A beer joint. In the sticks. A cinderblock building. There were beat-up trucks parked in a dusty parking lot. No sign. Only a small Pabst Blue Ribbon marquee indicated this was a place where a man could break a dry spell.
My companions were old enough to be my grandfathers. I accepted their invitations to attend their private waterhole.
“We don’t want anyone to know it’s here,” said one old man whom I will call Billy. Although that is not his name. It is Ted Carter.
“Otherwise, people will ruin it,” said his cohort.
It was a dank place. A lot like the place where Miss Wanda sold me my very first beer when I was 14.
Yes, I realize 14 is way too young to consume libation. I also realize that if Wanda had done such a thing today, she would be rotting beneath Tutwiler Prison. But those were different times.
Wanda gave me an ice-cold Miller High Life in exchange for a song played on my guitar. She asked me to sing to the barroom because—how’s this for irony?— her mother heard me sing in church once.
I sang “Hello Walls.” I tried to make my voice do like Faron Young’s voice did.
We opened the door. The old men assumed their barstools. The place smelled like someone’s crawl space.
There was a tiny plywood stage in the corner. An old guy with a ponytail was picking and singing Vern Gosdin’s “Set’em Up Joe.”
I ordered a Miller High Life, just to see if the spirit of Wanda lived on.
“We don’t carry High Life,” said the bartender. She was young and full-faced. But in a pleasing way.
My two partners ordered Bud Lights. I ordered a Budweiser. The girl called out. “I need two Bud Lights and one beer!”
The other bartender was nicknamed “Tiny.” He weighed roughly 250 lbs., and his arms were the size of fire hydrants. He used to play high-school ball. He could have had a full ride to a State-U, but his girlfriend was pregnant at the time. He got our drinks.
The man on the stage was now playing a Jerry Jeff Walker train song. “Railroad Lady.
The story of Jerry Jeff Walker is the perfect example of the articulate beauty of country music. Walker was a New York native. He was a musical kid who was interested in jazz at an early age. Of all things. He gravitated toward country. He was a lyrical prodigy. Waylon loved him. So did Willie. He died last year. God rest his pick.
Billy turned to me and said, “So, what do you think? Is this a real country beer joint or what?”
He’s referring to a column I wrote recently about visiting a bar outside Atlanta. It was supposed to be a beer joint. It wasn’t. A tattooed youngster in a cowboy hat shouted rhymes into a mic. “Redneck rap” is what they called it. Lots of cussing. Lots of mentions of human anatomy.
The young people at the Atlanta bar were digging it. Modern country music played overhead. They wore expensive jeans, sipped fruity craft beers. There were strobe lights. I wrote about it.
The column got some feedback from some local newspapers. Mostly from middle-aged people who told me I was an “old fart,” that I should “go back to the nursing home,” and anyone who doesn’t like a certain nameless pop-country singer; an artist who happens to sing like a suck-egg mule; can go straight to the DMV.
One middle-aged reader from Oklahoma wrote to me and asserted that this aforementioned nameless country singer “is the greatest genius country musical artist the world has ever did.”
Another: “[Name of Artist] has more talent in his pinky than you have in your entire [nasty word] body, you [same nasty word] [nasty word used as a noun].”
I abhor the modern stuff. I firmly believe in the American tradition of country music. And I believe tradition made the genre great. Not innovation.
I’m not here to criticize any modern artists, but I stand by my words. I think country music is heading in the wrong direction.
Country music needs three chords, four at the max. Piercingly clever lyrics. A penitent singer. A steel guitar solo. And at least one mention of a dog. If [Name of Suck-Egg Artist] can do that, so be it. But I haven’t heard it.
The guy on stage starts playing “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”
“So,” said Billy. “Do you still believe country music is dying?”
The truth is, I don’t know. I don’t know whether the music of my forebears will still be here in the next, say, 50 years. I don’t know if we will still have young ironworkers who strum. Or workmen who write love songs and wear denim non-ironically.
Right now we have high-tech baby strollers that can push themselves. We have kids who can run the world using iPads. And last year, AeroMobil started making flying cars available for purchase. I feel like a brontosaurus. Where does Hank Senior fit into this brave new world?
I removed my wallet to pay my tab. The girl behind the bar took my money. She smiled and whispered,
“Hey, you’re that writer guy.”
“I read your recent column. This one’s on the house.”
There is hope for America yet.
Jim Thompson - June 4, 2023 11:26 am
George Jones had a song back in the 80s, who’s gonna fill their shoes…. well it sure ain’t these froot loop idiots claiming to be country singers today. George Strait and Alan Jackson are the last of the real country singers. This mess they call country music today smells like what comes out of the south end of a north bound bull.
Phil Jennings - June 4, 2023 12:15 pm
I hate what is happening to country music. Maybe we need another Bakersfield movement to get Nashville’s attention.
I like innovation…. In technology. Please create another genre and get the Rap rats OUT of Country music.
We are losing our American spirit. We don’t even have any Sinatras any more. We have lost the classics.Music has a great history of being for all ages. The rap movement is often XXX rated. Right now there is no replacement for Willie, although there are a few who border their greatness but now the younger generation wants fireworks, glitz and glamour and “rhymers” that have no soul. Give me a singer with a raspy voice who sings of mama, trains, prison….. true country folks know the rest…
The real Country folks are in dank dark bars sipping real beer and hailing the roots of country music.
Hank ! Where are you?
Thanks, Jim Thompson. I love the front loops reference. You’re right on!
Phil - June 4, 2023 12:18 pm
Sorry,…. FRUIT LOOPS…..I gotta proofread better.
stephen e acree - June 4, 2023 12:49 pm
Sounds like a wonderful place to visit. I was never a country music fan much. But like you the older stuff is better. I guess that is my take about popular music. Mine is from the 60s/70s.
Yeah, this world is changing faster than we can keep up. When I drive I marvel at the amount of traffic now compared to my teenhood. But you keep us grounded somewhat, Sean. Just keep speaking about the real world of people.
Debbie g - June 4, 2023 12:57 pm
Amen Sean !!!!
Love you and Jamie
And love to all pass it on please
Dee Thompson - June 4, 2023 4:31 pm
Great column. Reminded me of why I like country, but also other genres, as I blogged about.. https://deescribbler.typepad.com/my_weblog/2023/06/my-musical-tastes.html
Michael Pitts - June 4, 2023 4:50 pm
I am so lonesome I could cry
Sue Murphy - June 4, 2023 8:11 pm
Today’s country is more like country pop. I like some of it but it ain’t true country. A dinosaur I am and I am not ashamed of it.
Earby Markham - June 5, 2023 9:22 am
I’m a gulf coast native that grew up in the same stomping grounds as the pirate looks at 80 guy and the area popularized as the barefoot nation. But after a lifetime of Island escapism music, I can’t really take modern rock (already poisoned by rap), so for the last 6 months I have been listening to modern pop country.
Surprisingly, I’ve found that I like the music by a guy named for a certain type of person described by James Lee Burke, when he’s writing as Dave and Cletus. Or maybe he’s named after a snack cake, I’m not sure.
And there’s another song about trucks, trailers and 12 gauges that appeals to the hidden vigilante that hides inside me.
The others, not so much.
Larry Wall - June 5, 2023 5:38 pm
Who is going to fill their shoes, indeed. I do know that there are some young, and a few not-so-young, folks out there who write and sing true country music but, because the music industry wont promote it, they can’t get it played on the “country” music radio stations and therefore sold to the country genre lovers. Unfortunately. The musician, the industry, and the folks who want original style of country are all losers. Thanks for caring enough to highlight it in your article.