Readers, it’s about time I admitted something to you. Here goes: I’m addicted to The Decemberists. Maybe it’s the fact that they take their name from a Russian peasant uprising, maybe it’s Colin Meloy’s complete and utter lack of proper enunciation, maybe it’s the number of times they use the word “oligarch” in their songs (okay, so that’s only one, but it’s more than zero). Whatever it is, it draws me back to them again and again, even after a solid week of detoxing with nothing but Nirvana and Cream. I mention this because their last two releases, The King Is Dead and Long Live the King, are blatant country records.
After systematically working their way through the band’s discography, listeners can kind of see that the country aesthetic has been loitering about in their music all along. This shouldn’t shock anyone; The Decemberists are a folk rock band, and country overlaps heavily with folk. But distinctions do exist (What? Why are you looking at me like that? Oh, you want me to explain what those are? TOO BAD) and the progression of albums appears to make the case that these guys were closet country musicians to begin with and are just now fully embracing that aspect of themselves.
As much as I’d love to walk you through the significance of each song, I should probably stop drooling and get back to the bigger picture: what is it about country music that affects people so deeply? The characteristic that is prominent in both of these records (especially Long Live the King) is the presentation of history. Country music doesn’t do institutional history. It values history from a cooperative perspective (the frequency of collective pronouns is well into the double digits by track two of The King Is Dead), and it cares about individual people (Meloy recounts the interment of both Edgar Watson, “buried all facedown with a good view into hell,” and the fictitious character Davy). The best word to describe what murder ballads and rallying cries pay homage to is likely “heritage.”
Heritage is about direct roots, about far-fetched anecdotes passed down through generations, and about acknowledging the aspirations that drew together the community and situation people share in the present. The stress here is placed on honoring people as people, which is why ballads are such an appropriate way of presenting the past. There’s patriotism in it, but not flag-waving buffoon patriotism, because it’s not about the flag.
The patriotism that most people associate with country music is much closer to nationalism, unrelenting pride in the state. The patriotism that truly exists here—at least in these two albums, and in any that share the focus on heritage—is about the nation’s people.
It’s funny that this aspect is so heartrendingly evocative, because the idea of heritage seems to drive many people away from country. They see the fables in the lyrics as undesirable ties to a people they perceive as ignorant. They see a narrative of hillbillies, not of Appalachian settlers, of the families and towns strengthened internally by the exploits and ordeals they sing of.
Not all Americans are descended from these people and their culture, not even close. Nor are they all touched by this music. Nevertheless, points of connection exist between themselves and the saga of their country’s growth. These are what country music illuminates, fortifying the bond that stems from the American people’s shared foundation: “We are all our hands and holders, ‘neath this bold and brilliant sun.”