A scholarly disquisition on an embattled musical genre.
Ching (English/Univ. of Memphis) is a true-blue fan of “hard country music,” which goes by other names—roots, Americana, alt-country, etc.—on the few radio playlists where it is welcome today. The province of influential artists such as Hank Williams, George Jones, Porter Wagoner, Waylon Jennings, Dwight Yoakam, Willie Nelson, and other performers who “often portray themselves as poor souls condemned to endlessly state the obvious,” hard country has been driven from the airwaves by the frothy pop of Garth Brooks and other Perrier-swilling yuppies in boots and Stetsons. To illustrate the “almost existential” differences between hard and pop country, Ching offers a nicely wry deconstruction of Brooks’s 1990 anthem “The Dance” and Jones’s 1980 lament “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” the second of which she characterizes, and not unjustly, as a “wallow in male misery” while recognizing its superiority on every score. The more prevalent the Brooksian, hook-laden, lyrically unchallenging brand of country becomes, Ching notes—and she is far from the first writer to do so—the farther hard country drifts from the mainstream, so much so that it now stands as an angry, countercultural critique of prevailing values. The author’s plainspoken appreciation for the merits of the hard-country genre is, unfortunately, surrounded by thickets of postmodern jargon that few other than fellow literary critics will want to enter, as when she observes that “abjection is constantly portrayed by an absurdly unregenerate white man who jokes and suffers while women and conventionally successful men brandish the normative values that underscore abjection.”
In the end, even if it converts one or two of them to the cause of David Allan Coe and Bocephus, Ching’s account is for professors—and not for civilian fans of the hard-drinking, lost-highway sound.