by James Lincoln Warren
There’s an ancient joke that was told back in the bronze age when I was in high school.
“I don’t care what kind of music the band plays,” says the joker. “I like both Country and Western.”
Like millions of teenagers, I played in a succession of lousy garage rock ‘n’ roll bands during my misspent youth, but growing up in Texas also meant that I was regularly exposed to good country music, although I didn’t truly appreciate it at the time. The big hit that was played time and again on the juke box in the school cafeteria was Jim Ed Brown‘s rendition of Nat Stuckey‘s “Pop a Top Again”, a firsthand account of a broken heart being assuaged with alcohol and steel guitar, a sort of twangy, more sentimental version of Harold Arlen’s and Johnny Mercer’s classic standard, “One More for the Road”. Although now when I listen to that tune I do so with a nostalgic smile, I remember hating it at the time and wondering why the juke box never got to play Crosby, Stills, & Nash or Jethro Tull instead.
This was the very early 70s, and like all high schools, the student population of ours was divided into hostile and mutually exclusive cliques. The reason the juke box never played rock music was because there were far more “kickers” (cowboys) than “freaks” (long-haired hippie types). It was impossible to straddle both camps, although you could position yourself in a group that was somewhere in between, like the Band (closer to the hippies) or the Jocks (closer to the cowboys). The safest place was the Drama Club, my preferred refuge, although I was unabashedly a rocker.
My best friend in 10th grade was guitar picker Steve Earle, who would a few years later take Nashville by storm. The cowboys used to wait for him as he tried to hitch a ride home after school so they could pull up to him in their pickup trucks and beat the crap out of him. It was deliciously ironic when he was nominated for Grammies for Best Country Male Vocalist and Best Country Song in 1987. (He didn’t win that year, but he has since been nominated at 9 more times and won in 2005 for Best Contemporary Folk Album, recovering from a debilitating heroin addiction and an associated spell in prison.)
I haven’t seen or talked to Steve in almost 30 years. But I still follow his career.
Steve always specialized in songs that told tales. Always very good tales, too. He also wrote a critically acclaimed collection of short stories, Doghouse Roses, a few years ago, which the L.A. Times regarded as one of the most important books that season. Although he crosses genres musically with tremendous ease and grace, in his heart he’s a country picker through and through. I’ve heard him describe himself as a hillbilly, but he’s a hillbilly like Bill Clinton is a hillbilly.
What he definitely isn’t, though, is a cowboy. I can’t imagine Steve on a horse.
Which is a roundabout way of getting to cowboy songs. Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw, and Garth Brooks may sport Stetsons, but they’re Country singers; they are not Western singers. Even an inveterate rocker like Jerry Garcia was more of a Western singer than they are, closer in his wandering balladeering to Gene Autry and Roy Rogers — The Grateful Dead regularly performed a creditable version of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” that always brought down the house.
Cowboy songs and singing cowboys are really a different thing from Nashville, after all, although both arose from a tradition of Irish-Scots folk balladry. Rob Lopresti has already written of the close connection between folk ballads and crime stories, but there’s another Western connection. As I noted a few months ago, in his doctoral dissertation, Robert B. Parker argued that the P.I. story was an update of that most American of genres, the Western, particularly as its most salient characteristics are a rugged individualist battling against a corrupt status quo in the interest of justice and the prominence of crime as the central motivating element. I also drew a parallel between French cabaret songs and short stories just a few weeks ago.
A couple days ago, I got a contract in the mail from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for the third story in my Cal Ops saga chronicling the adventures of a multi-racial detective agency in Beverly Hills. The story is called “Jungle Music” and deals with the connection between the pop music and illegal drug industries. It will be months before it gets printed, but in celebration I want to give you a very brief excerpt.
“Poor ol’ scuzz bucket,” Malone said. “I knew he’d get it in the back someday.” He paused, and then lowed like a steer getting branded. It took me a moment to realize he was attempting to sing. “Oh, beat the drum slow-lee, and play the fife low-lee . . .”
I stared at him.
“It’s from ‘The Streets of Laredo,’ Red. That’s a song about a murdered cowboy.”
“I know what it is,” I retorted. “I just don’t know why you’re trying to sing it.”
The Gentle Reader will have to wait to discover why Custer Malone is singing that particular song until the story gets printed. But I included it because in a way, the whole story is a cowboy song, a threnody commemorating tragedy and violence and rootless existence.