The Past is Another Country

Hank Fuckin’ Williams

It’s hard to admit, but I don’t really have a lot of good memories of my mother, or much of a sense that I got any great legacy from her (except for being alive, which I guess, yeah, that does count for something). Mostly, I remember her needing stuff from me – a lot of going to the kitchen to fetch her drinks or cigarettes when I was younger; writing her resume, engaging in one of her ritual “debates” about the Kennedy assassination, or lending her money as I got older. And emotional validation all the way through.

On the cultural front, not much. She introduced me to Herman Wouk’s books about World War II, and that’s something that’s paid off in a bunch of ways throughout my life. So that’s a definite plus. Otherwise, almost nothing.

Except: my mother loved country music. Not the country music that was current when I was a kid – this was the 80s and early 90s, so I guess the current stuff at that point would have been Randy Travis and Garth Brooks – but the country music of her parents’ generation. We had this enormous 70s-vintage console stereo (turntable, radio tuner, and yes, an 8-track) and when my father wasn’t around she’d often put a Hank Williams or Johnny Horton record on and crank the fuck out of it. And the giant console stereo had giant console speakers, so when it cranked, it really kicked out the jams. And, like punk, classic country is music that really, really benefits from volume. Hank Williams and Johnny Horton (along with Roger Miller and sometimes Johnny Cash, and I’m sure a bunch of others) do this thing where they’re singing out at the very edge of what their voice can handle, and you can hear their vocal chords distort just like an overdriven guitar amp and it’s fucking glorious at extreme volume. And Hank’s wonderfully spare arrangements sound great when they can fill up a room with sound.

Those old country jamouts are the times I remember my mother being happiest (well, that and when she could con me into rehashing for the thousandth time the question of whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone). It’s wild, too, to look at it from a distance, because it’s pretty clear that she must have learned to love this stuff from her parents. And my mother’s relationship with her parents was at least as fraught and difficult as mine was with her and my father. My grandfather was a childlike, emotionally stunted presence for her who can’t have provided much in the way of positive fatherhood. My grandmother was a millstone around my mother’s neck for most of her life, a hypochondriac psychic vampire sucking away all of her emotional energy. Honestly, there’s probably an alternate timeline where my mother’s writing a version of this essay in 1995.

A portrait of the artist as a young punk.

In college and immediately afterward, I discovered the 90s alt country music movement – Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Wilco, the Jayhawks, the Bottle Rockets, and so on, music combining the energy of punk rock with the soul of classic country. I fell hard for this, and spent my immediate postcollege years building a life around making music, specifically a very de rigeur type of alt country (at least at first). I made sure that my band did punked-up versions of Hank’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans,” and nearly instigated a band breakup over exactly how seriously we should take Merle Haggard. That didn’t turn into a career the way I wanted it to, but it was a great time in my life and it’s still paying creative dividends for me. And that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t learned to love Hank Williams sitting on a pukey orange-and-green shag carpet listening to music thunder out of some bigass 70s speakers.

Hank Williams, Johnny Horton, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Patsy Cline, and I’m sure a bunch of others. Oh yeah, Willie Nelson. On my own, I’ve added Buck Owens and Roger Miller and Merle Haggard and Bob Wills and Jerry Reed and a bunch of others to my pantheon, but that’s all built around the core my mother gave me. I genuinely love this music now, and listening to it is about the only thing that gives me unambiguously good, warm feelings about my mother.

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