I probably owe my career to a piece of furniture that originally sat in my grandparents' living room on Vine Street in Searcy. It's a record player and FM/AM stereo from the days when such devices required several board-feet of lumber to create, and occupied about as much space as a china cabinet. And it was undoubtedly the sound system on which I was first exposed to country music way back in the early 1970s.
I grew up listening to country when "country wasn't cool." While in college, I landed my first job as a deejay, in no small part because of my early exposure to the genre.
I spun records (CDs, actually) six hours per night, five nights per week. Maybe it was too much of a good thing. Or maybe country really went to the hog-trough in the '90s. Either way, I now associate country music with rattlesnakes, pyramid schemes, lima beans, and other things to be avoided.
Yet I'll still read about who won the CMAs, in the same spirit that non-football-fans will grudgingly watch the Super Bowl to avoid seeming like an idiot when the topic comes up at work. And, like many others, I was delighted that a new barrier came down at this year's event. Tracy Chapman became the first Black person to win a songwriting award for "Fast Car." She made it a pop hit in the late '80s. Luke Combs did a cover this year which topped, topped, and topped again the country charts.
It was a pretty fair cover. But, in the spirit of the holidays, Chapman's original is that magnificent Thanksgiving turkey we all aspire to bake, while Combs' version is the turkey hash we all end up eating well into the next week.
Unfortunately, most of the country songs over the past three decades amount to little more than the warmed-over hash of past artists. Be it known that I don't deliberately listen to the packing-plant-death-squeals that pass as modern country. But, like the exhaust fumes from the nearby state highway, I still get exposed to it.
A few years back I heard a song called "Sunshine and Whiskey." I can't remember the singer, but I can safely say it was not Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson, either of whom would tell you that hard liquor and hot sunshine aren't a good mix. Anyone who has grilled burgers on the Fourth of July knows to drink cold beer until the sun takes a forgiving angle on the western horizon. Do a few shots of Jack Daniel's in that heat, and you'll be in the smallest room of your house gurgling out a Technicolor yodel well before the fireworks start.
But even the revered Outlaw Movement musicians were guilty of an occasional faux-pas. Remember the song "Highwayman" by the group which included Willie, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson? When it's Kris' turn to sing: "I sailed a schooner 'round the Horn of Mexico ... went aloft to furl the mainsail ... the yards broke off ... I got killed."
Even a weekend yachter in Hot Springs would know that a schooner is a fore-and-aft rigged vessel. The mainsail is raised and lowered from the deck. You don't go "aloft." The "yards" on a schooner, as opposed to a square-rigged vessel, were never meant to support the weight of sailors. And where is this Horn of Mexico? Search the map. Search the Internet. It exists only in the lyrics of that song.
In the next verse, we hear Waylon lamenting about falling at Boulder Dam and being entombed in a magnificent blob of wet concrete. Trouble is that Boulder was not built by erecting a huge frame then filling it in one go. It was built by forming large concrete blocks one on top of another.
Waylon still remains a favorite of mine, even though he seriously deterred me from marriage with his mumbling. In the great song, "Luckenbach, Texas," he has this line: "The only two things in life that make it worth livin' is guitars that tune good and firm feelin' women."
Due to his slurring, probably induced by a mouth full of brisket, the 6-year-old me heard the line as "fur-feeted women." The 6-year-old me vowed that day never to get married. Who would wish to live with a woman who had fur on her feet?
Mistakes aside, I still have artistic and personal respect for those old outlaws. If I had to fight Waylon, Willie, Kris, or Cash in their prime, I'd probably bring some brass knuckles. I have a feeling they all knew how to scrap. Modern crooners such as Jason Aldean don't inspire the same level of caution. A man without muscles in a muscle shirt? He's still a man without muscles.
Country music has mutated into something unrecognizable over the years. The old-timers could put a lifetime of hard living into 90 words on a 45-rpm record that played for two minutes and 30 seconds. The new guys have college degrees, but can't even conjugate a verb.
Some change, though, is good. As a country station deejay, I always dreaded the Christmas records. Why?
For 10 months out of the year, singers would hit the charts with lyrics about beating up hippies, running marijuana operations, getting plastered on moonshine, and dancing naked on pool tables. Then they'd release singles in early November in which they sang about Baby Jesus and how much influence the Lord had on their lives.
We can hope that is no longer the case. We can also hope that dogs will quit licking their private parts.
I still have that ancient record player, and wanted to open the lid and share the brand name. Unfortunately, it is buried in the darkest recesses of my storage room. Anyone with a passion for cleaning and dusty Slim Whitman records is welcome to it.
Byron Fayette, a Searcy native, is a semi-retired journalist and talk radio host.