music from various decades, they had me hands down.

And so last night, when I was pulling up YouTube videos, we watched some of the ones from that time, “Let Me Let Go,” “The Secret of Life,” and “This Kiss,” all by Faith Hill.  We watched The Wilkinsons,’ “Angle Song/Fly,” “Jimmy’s Got a Girlfriend,” “Twenty-Six Cents,” and “Boy Oh Boy,” as well as Allison Moorer’s, “Alabama Song.”  And we watched, “Holes in the Floor of Heaven,” by Steve Wariner, and a few others; just a smidgen from what was on CMT back then.  They were all videos from that time whose hearts were in the right place.

And it made me think of the rush of that time; “rush,” as in whirlwind.  I’m talking from about 1995 through to say, 2000, when the stock market was raging and money was flowing.  The housing market had not come into its peak yet, but it was well on its way.  I was taking weekend trips all around the Southwest, sometimes by myself and other times with my girlfriend, exploring what was out there from the most basic of highway motels to the Drake.  And country music was the soundtrack to it all.

The Country Music Association Awards were big and gaining speed every year, and there were a lot of newcomers in the industry.  The Wilkinsons fought it out with The Dixie Chicks one year for Best New Artist or Group; The Dixie Chicks won out.  Mindy McCready had, “A Girl’s Gotta Do What A Girl’s Gotta Do” out, and Deana Carter had, “Strawberry Wine” on the airwaves.  Brooks and Dunn seemed to win something every year, and rightly so.  I loved their hard-edged sound.  George Strait couldn’t record a song without it charting.  Excitement was bourgeoning all around.

These memories funnel into a time when I would sit on the floor of my apartment with VHS remote in hand pausing and recording all of the videos I wanted to tape from GAC, the country cable channel in my area.  There were nights, after my long days at Disney, after my runs in Manhattan Beach, and after making spaghetti dinners for myself when I would doze off with my back against the front of my little flowery couch/futon and a spent ice cream bowl laying to my side as GAC filled the room with colorful flickering light.  County music kept me company in my bachelorhood.

Having been raised on The Who, I had to somehow cope with letting my close friends who knew me as a rock and roll and jazz enthusiast know that I had gotten into country music.  None of them fully related with me, assuming that it was some kind of passing phase that would soon transition into another that might be more along their tastes, but they still loved me.  I understood since, like me, they also had never really been exposed to country music growing up, nor had they any meaning attached to it.  I had one cohort at Disney who liked country music.  She was the head producer on the film, “Dinosaur,” and she never stopped reminding me about how great Charlie Daniels was, so, serendipitously, I never felt out of place on that production being that it was one of the longest projects I would ever work on.

And after my girlfriend and I stopped watching the songs on YouTube, I walked our dog outside in the silent night, reflecting on this dead economic period we’re all in, and I began to think about how different that time was; how much exciting discovery both in country music and in my travels there was available to me a decade or so ago.  Now, most record companies are cautious about taking risks on breakthrough artists since they seem to have de-diversified their efforts.  Concurrently, there are fewer job opportunities and avenues of income available in this financial climate, which has meant for me, less ability to travel and explore.  The contrast made me a bit sad because, simply put, I miss all the fun.  But, if nothing else, this is all fodder for another good country song.