To be or not to be a country boy? To my ears, this has always been one of the most invigorating questions in country music. For example, in “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” (1974), John Denver indulges in the person. In the picture he sketches, it’s not difficult to see why. According to Denver, country boys have everything they need: a warm bed, good job, regular meals, violin music. The country boy’s life, he sings, “is nothing but a funny, amusing riddle,” and who doesn’t like a good laugh?
However, for Hank Williams Jr., this country boy business is no joke. In “A Country Boy Can Survive” (1981) he says that the rivers are drying up and the stock market is everyone’s guess and the world usually goes to hell and if you knew what’s good for you, you would be a country boy too, because in the end, only country boys – those “shotgun reared”, those who “know how to skin a buck” and “plow a field all day” – make it alive.
Loretta Lynn could do without Hank Jr.’s heated rhetoric, but when she sings in “You See in the Country” (1971), “This country girl would walk a country mile / find her a good old, slow-speaking woman country boy.” Um To underscore her preference, she repeats, “I said a country boy.” Not every country boy will. Loretta makes it clear that she wants a workhorse with a worn shovel that she “gives me” in exchange for a tour of the farm Wedding ring shows ”.
It’s doubtful that Lynn’s narrator would have chosen the guy Johnny Cash sings about on his first album. Johnny Cash with his hot and blue guitar!– not that Cash’s compatriot would care. He has “no ills”, “no bills”, “no shoes”, “no blues”. A country boy’s greatest privilege, according to Cash’s “Country Boy” (1957), is his ignorance of beautiful things. In part, he is satisfied with his “shaggy dog”, fried fish and “morning dew” because he has not been exposed to much else.
With little money, says Cash, country boys have “a lot to lose”. Cash, who traded Arkansas fields for a Memphis recording studio at this point in his life, spends a lot of time wishing he could be a country boy again, but his hot-blue guitar says otherwise. The truth is you couldn’t go back if you wanted to, but would you go back if you could?
Problems arise when country boys leave the country or are made aware of other ways of life. They either go nostalgic (Cash) or defensive (Hank Jr.), or in the case of Glen Campbell’s “Country Boy (You Have Your Feet In LA)” (1975), they fall with a bad case of cheating syndrome.
In the first song on his album Rhinestone cowboyCampbell sings about a compatriot who hit the big time:
You get a house in the hills
You pay all the bills
And that’s what they tell you
You will go far
But in the back of my mind
I keep hearing it
Is that really you?
After living on so much less for so long – “I can remember the time”, he sings, “when I sang my songs for free” – this compatriot cannot enjoy his change of happiness. His humble beginnings are both a grace and an obligation. On the one hand, they keep him from getting carried away. On the other hand, they prevent him from being fully present. He fears doing so will be a betrayal. In the end, he realizes that he has to choose. A country boy in Hollywood won’t stay like this for long.
What about a fellow countryman in finance? In the video for Ricky Skaggs’ 1985 hit “Country Boy,” bluegrass legend Bill Monroe accuses Skaggs of being disoriented. The scene takes place in an office building in Manhattan, with Skaggs in a business suit sitting behind a large desk. Monroe is cheered on by Skaggs’ secretary and looks around. “I heard it was bad boy, but I didn’t know you’d get around to it,” he says. Then Skaggs takes out his guitar and tries to prove him wrong.
Monroe’s disapproving presence makes Skaggs’ foot-stomper a précis for Nashville’s shifting sensibilities in the 1980s. Skaggs had shown up under Monroe’s guidance. At the age of six he played mandolin for the first time with Monroe’s band. In his teens and twenties he’d toured with the Stanley Brothers and Country Gentlemen, more bluegrass kings. With his lonely voice and confident understanding of the bluegrass canon, Skaggs has often been seen as the future of the genre, that is, as a faithful steward of its past. Now he was doing mainstream country. Was it sold out?
