So I went to see Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods last night. It’s brilliant, in a class of its own making (the closest thing I can think of is Scream, and even that can’t match it); as long as you’ve got a strong stomach, a good sense of humor, and a reasonable number of slasher flicks under your belt, go see it. I could talk about that 95 minutes indefinitely, but I was at least equally intrigued by the previews. Out of maybe 7 commercials for new films and television shows, there were three about series that related somehow to cowboys and the Wild West–a remarkably high frequency for a populace that tends to deride products of “backcountry” culture (I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the phrase “I like all sorts of music…except country.”). What’s up with that? I have a few theories, but what I really want to talk about is the power of country music (thus, this entry will have a soundtrack; start here–zombie redneck torture family, anyone?).
We Americans root for the underdog, the rugged individualist forging a new path on the rapidly diminishing frontier. Our folk heroes tend toward lawlessness and rebellion, staunchly upholding their rights against established authority. Though we mock the image of the ignorant ultra-conservative, deep down, most of us are more sympathetic toward someone in pursuit of personal liberty than someone advocating a collective greater good. We idolize those who defy government to protect the freedom of others (think Daniel Shays, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse James). And it is this that gives country music one of its most poignant characteristics: the incorporation of power.
Country music is most often highly narrative, and its characters, along with those in Western movies and TV, are not to be messed with (think Deadwood, Firefly, any John Wayne). In addition to these tangibly strong archetypes, the music itself is sparse and percussive (exhibit A). It also draws influence from a spiritual angle, often appealing to the power of God (as seen here). A luthier once told me that violins and most other instruments in that family were designed to imitate the human voice, and thus can carry immense emotional power–the twang and fiddles of country take advantage of this beautifully.
I grew up on country. From the moment I exited the womb, I was exposed to The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and Alison Krauss’ “Down to the River to Pray.” I must’ve heard Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison a thousand times from the cassette player in my dad’s car. Sentimentality may amplify country music’s effect on me, but I also think it speaks to something universally human. Here again, we see the individual as powerful; they’re independent, capable of making their own way without the government or an established family. But somewhere in our psyches, there’s this little nagging desire for roots.
A little bit of background: both of my parents are from a now-barely-extant town in the Midwest. They’ve since moved to several cities around the US, once in my lifetime. The timing of that move was such that my cultivation of childhood friends was completely circumvented. I have this image of their hometown as a very stable, community-oriented place–their entire county’s genealogy, as of the early 80s, fits in a book the size of a thesaurus, and I’m actually a bit jealous of that. For some reason, I long for that simplistic, rural, small-town sense of belonging even though logically I know I’m better off a nomad in the big city.
Country music evokes a sense of community for me. I feel something physically and emotionally in response to it. This is true of many people, regardless of background. It’s in fact one of the main reasons country became popular in the first place. It started out as a genre in the 1920s, drawing heavily from Appalachian folk music, and really gained popularity in the 1940s (this is where it went from the label “hillbilly music” to “country”). The way I understand it, many rural folk were emigrating from their entrenched towns to cities, and country acted as a way of feeling connected to the culture they were leaving even as they trailblazed their way to urban sophistication.
Circumstances have changed since then, yet country music stations are now the most widely-listened-to during rush hour. That cowboy-heavy preview reel—especially amazing as a preface to such a smart-alecky, self-consciously cynical film—is a testament to the genre’s emotional tenacity. Even old Whedon himself knows how to wield that.