June 3, 2008

City Boy, Country Man

So, how was your trip?

I’ve been hearing that a lot since I returned from my business trip to Nashville, Tennessee. I’d like to think that my co-workers missed my company and were glad to see me back; but, judging from the amount of work on my desk, and from the deluge of telephone calls for administrative support I’ve answered, it appears that I was missed for other reasons. My trip went well, but it was no vacation, and it is great to be home.

Of course, no business trip would be complete without some sight seeing. The hotel and convention center where we stayed is less than one half mile from The Grand Ole Opry. The original site for the Opry was Ryman Auditorium, also located in Nashville. Sometime in the 1970’s the Opry moved to its current location and the show is as popular as ever. My point here is not to talk about the history of the radio program, or the many legendary performers who graced the stages of both the present day Opry House or the Ryman Auditorium. I’d like to make it clear that for one night, for a few blessed hours, I felt truly American.

Country music is alien to many New Yorker’s ears; and, attempts to bring country music to the Big Apple and to Long Island have either failed or been poorly received. There were "fad" cowboy bars in the 1980’s with folks riding mechanical bulls and wearing cowboy hats; but, those venues have fallen by the wayside. My place of birth, my home town, was never a bastion for die-hard country music fans.

Allow me to clarify by saying that you’ll find few people in my neck of the woods to besmirch country music. And, you’d be surprised to discover that Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings are respected names in many northern households. Yet, most country music stars are not part of the culture, and are not easily recognized by typical Long Islanders.

The Grand Ole Opry show I attended included a performance by a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. I’m ashamed to admit that I never heard of Little Jimmy Dickens, and I vaguely remember the TV show “Hee Haw” from the 1970’s which he appeared on several times. Another singer, Jean Shepard, sang and told jokes and was well received; yet I couldn’t pick her out of a line-up. Jean Shepard has been singing since the 1950’s and is one of country music’s legendary stars.

How is it that I’ve missed so much in my own country’s culture? As a kid growing up on the south shore of Long Island, much of what I listened to was British music. My generation was weaned on Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, and the list goes on. These bands are so ingrained in the culture of white, suburban kids from my youth and geographical area, that the fact that they are English musicians has long since been erased from the collective zeitgeist of my peers. These rock bands provided music to get drunk by, pick up girls, race cars, and skip school. Jimmy Page inspired generations of kids to become guitar heroes, just like him. Albums produced by our English "cousins" across the pond marked periods of my life when I first discovered girls, got my driver’s license, graduated high school, and fell in love.

The rest of my fellow citizens had different experiences while absorbing native music and sharing an indigenous musical genre. The songs they listened to reflected growing up on this continent, telling a native story, and they nurtured home grown legends. My visit to the Opry proved that to me; and, I felt as though I’d found the key to a vault filled with treasure, and that the key was in my hip pocket all along.

I have no regrets about my love of British rock; and, I wouldn’t trade my childhood for anything. However, I have the time now to listen with an open mind and a new appreciation for my fellow Americans as they sing about life, love, happiness, tragedy, and about America herself. To the Grand Ole Opry, thanks for bringing me home.

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