The Negress has pretty much avoided country music for the most part because she knows where all the bodies are buried. All right, she does watch “Nashville” in spite of her justifiable loathing for Callie Khouri’s husband (you know him as T Bone Burnett), but that’s a soap opera with some enjoyable touches of verisimilitude, annoying wannabes and occasional outbreaks of sobriety.
In short, a lot like the actual Nashville where the Negress used to spend time before folks like Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift started clogging up the studios. The Negress had lived through one of the Great Countrypolitan scares in the late ‘ 80s when people like Lyle Lovett and KD Lang were winning country Grammys and Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam (whom she likes to think of as the male Gillian Welch) and Randy Travis, were performing dark by-passes on country’s fat-clogged heart. But while they were getting down and dirty, as usual, something else in Nashville was taking over. OK, so one year the CMAs got moved because of Yom Kippur (couldn’t look like you were insulting the LA honchos, now could you? Oh, and ax the shrimp wrapped in bacon for the reception), but the deal was done. We needed a soundtrack for the SUV set, not the old Chevro-let set.
So the deracination of country continued. There are many notches on country’s gun belt for each time that genre has wanted to fill its coffers and expand its audience. Countrypolitan anyone? Then Tammy and Loretta and George (when he remembered to show up) pulled the music back to its redneck, hell raisin’ roots. You throw in Texas and Bakersfield and a little bit of Oceania, and there was always some corrective force to back country away from the brink.
So Blake Shelton had to shoot his fool mouth off this past week, talking about “old farts” and “jackasses” who clung to” traditional” country music, which Okie Shelton defined as Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton duets (Those two might lead the genre in plastic surgery, and Parton is a helluva songwriter, but please people). Ray Price swung from his heels and connected and Shelton started apologizing to everything that Tweeted. Most of the truly creative folks in country have little mainstream clout (Gary Allan might the only one the Negress can think of right quick), so they’ve retreated to indie releases, having books written (full disclosure: a buddy of the Negress, Don McLeese, has penned a nice tome about Yoakam) and touring when they feel like it, not because they have to.
When the Negress first heard about all of this, she got all geeked up on Facebook with her buddies and tossed out some fine putdowns (the late Gary Stewart’s amazing first album, “Out of Hand,” makes the entire Shelton oeuvre look like a display at Hacks ‘R Us), but she realized as she cavorted there that some the stories she heard and lived needed telling. So here’s a couple to remind her of what the best country songs and lives need.
Billy Joe Shaver, who was the most outlaw of all of those who pledged allegiance to Willie, Waylon and the boys, said he was arrested once in Nashville for public intoxication (Shaver, though recently jailed for shooting some guy at a bar in Waco, had been sober awhile when he told the Negress this story). His ex-wife, mother of the astonishing guitarist Eddy Shaver (gone too soon after too much of a New Year’s Eve in 2000) came by the jailhouse and said, “I’m not going your bail. Fuck you. I’m going back to Texas.” Shaver thought for a second and said, “Could you take a train so I can get a song out of it?”
Around the same time, the Negress was hiding out on Lee Roy Parnell’s bus on a frigid October day at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds just north of Houston. Parnell had burned down the place with his slide guitar, leaving the stage to Doug “I’d Be Better Off in a Pine Box” Stone, who had to cram that one hit into a 45-minute set. “We ate his lunch out there, “Parnell beamed. “But we gotta find the Hag.”
That would be headliner Merle Haggard, whose bus had not arrived at the backstage compound because, it was cold as hell, he was the headliner, and he’s the Hag. The Silver Eagle did finally pull in and Parnell, the Negress and one of Parnell’s rib-cooking buddies wandered across the thatchy field to Haggard’s bus. We were permitted entry to find the Hag chilling before the gig while someone was trying to scare up a pair of gloves for Bonnie Owens, the Hag’s ex-wife and current backup singer. An enormous man who was Merle’s road manager stood watch by the door of the bus while the promoter was talking at Merle, who was studiously ignoring him. He did mention repeatedly that there was a woman outside, head of a local fan club or some such thing, who wanted five minutes of the Hag’s time.
“All she wants is five minutes,” he said again and again.
To which the Hag snarled, “What does she want to do? Give me a blow job?”
Now that’s country.