You can get the boy out of the country, but not the country out of the boy – so Skaggs claims. Despite evils and bills and all the rest, not to mention a number of record number one set, a country boy is a country boy once and for all. He could work in a bank instead of a coal mine and live in a walk-in instead of a hut in the woods, but deep down he’s still a “cotton picker”, still a “pig-runner chewing on the stile”. Monroe is not convinced. He shakes his head in disgust. “I’m just a country boy,” Skaggs counters again and again, “country boy at heart.”
“Just a country boy.” For Skaggs, words are a promise of loyalty. For Don Williams, however, they are a convenient excuse. In “I’m Just a Country Boy,” a song first recorded by Harry Belafonte and which put Williams at number 1 on the country charts in 1977, the leanness wrapped in the word “just” has real ramifications.
Williams’ country boy won’t marry the woman he loves because he can’t afford her. He can’t afford a lot of anything. He could have, as the chorus says, “silver in the stars” and “gold in the morning sun,” but they don’t take sunshine at the jeweler. And yet the “justice” of being a country boy leaves him to his disappointment. The song is less of a lament than a shrug. “I’m just a country boy,” Williams sings as if to say: What did you expect?
Even so, resignation has its own complexity. That’s the subject of another Williams song, the somber “Good Ole Boys Like Me” (1979), which might as well be called “I’m Still Just a Country Boy.” In this song, written by Bob McDill, the narrator looks back on a childhood full of sensually overwhelming contradictions and tries to reckon with his place in the world. In a chapter on Nashville from his travelogue A turning point in the southVS Naipaul describes McDill’s performance as a kind of magic composed of “the calling up and recognition of impulses that were simple on the surface but, together with the music that was made rich with a refrain, seemed to reach undefined places in the heart and in memory. “
The narrator of “Good Ole Boys Like Me” remembers his gin-drunk father reading the Bible to him before bed, “about honor and things I should know,” and then “staggered a little when he did went out the door ”. In the choir, he declares his allegiance to Hank and Tennessee Williams, one as a honky tonk hero who forever pushed the boundaries of country music, the other as a shake scene for playwrights who left Mississippi for New York and European cities and never stopped writing about displaced persons.
The country boy remembers falling asleep to the sounds of John R., a Nashville DJ playing rhythm and blues, and the words of Thomas Wolfe who “whispered in my head.” Wolfe’s two most famous novels, the autobiographical one Look home, Angel and the equally autobiographical You can’t go home again, tell the story of a country boy’s struggle to leave the south and return. Don Williams’ compatriot took Wolfe’s cue.
The compatriot, unsettled by the death of a friend to drug abuse and, as we might conclude, the fear of becoming a sentimental drunk like his old man, has “taken to the streets” in several ways. He admits in the last verse that he deliberately softened his southern accent to sound like “the man on the six o’clock news.” Maybe he’s not a country boy at all. Perhaps he was never one from the start. “I was smarter than most,” he says, “and I could choose.”
However, that he can remember these experiences and artifacts with such precision shows how much he is affected by them. So much so that his statement about freedom of choice was ultimately tempered by a kind of fatalism. “I think,” he concludes, “we will all be what we will be / so what do you do with good old boys like me?”
I’m not sure how to answer this question. Which way is it going? Is “you” a world that is no longer of much use to compatriots? Or are the “you” the compatriots who care no less about their own relevance and therefore view this narrator with suspicion? Don Williams’ Country Boy is a combination of the Skaggs and Hank Jr strains. He survived, all right, but despite his upbringing, not because of that, and what would it mean if in the end it turned out he wasn’t a country boy , not even in the heart?
“Good Ole Boys Like Me” always reminded me of a painting by Marc Chagall Me and the village, a framed poster that hung on a wall in my Tennessee elementary school. Chagall completed Me and the village when he was in his mid-twenties. He had traveled from Belarus to Paris and back. The painting, a spectacle of ecstatic disorientation, describes the emigration.
