E Pluribus Country

E Pluribus Country

Politics flattens, but the best country music invites us into people’s complex and contradictory lives.

Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson in 1988 (Beth Gwinn/Getty Images)

After living in New York City for a few years, I noticed something about my closest friends among writers and editors on the left. We all loved country music. I’m not sure if this should be surprising or not, given how often it’s associated with conservative politics—“we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way,” and all that. For me at least, country music was part of growing up working class. I remember my grandfather’s Conway Twitty records, and the time he announced that “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog” was Johnny Cash’s finest song. After retiring from his job as a welder, he spent hours in the garage he’d built, drinking beer and listening to country music with his head under the hood of his pickup truck. He’d provide running commentary on whatever the radio was playing—a not very politically correct appreciation of Charley Pride, say, or that Willie Nelson had always been a friend of blue-collar folks.

I never asked my grandfather what he heard in country music. I’m sure part of it was that country music actually depicts the lives of working people; that’s one reason my friends, who mostly are not from the working class, listen to it as well. Intellectuals on the left have always had a complicated relationship to those they theorize about, and country music offers a way into the experiences of others. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become convinced there’s more to it. I realized that my grandfather drank too much, and I wondered what injustices had been inflicted on him. After a few beers, he’d make sweeping pronouncements about lazy bosses or incompetent political leaders, resentments he nursed over the course of his life. His love for country now seems like a lesson in the way we can never really know the wounds carried even by those we’re closest to.

A songwriter once told me, “If it ain’t sad, it probably isn’t true.” The good times take care of themselves, demanding not answers or explanation but simple enjoyment; it is when we suffer that we look to art, perhaps especially music, to articulate the pain we can’t speak about directly. Country music is not always sad, but it’s best songs are. Maybe that’s why my friends on the left and I also receive sustenance from country. Behind any politics is a certain view of the world, what you take to be fundamentally at work in this vale of tears. Country music can remind us that there’s “a dark and a troubled side of life”—not just that the world we’ve built leaves so many exploited and struggling, but that this can never be divorced from our own weakness and frailty, our cheatin’ hearts, which no amount of progress can do away with. This is a different way of thinking about what we all share: a recognition that we’re united by how easily we can ruin our lives, or...

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