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.
“Otherwise, people will ruin it,” said Billy’s 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.
Billy 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. Luke Bryan 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 Luke Bryan can go straight to New Jersey.
One middle-aged reader from Oklahoma wrote to me and asserted that, “Luke Bryan is the the greatest genius country musical artist the world has ever did.”
Another: “Luke Bryan has more talent in his pinky than you have in your entire [nasty word] body, you [even nastier word].”
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 truck. If Luke Bryan can do that, so be it. But I ain’t heard it yet.
The guy on stage starts playing “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” He nails it. I’m closing my eyes. And I swear I am listening to Willie sing his bandanna off.
“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 next year, AeroMobil will make 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, “I read your column. Luke Bryan sucks.”
There is hope for America yet.