Old enough to be a Kennedy Center lifetime accomplishment honoree. I caught the end of the broadcast on CBS last night, after they had honored Tom Hanks, Lilly Tomlin, Al Green, and Patricia McBride. I only saw the performances of Sting’s work by Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen and Bruno Mars. I was blown away.
In this age of all reality shows all the time, when Average Joe seeks discovery on TV talent shows week after week, true professionals honoring one of their own washed the airwaves with their own glorious renditions of the work of an icon. Spectacular. Even if you aren’t a fan of Gaga or Mars, their tributes to Sting are worth a listen. And, of course, Springsteen is the Boss.
On a ski team bonding weekend trip last month, my son sang along with his phone as it played Johny Cash’s Folsum Prison Blues: “When I was just a baby, my mama told me, son, always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns. . . ” His 20-something coach looked up and asked why he knew the words to that song. “Don’t you?” my slightly disrespectful kid asked. In his mind, Johny is so fabulous, he can’t imagine anyone not knowing the words to his songs.
He listens to hip hop and dubstep (are those different things?), country and classical. He shares an iTunes account with his dad and plays gospel, “Oh Happy Day,” Bob Marley and Aerosmith. He hears a Hall and Oates song on The Voice and searches it on YouTube, downloads it from iTunes and two days later I hear him coming up the stairs singing, “you make-a my dreams come true.” Ooo o. O o ooo o.
Our digital world is changing the culture of music. When I was young (I say, sounding like my grandma) we listened to whatever played on the radio, mix tapes (often recorded from the radio) and our friends’ vinyl collections over and over. “Oldies” were for our parents. Today, music is more fluid: a new song samples a classic, and an entire generation is exposed to the beauty of Etta James.
This respect for artists of all genres feels new. It gives me hope and confidence in a generation that is growing in its own direction, with its own culture, sense of style and appreciation for artistic talent, whenever and where ever it was born.
Most of my life, country music lived in the margins. My dad would listen to it as he worked around the house sometimes. Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers, “You got to know when to hold ’em.” Or, as we drove to our cabin in the Up North of Michigan, the choices on the AM radio were static, talk or country in that order. Twangy stories of heart break and dead dogs, I couldn’t relate and wondered why anyone else would.
A few years ago my life perspective shifted. Part of my liberation of thought included buying myself a convertible. It was illogical and selfish and fun and just what the doctor ordered. And with all of the music available on local and XM Radio, I found myself tuning into country as the wind blew my hair into a frenzy.
My kid and I figured out that any good country song includes the elements of a truck, a girl, beer, America and sometimes God. Generally all within the first two lines. “Truck, Yeah.” Unapologetic. Free. Grounded in hillbilly, redneck, muddy pride. Country singers are storytellers who draw us into a different world. For three minutes, we become a girl pissed off that her boyfriend cheated on her or a father lamenting how fast life goes by or a man honoring the memory of his friend killed in the war.
I grew into this world of country music by letting go. I let go of pretenses and prejudices. I realized that whatever I thought I had been or was going to be, the core of it all is this short time we share together. And those simple themes in country’s stories capture the essence of living fully and unabashedly. Sometimes it isn’t pretty and sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we go looking for something bad to happen. Sometimes we hang out on a pontoon and sometimes we just love the ones in our lives.
And that’s how I grew into country music. Or maybe country music grew into me.