LeAnn Phelan, a senior director of A&R (Artists and Repertoire) for Sony Music Nashville, was sitting right behind me at Joe’s Pub 10 days ago, at an acoustic performance by some very successful country-music singer-songwriters. As the lights dimmed and the music started, she whispered, “This is just like it is at the good places in Nashville.” That evening, one of two such sold-out nights at this cozy venue, was part of a week during which musicians, record-company executives, managers, roadies, and publicists descended on—or, at least latitudinally ascended to—New York. They were warming up for the Country Music Awards, which were handed out last Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. Not that many New Yorkers noticed.
Joe’s Pub, the music bistro of the Public Theater on Lafayette Street, did resemble Nashville’s famous Bluebird Café that night in the audience’s close proximity to the performers, the simplicity of the sound, and the informality of the performance. But even though one of the sponsors of this whole week was, bafflingly, the New YorkTimes, and even though the event’s logo was “Country Takes New York City,” and even though Garth Brooks sang a song in the middle of Times Square, generally the aforementioned New York City, which famously does not even have a country-music radio station, seemed pretty untaken by this weeklong country-music fest and awards show, the first one ever outside Nashville. Its participants came and went like the home-decorating executives and asphalt manufacturing association and the other conventioneers who convene here, leaving only subway maps, Big Apple Bus Tour receipts, and hotel adult-movie revenues in their wake. Metraca Berg—who has written many country hits, including the lovely blockbuster about first love, “Strawberry Wine”—summed up her outsider status in a positive way: “New York City! Free hotel! More money for shoes!” Denise Stiff, the manager for Alison Krauss and Union Station, had a more forlorn approach at the live performance of the Grand Ole Opry at Carnegie Hall: “I’m not sure that anyone else knows we’re here.”
Some performers, perhaps attempting to blend in with the confrontational natives, tried to address the issue head-on.“Are you fucking terrified?” Jon Randall asked the audience when he came out onstage in the middle of Friday’s show. He looked fierce, with his goatee and intense brow. “Are you terrified that there are 22,000 hillbillies in your town? Did you see Deliverance?” He played the first bar of “Dueling Banjos” on his guitar. “That shit really happens down there.” Well, no—the audience wasn’t terrified because the audience was mainly from out of town. He proceeded to sing a song called “Whiskey Lullaby” that he co-wrote with the septuagenarian songwriter “Whisperin’ ” Bill Anderson and that went on to win Song of the Year at the Garden five days later. It’s about a man who loves a woman who rejects him and so he starts drinking, “until the day/ He put that bottle to his head and pulled the trigger”—i.e., one gathers from this violently mixed metaphor, committed alcoholic, probably cirrhotic suicide. Then she feels bad and starts drinking and ends up the victim of the same mixed metaphor. They bury her alongside him, “beneath the willow/ While the angels sang a whiskey lullaby.” “Who would have thought that a song about a double suicide would be a No. 1 hit?” Randall said. “And a sing-along at that,” said another songwriter, referring to the song’s “li-li-li” refrain.
Here’s the thing about country music: Like most categories of popular culture, it resembles a dumpster filled 98 percent with brightly wrapped, completely empty boxes. But if you dive the dumpster, and if you have the right kind of sensibility, you can find touchingly sincere, clever, unpretentious, and readily accessible simple pleasures scattered among the wretched refuse. Country music can provide a haven from complexity for some, and a direct expression of life experiences—often severe disappointments—for those same listeners and many, many others. This “representing” usually takes the form of compressed narratives, often divided into three separate “scenes”—listen to a song called “She’s In Love With the Boy,” sung by Trisha Yearwood—often making clever use of sentiment and clichés. In order to like it, you must see yourself to some extent as a cliché—and you are a cliché. We all are. Your broken heart may feel special and unique, but it’s also like every other heart that has ever been broken. You have your own reasons for drinking more than you should, but in some ways they closely resemble the desperations of others. If you’ve ever teared up at a wedding or on hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” then you have to admit to at least some psychological vulgarity—in its root sense of commonness.
The last thing sophisticated New Yorkers want to be thought of is common, and perhaps that’s why country music is still a tourist here.A cult favorite alt-cabaret singer named Neko Case from Tacoma, Wash., who left home and started in with punk-rock bands when she was 15, was booked in at Joe’s Pub on the Thursday after country music was all finished not taking New York City. She has a belter’s voice and an eclectic songwriting palette. Consciously or unconsciously, she makes use of at least a dozen musical traditions. One of her influences is country music as demonstrated by the white-gospel sound of a song about St. John, a certain twang in her enunciation, and the corresponding far more unmistakable twang of the pedal-steel guitar that accompanies her. If a hip young artist like this lets country music into the room, then maybe in turning our backs on this American popular art form at least 75 years in the making, New Yorkers are saying more about their own limitations than about the music’s.