February 21, 2007

Nuggets and macaroni

Somewhere earlier on this blog, I speculated about country music. It's something I've been doing on the long hours driving through this heartland of the Dollys and Waylons, Lorettas and Billy Rays. What is it about the Southern US, and possibly parts of the West, that makes country music so appealing, whereas it's more generally snickered about in the North and East? (Anyone know how many country stations there are in New England?)

I could hardly be the first person to wonder about that. But is there a parallel in something that people have begun to notice in India?

For example, in Being Indian, the writer/bureaucrat Pavan Varma muses about the explosion of interest in Bollywood music over the last several years. He thinks it is because film music has finally come off the pedestal of being based in classical styles, so in a sense intellectually less approachable by more ordinary folk. Today's film songs tend to be simpler both musically and lyrically than they used to be: heavy rhythm, lots of bass, not particularly profound lyrics.

And with that, look what's happened. The purists and old-timers scoff, reminiscing about the tunes and words of the greats of the past -- Saigal, Sahir, OP Nayyar, Naushad and more. Yet the songs themselves are enormous hits with the famous "common" man, and especially the youth: played incessantly on FM and by countless hopeful bands (they call them "orchestras"); the vehicle on which shows like Indian Idol and Nach Baliye ride through TV season after successful TV season; lip-synced -- that peculiarly Indian talent -- by millions of pre-teens prancing on stages while being applauded by adoring parents.

And of course, the industry -- songwriters to music directors, at least the big guys -- are laughing in time to their music, but all the way to the bank.

"Dumbed down" is entirely the wrong phrase for what's happened to Indian film music. But there's certainly a heightened, widened appeal that's no longer restricted to people who know their musical styles.

Could something like this explain country? Meaning, perhaps country has managed to find styles and lyrics that are just more likely to appeal to people in this stretch of the States. To touch a chord, pun intended, in these parts. Maybe in the North they pride themselves on more intellectual music, and country just seems simple-minded in comparison. Whereas in the broadly less-educated South (I know that's a generalization, I'm casting about for answers here) maybe there are less such pretensions, just an appreciation for music you can listen to and dance to, maybe even laugh at, without much of a thought.

Maybe that explains the simpler chord structures, the more homely lyrics, of country. No need to go on about answers that blow in the wind, or sound off silently over softly creeping visions that leave their seeds while I'm sleeping.

Take instead Rodney Atkins, telling us in Watching You about his son eating in the car (full lyrics and a clip here):
    Driving through town just my boy and me
    With a happy meal in his booster seat
    Knowing that he couldn't have the toy
    Till his nuggets were gone
    Green traffic light turned straight to red
    I hit my brakes and mumbled under my breath
    As fries went a flying and his orange drink covered his lap
    Well then my four year old said a four letter word
    That started with "s" and I was concerned
    So I said son now where did you learn to talk like that?
Or consider Pam Tillis singing Please, struggling to get ready for a date, anxious for all kinds of reasons, while her son won't eat his dinner:
    Babysitter said seven
    She's fifteen minutes late
    Jimmy's still playing in the bath
    Cold macaroni on his plate
    And I still haven't done my hair
    I hate doin' my hair
    It never comes out right

    I must have changed my clothes
    A half a dozen times
    Ended up in this little black dress
    I had to mend the hemline
    And now I can't find my shoes
    I can never find my shoes
    God I hate this.
Both are songs I first heard while on the road in rural North Carolina -- as a matter of fact, just yesterday. Everyday, down-to-earth, dare I say down-home, lyrics that speak to us all directly, about situations we've all been in. Not dreamy stuff that you have to think through and puzzle over, that likely means something different to the next guy. Nope, this is straight-ahead stuff, this country music.

Hit the road, Jack, and hey, what you see is what you get. That's the country secret, and I confess that I'm growing to like it, and I'll get off my high horse now thank you kindly. Time to eat, and y'all come back again, y'heah?


Vikrum said...


Nice article, although I think it's a bit more complicated than you paint it out to be. Sure, country music is popular in the South and rural areas. But it is not popular in rural African American areas - it is popular in rural white America. If you go to rural parts of Louisiana, for example, with lots of black folks, they are not listening to country. Generally a lot of the "country music" demographic are fans of NASCAR. What I am trying to say, it's more than just rural/urban/redstate/bluestate. It's also class, race, and a bunch of other factors.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Thanks, Vik, for bringing up the other kinds of music -- as I travel, I hope to also hear some fine Delta blues and speculate (and find out) where that appeal comes from. Also the NASCAR connection. Churchgoing too, that demographic?

Anonymous said...

Dilip: I totally agree with Vikrum. I think a lot of music tastes may have to do with in-group preferences and those in-groups and outgroups are more complex than North and South. Race would certainly be one of them as would, I suspect, urban-rural (or some variant thereof).

An interesting article, nonetheless. Waiting to hear your take on Delta blues.


gaddeswarup said...

I have been wondering about this song "If this train runs me right, I will be home tomorrow night" for some time. If you know or find out, please let me know. i heard it only once around 1970.

Anonymous said...

The song that gaddeswarup referred to is probably "900 Miles", recorded by many artists, one of which was Ramblin' Jack Elliott. The lyrics are at http://www.lyricsdepot.com/ramblin-jack-elliot/900-miles.html

gaddeswarup said...

That is the one. Thanks.