Wrong's What I Do Best:
By Barbara Ching Ph.D. '90.
Oxford University Press, 2001. 186 pages. $22.
If country music produces a weak return on the cultural-studies radar, its rebellious offspring, hard country, flies under the beam. Until now, that is, with Barbara Ching's lively critique of the personalities and canon of a gritty musical genre associated more with honky-tonks and truck stops than literature.
Ching opens the barroom door to the stale tobacco and cheap beer of hard country. This is not a place for social climbers. Hard country is not about country at all, but about losers and outcasts on the margin of a materialistic society defined by middle-class values and aspirations. With Wrong's What I Do Best (the title comes from a George Jones song), Ching files her claim as the premier interpreter of hard country.
Like mainstream country music, which traces its origin to such 1920s troubadours as Jimmie Rodgers, hard country also has a pedigree. In this case, most of its founders--Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Merle Haggard, and David Allan Coe, among others--are still alive.
Around 1970, these performer-songwriters strode onto the country music stage with "outlaw music," so called because it not only celebrated antisocial behavior--drug and alcohol abuse, even violence--but also because the genre's rowdiest practitioners came with real rap sheets. David Allan Coe, the most accomplished outlaw of the group, spent the first thirty years of his life in some kind of trouble, up to and including prison.
Hard country came from hard living and hard dying. Hovering over the genre is the shade of hard country's founding father, Hank Williams Sr., and the presence of the once and future pretender to the throne, Hank Williams Jr. Ching lavishes more attention on father and son than on other hard-country performers, and for good reason.
Williams Sr. died in the back seat of his Cadillac on January 1, 1953. He was twenty-nine years old, done in by drug and alcohol abuse. In Ching's words, Williams set a "high performance standard" for hard country. His short, troubled life (he had been excommunicated from the mother church of country music, Nashville's Grand Ol' Opry, five months before his death) propelled him into legend. For years afterward, many small Southern radio stations played nothing but Hank Williams records on New Year's Day.
Hank Williams perfected losing into musical art. The characters in his songs are low-class, poorly educated white males who come into this life knowing that the deck is stacked against them. Their anti-triumph comes in losing on the grandest scale possible; indeed, losing is the only career path open to them. They lose women, money, jobs, life itself. Theirs is a fiercely deterministic world with one outcome, failure.
Not coincidentally, it would be Hank Williams Jr. who rescued hard country from its early demise. "Bocephus," a nickname given young Williams by his father, attempted suicide at twenty-five. In 1975, he fell down a Montana mountainside, ripping up his face so badly he had to learn to talk again. Hank Jr. is clearly not among Ching's favorites, but she properly credits the reconstructed Williams with revitalizing hard country and its trademark disdain for middle-class values.
For Ching, an assistant professor of English at the University of Memphis, her topic is more than a genre; at its purest, she argues, it is a form of burlesque. And like the refined burlesque of literature, hard country strikes at the knees of a majority culture that it distrusts.
It may well be, as she suggests, that hard country was destined to become the one true country music when Nashville segued into its smooth "countrypolitan" sound in the 1960s. Eddy Arnold could look as sophisticated as Cary Grant in a tuxedo and warble with a pleasant blandness about a room full of roses, but it took rough-as-a-cob Waylon Jennings to declare defiantly that he was too dumb for New York and too ugly for Los Angeles. Hard country would not salute the crossover flag.
Hard country began, and remains, a province populated mainly by white males. Yet, the genre is not and never has been racist in its portrayal of the other side of the American success machine. Hard country is obsessed with class distinction and, to a lesser extent, gender, but wrong really is what it does best. Fortunately, hard country has in Barbara Ching an appreciative critic who gives the genre a distinction it would never seek, academic respectability and a well-earned niche in cultural studies. Ol' Hank, the hillbilly Shakespeare, would approve.
Wilson A.M. '88 is editor of the editorial pages for The Herald-Sun in Durham.