In a bar in Adelaide, I got into an argument about country music.
It was my own fault. I should have known better than to raise the subject, but I had just spent two months in the bush and the experience was still pretty raw. ‘I used to hate it,’ I said. ‘Country music. I used to think it was so vapid, but I think I understand it now.’
‘What is there to understand?’ my friend James spat, and before I could answer, he launched into a tirade. ‘It’s backwards. It’s musically restrictive. There’s so little you can do with it. It’s the most monotonous, simplistic musical style there is. Ugh.’
‘It’s not about that,’ I said. I tried to explain how the simple chord progressions allowed lyrics and harmonies to take precedence, how those lyrics mapped life in small communities, the struggle of living and loving when divided by distance, dirt and hard work, and an undeniable proximity to death.
He didn’t care. The apparent lack of musical complexity offended him, he found the lyrics childish and silly, and thus the genre was dismissed.
Developing out of folk songs and dances imported into North America by Anglo-Celtic immigrants, the roots of country music are undeniably white and socially conservative. Until around the 1940s, it was called ‘hillbilly music’, made and primarily enjoyed by white lower-class workers on stations, plantations, and farming districts of the American South.
Australian country music (sometimes called ‘bush music’) has a similarly white history – its own distinct styles and influences can be traced back to convicts and colonial confrontations. That’s not to say African-American and Australian Indigenous people haven’t had influences on the styles respectively – they have, as both consumers and musicians themselves. Nevertheless, country music’s history, and its present, seems inextricable from questions of race and class, if only because of its widespread cultural clout in the parts of Australia where these tensions are, in many ways, most pronounced.
In a sideways series of thoughts, triggered in part by Jeff’s recent articles about atheism, I recently found myself thinking again about Ghassan Hage’s White Nation. In particular, I was reminded of his discussion of the rise of Hansonism and neo-fascism in Australia in the 1990s, and his criticism of the response of many academics. In attempting to find new and different ways to call Hanson’s supporters ‘racist’, sneering at their complaints and protestations without attempting to craft much of a response that went beyond ‘sophisticated abuse’, they hardened resentment against the Left and reinforced negative perceptions about a multiculturalist and out-of-touch academic elite that looked down on ‘ordinary people’.
At the very root of that problem, I remember thinking, was a dismissal of Hanson’s supporters as people – a refusal to take them and their experiences seriously. To accept as a general premise that they, as Hage writes, ‘really do not want to be associated with any form of racism’ does not require an acceptance of that racism. Rather, understanding that ‘such people see racism as something ugly and bad, and they do not perceive themselves as ugly and bad’ suggests the need for a more sophisticated response than simply trying to insist that they are ugly and bad. Because there is an assumption in such a response that people who hold such beliefs have no internal justification for them, that there are actually no concrete circumstances that have encouraged such logic, however much we think they have come to the wrong conclusions. There is an assumption, in other words, that people who hold such beliefs are essentially idiots. There’s no point trying to understand their concerns because there’s nothing to understand. Easy, right?
I was working at Kalala, a cattle station in the Northern Territory, putting up fences in one of the paddocks. There were six of us – three women and three men, one of whom was the station owner’s son. We were too far out from the station headquarters to go back for ‘smoko’ (a full dinner served at 10am, after which there would be nothing until 7pm except nine long hours of hard work) so Ol’ Girl (the matriarch of the station), her daughter-in-law Amanda and Amanda’s young kids brought the food out in the ute so everyone could eat together. Someone turned on the ute stereo and Tim McGraw burst through the speakers. I can’t remember the song that was playing, but I heard jaunty, jangly music and lyrics about someone getting into strife and I laughed.
I was the only one laughing.
When we ran out of wire for the fence a few hours later, the men left us women with the tractor while they took the truck back to headquarters for more. It wasn’t until we were lying under the tractor for a nap (it was the only shade for half a kilometre and we were exhausted) that Kaycie said, ‘Do you find our music funny?’
‘Sometimes,’ I admitted, and the conversation ended there. But the question stuck with me, tugging at my sleeve for the rest of the day. Our music. Do you find it funny? Why?
Less about the sound than it is about the people, what country music most retains of its folk origins it is that perceived relationship to a shared experience. To reduce it to a sequence of chords, to drawl and harmony and twang, is to strip from it the very things that bring it meaning and draw so many people to it. To laugh at it, to sneer at it, to condemn it for being almost universally embraced by the people who live in such places and have such experiences is to sneer at them.