The life of a country music artist can be a precarious one, but for those few gems that do make it to the top, things don’t always sparkle either, writes Tom McParland.
There’s an old cowboy saying that goes: Ain’t never a horse that cain’t be rode, ain’t never a rider that cain’t be throwed. This piece of baccy chaw wisdom is well known to people in the country music business, although the only horse most country performers have ever known is a clotheshorse. But like much in the genre, it’s an inarguable truth, gaining rather than losing through its simplicity.
In a figurative sense it also sums up life, agony and pitfalls of country music stars trying to earn their spurs. Almost every artist initially sings – even writes – country songs for the love of them. But they, like the songs, often come from rough-schooled, poor backgrounds, broken homes and broken lives. Like father-like son. Like mother like daughter.
Most hit the road eking a living in the cheap honkytonks and sleazy bars of the mid-west. Trying to be heard above an indifferent cacophony. The crack of pool balls, the pings of slot machines, or unlistened-to strains of TV chatter. Slobbering, amorous drunks assault female performers while males get: ‘Shut that goddamned caterwauling’, or, ‘If yore so hot how come you work in a lousy joint like this?’
The chance of ever rising above this maelstrom is minus nil. But it’s the one in a million who achieves the impossible that keeps country vocalists’ noses to the noisiest grindstone of hopelessness, defying logic and deafening them to their actuality of truth.
When the young rhinestone country singer becomes hardened to audience vilification and ducking chairs in bar fights, he/she learns that the customer is always right and always wrong. A dichotomy they come to live with.
But should luck and circumstance conspire to hitch them over the rainbow to success, they’re thrust into a new land of professional phoniness. TV deadlines, recording schedules, PR men and more hangers-on than you’d find in a bat cave. And because of their spiritual malnutrition they can’t handle it.
Their yesterday’s honkytonk caterwauling is now regarded with a frightening suddenness as ‘plaintive,’ ‘capable of moving a stone,’ ‘telling it like it is’ – the twaddle that journalists and critics rehash with obscene regularity. Surely critics don’t mean Rhinestone? But apparently they do. Record receipts, sold-out venues, merchandise, triumphant reception at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry don’t lie.
No sooner had the country star begun to half-believe that maybe it really is true than the withering spectre of oblivion appears, causing troubled dreams and wide-awake dread. The next success has gotta be bigger and better. At least one-gig honkytonks preserved anonymity.
But this shackle called success dogs every move, every relationship and every attempt at normality. Now uppers and downers regulate both consciousness and unconsciousness. Common office adulterous flings that scarcely would raise eyebrows now raise Cain when Rhinestones are involved.
It’s OK for Rhinestones to sing about adultery, betrayal or infidelity but to actually do it! Nope. This time the hypocritical customer is always right. Personal relationships fail. The bottle, the pills and the syringe become the reality, the star loses lustre. Rhinestones lose their way. ‘He/she sold out’ replaces ‘sold out.’ The rest you know.
Country music’s hillbilly foot-tapping and heartbreak is musical history. Not the history of the ornery men who weigh the gunnysacks but the ordinary toilers of the land whose clay faces bear its crevices and whose songs reflect every joy and misery of rural existence. Country gives a voice to redneck aspiration, despair and heartache.
Hillbilly is the basis of all pop music. From infancy we’ve been unwittingly introduced to country from unlikely sources. Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry had been going for only twelve years when 1937’s Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs had Snow White residing with seven unwashed Gabby Hayes’s.
Doc sings The Silly Song: I’d like to dance and tap my feet/But they won’t keep in rhythm/You see I washed them both today/And I cain’t do nothing with ’em. Then follows an unmistakable take-yer-partners yodelling barn dance. Snow White, like the rest of us, participates in the rousing, rowdy square dance. And, without even realising it we too are whooping it up.
Johnny Cash was born in Kingsland, Arkansas, the fourth of seven. Later, aged three, the family settled in Dyess, Arkansas, a New Deal settlement established to give poor families the opportunity to work, and eventually own land. His family’s trials and dirt poor existence during the Depression were the subject of many of his later songs.