In it, scenes from Vitsyebsk, the city where Chagall grew up, revolve around a polychromatic dream landscape. The characters are earthy, deep down and yet the picture exudes a kind of weightlessness. A man with a green face and white eyes is holding a small tree of life. There’s a woman milking a goat on the cheek of a cow. In the background, a woman in blue skirts stands on her head, a kind of yin to the yang of a farmer who is shouldering a scythe.
Me and the village projects a vision of village life. Chagall later wrote in his memoir: My lifethat the flying figures and transmogrifying vistas that characterized his early breakthroughs were created in response to a desire to “see a new world” in desperate prayers while walking the streets of Paris.
In third or fourth grade, I wouldn’t have had the vocabulary to articulate such thoughts, but I think I felt it as I passed Me and the village On the way to class or floating in front of it while waiting in line to go to the gym or to the bathroom, something of Chagall’s strained relationship with his roots.
There was worship in the Chagall, and there was also loathing, closeness and distance, the red and the green. The artist loved this place and these people, although I suspected he wasn’t one of them. His village was not Vitsyebsk; his village was the canvas. Likewise, Don Williams’ “good old boy”, out of place in the country and in the city, finds solace, if nowhere else, in the country song, which, despite all its parochialism, never comes out as provincial.
It is significant, if not surprising, that the Good Ole Boys Like Me chorus praises Hank Williams Sr., Hank Jr.’s father, of all the country singers in the canon. As far as I know, Ol’Hank didn’t write any songs called “Country Boy”. What he wrote unforgettable was “Ramblin ‘Man” (1953), a minor manifesto delivered in a brazen blue yodel about the charm of the open road, a place he calls “The Lost Highway” in another song . ”
What is a rambling man? A compatriot who has become a villain. As much as he sees the good in a simple, even simplistic way of life, a spacious man values his freedom more. He is a flight risk. In love and work he can break loose at any time without worrying about whom he is working up or leaving in the lurch. Ashley Monroe, a country singer who has taken on the Rambler coat, describes the calculation in her song “I’m Good at Leavin” (2015):
A couple of times I’ve said that I do
A couple of times I said we were through
I never really seem to get what I needed
I can pack up my car well
I’m good at honky tonks and bars
Waylon Jennings, in his 1974 cover of Ray Pennington’s Hank-inspired “I’m a Ramblin Man,” puts it more clearly: “You’d better move away / you’re too close to the flame.”
However, more than a personal commitment, Hank’s rambling man is also something of a juggler. Hank recorded “Ramblin ‘Man” under the auspices of his alter ego, Luke the Drifter. The songs Hank recorded as Luke tend to provide moral stories. Luke is a kind of itinerant preacher, a wandering prophet whose home church apparently consists only of Hank Williams, whose own songs, reflecting his life, often deal with carousel, heavy drinking, and existential despair.
Instead of Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde the Country Boy, Hank’s rambling man is a smarter, more wounded repetition of himself. He seems older than Hank, more terrifying and sensible at the same time, cut off from society and yet drawn from a deeper source. He has not given up responsibility, but has secured the necessary distance to evaluate experiences and report back. Hiking, in this sense, is the process by which a country boy becomes a man.
“Ramblin ‘Man” was never released as a single. The song was the B-side of “Take These Chains from My Heart,” a honky-tonk ballad that went number one on New Years Day 1953 after Hank’s death at the age of twenty-nine. Hank’s death translated “Ramblin ‘Man” into a last will and will. “And when I’m gone,” he sings.
And you are standing by my grave
Just say that God has been called home
Your Ramblin man
Like John Denver, Ol’Hank appeals to the Almighty. “Let me travel this country,” he prays.
From the mountains to the sea
‘Cause that’s the life I believe in
He meant for me
One of them thanks his stars, he’s a country boy. The other thanks him that he is not only that. In other words, the question is not whether or not to be a country boy. The question is: what kind of country boy will you be?
Drew Bratcher was born in Nashville. He received his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. He lives in Chicagoland.