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David Holub

Country music taps into a universal longing, lament

Ar 170629529
“You Don’t Own Me Anymore,” by The Secret Sisters, featuring the song “He’s Fine.”
Ar 170629529
“You Don’t Own Me Anymore,” by The Secret Sisters, featuring the song “He’s Fine.”

“Davy White. Where is he tonight? He’s sleeping with her in a Tennessee town and he’s fine. I think I lost my mind. And my wasted time. I’m dreaming alone in a hotel bed that he’s mine.”

I heard these words coming from the radio as I drove past Hesperus last week, from a song I hadn’t heard before. Not normally a radio listener, I happened upon it between podcasts.

I gathered the song was new, but the two women’s harmonizing voices reminded me of something from the early ’60s, a cross between Patsy Cline and the Everly Brothers. I looked it up later and discovered the song, “He’s Fine,” by The Secret Sisters (Laura and Lydia Rogers).

I don’t know if it was the lyrics – “Strangers know the songs I write. They come to hear me sing at night. They don’t know I’ve paid the cost. They don’t know what I lost.” – or the sweeping and droning strings or the deep, steady beat kept on a tom-tom, or the lament and longing I heard in their voices, but it filled me with lament and longing, too. The song grabbed me and I couldn’t turn it off.

The emotions I felt were palpable, taking me back to people I have hurt, loves I have walked away from. But how did this song catch me so off-guard, sending me straight to the past? It seemed almost magical.

Except it wasn’t at all. This is what music can do, and one particular kind of music does it better than any: country. But not any kind of country – classic country in particular (and those artists who emulate it).

A number of years ago, I heard a story on the podcast “Radiolab” where a Columbia University anthropologist of music, Aaron Fox, talked about how country musicians, like Dolly Parton and Don Williams, would sell out 40,000-seat soccer stadiums – in Africa. It was the stories in their songs, people would tell him, but not stories of pickups or trains or Mama dying or gettin’ outta prison. What they connected to was the larger story, the stories of migration and moving, of regret and yearning for something simpler, of looking around and longing for the green, green grass of home.

So think about when country music (and its companions, like bluegrass and old time) began to take off in the U.S., the early 1920s. What else was happening then? It was right around the time, 1920 in fact, when the U.S. crossed the threshold from rural living to urban living. Country music gained significant popularity at a time when most people had moved from the country to cities. People were longing for home, for simpler times. The same thing was happening in Africa decades later.

But wait. These American songs were sung in English, a language many of the African fans didn’t speak. The message, Fox said, is in the music. It’s inherent in the instruments, the reason why The Secret Sisters nearly made me weep. Think about the instruments unique to country music: Steel guitars are near-perfect mimics of crying human voices. There are lonesome fiddles made to sound like wailing. There are twangy dobros and slide guitars. There are vocal techniques like a “cry break,” kind of mini yodel, or, like The Secret Sisters, bendy vocalizations that emulate steel guitars.

I like to think how seemingly magical these techniques can be, and no better example than Sturgill Simpson’s “The Promise,” a cover of the 1988 song by the short-lived When in Rome. The original is quite forgettable with its up-tempo new-wave beat. But with a steel guitar and a croaky voice reminiscent of Merle Haggard, Simpson soaks it with sadness and longing.

I don’t care at all for much of the new pop-country with its testosterone, beer and pickups and America. Maybe it’s me longing for the musical past. But, man, listen to George Jones sing anything and try not to think back, try not to long for something simpler, try not to cry. It won’t be your fault. It’s in the music.