Country & Western music moved into an alternative dimension nearly 20 years ago. Tired of being considered the soundtrack to white domestic abuse and the music to molest pigs to, it moved into an alternative reality. Somewhere around the time of Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart” by my reckoning. All you had to do to have no contact whatsoever with Country & Western music in the UK from this point was to not listen to Terry Wogan and not live in Norfolk. It was like it had ceased to exist. A good thing too, what with the steel guitar being the single most appalling sounding musical instrument this side of the noise you would get if you tried playing a mad bull elephant’s scrotum with a meat tenderiser and a faulty hoover.
At least that was the impression I had. Enamoured by Alabama 3’s take on Hank Williams and by the sublime bluegrass music played in documentaries about the American Civil War I would try to approach Country & Western music from time to time and find it almost gone from popular culture. In a brief flash of controversy The Dixie Chicks wrote the brilliantly defiant “Long Way Round” album as a reaction to the death threats they got for slagging off George Bush in Texas. Otherwise nothing.
You can only find the portal to C&W land if you a seasoned fan. Anyone else looking at a “Stars of Country Music” bill will now think “who the f*** are these people?” Nonsense you may say because it remains trendy in some quarters to name drop Patsy Cline but name five of her songs without the internet, go on, you can’t. See.
All an ill thought out theory I suspected, until we arrived in Nashville, the famous epicentre of the genre. Where were the rhinestone shirts? The cowboy hats, the nervous looking canoeists, the traumatised pigs? Flicking round the radio stations in our hire car I got some Pixies, some Pearl Jam, some hip-hop and some Back Street Boys (who were due in town after we left – a pity, I know).
We found an out of town hotel with a pool and a nearby shop that sold vegetables and an even better shop that sold bottles of wine for $6.
Right Song at the Right Moment – “4 Kicks” – Kings of Leon (Wifey’s MP3 player plugged into rental car’s sound system on the road from Memphis).
The next day we went to Lynchburg, Tennessee. Of course to the Jack Daniel’s distillery, where they pretended not to recognise me, despite the likelihood that I have paid for all their holidays over recent years. You may know that you can’t actually drink the stuff there because it is a “dry county” but the sheer amount of JD paraphernalia in Lynchburg seems to allow for no other goods or comestibles to be sold. Every shop is a JD merch shop, no bog-roll, pans or bread.
Back in Nashville the search for C&W World continued. If this were a wildlife programme we would be saying in hushed tones “just as we were about to give up all hope…” at this point. But we had the location of the famous Grand Ole Opry, where the biggest stars of Country music have played for decades. The place where Johnny Cash, in the grips of an amphetamine rage, put out all the footlights with a mic stand in protest to the way the owners had treated his friend Elvis. People claiming Cash as a Country star need to be reminded he was banned from the place for decades.
So we found it, the way into C&W world; on a frightful Country and Western retail park 10 miles east of downtown Nashville. Willie Nelson has got a bar and grill out there too with a big old cartoon likeness of the notorious failed tax dodger on the wall outside. Next door is Cooter’s, named after the dim-witted mechanic in The Dukes of Hazard. There are bits of what is supposed to be The General Lee car stuck to it. It is a vast area, with hotels, restaurants, grotesqueries and assorted Good Ole bullhicky. We didn’t even let the wheels on the car stop turning never mind try and interact with the place. After a short panic where we thought we might get stuck going round in circles forever, like what most Country music does, we blasted away to safety.
Right Song at the Right Moment – “Back Down South”- Kings of Leon, on the road to Lynchburg (Wifey’s suspiciously unvaried MP3 “shuffle”).
Right Song – “Six Barrel Shotgun” – Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Four hours to do 217 miles so as not to get charged extra on the rental car back in Memphis. Out of Nashville rush hour traffic onto the free way having just sussed out the cruise control on our blood red KIA.