Columns » John Brummett

It’s the music, stupid


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If this presidential race isn't a culture war between city dwellers and country folks, between those on subways and those in pickup trucks, between reception-goers and tailgaters, then I don't know what it is.

As we beheld last week, you can define this cultural chasm by the music.

Sarah Palin rallied in Virginia and North Carolina — “the pro-America parts” of the country, she divisively blared in North Carolina — with that rural troubadour, Hank Williams Jr. He has that song about how a country boy can survive because he can skin a buck and run a trotline. 

The song also tells about how Hank had a friend in New York City who got shot and killed for a few dollars. It tells about how Hank would have blown the perpetrator's head off if he'd tried to mess with him down there in the backwoods where you make your own justice.

Palin is a high-heeled personification of a Hank Williams Jr. song, with all that moose-hunting and g-droppin' and gushing how she loves the supposedly real America in the heartland. That's why John McCain needed her. With eight houses and a rich wife and coming from an elite military family, he was forced to import vital country-folk bona fides.

So last week Williams unveiled a song, “McCain-Palin Tradition,” to the tune of his “Family Tradition.” One line blames Bill Clinton for the mortgage crisis. What happened, you are given to understand, is that liberal Bill forced banks to make all those bad loans to credit-unworthy people. 

It's nonsense, of course. Poor people weren't packaging and trading mortgage-backed securities. But you get the point. You may even get the stereotype. 

You know the kinds of people who live on the dole. You find them in the city. The only Acorn out in the countryside grows a mighty oak tree.

This rural coalescence for conservatives manages to span the Baptist church on one side of the street and the meth lab on the other. All that means is that you don't have to go far to get born again. It spans those espousing traditional family values and those getting pregnant outside wedlock and lots of divorces. It spans those because those are the same people.

So a couple of days later in New York City, Bruce Springsteen from New Jersey and Billy Joel from Long Island, noted show-biz liberals, performed together at a fund-raiser for Barack Obama. They thrilled the high-dollar crowd with a powerful performance of Joel's “New York State of Mind.” 

It's a song that's the polar-opposite of Williams' ode to rural survival. It's about high-density bliss. It says it's no good to be in the Rockies or among the evergreens. It celebrates riding on a bus in  New York City, or being on Riverside Drive or in Chinatown, reading the New York Times and the Daily News.

So get out a map of the United States, point to a state and ponder whether more people in that state like Hank Williams Jr. or Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. Then you'll have a good idea how the presidential race is going to turn out.

Let's say you get stuck on Ohio. It has industrial-area fervor for Springsteen and Joel with their “Allentown” and “Youngstown” ballads, those powerful lamentations for the neglected working man. But then it has that down-state synthesis with the bucolic mountain values of bordering Kentucky, where they know how to skin a buck and run a trotline. 

What you have there is called a swing state.

It goes without saying that Arkansas is going for McCain-Palin. Folks here skin bucks and run trotlines and listen to KSSN. In two tries, Springsteen hasn't been able to draw a crowd.

I'm with Springsteen, Joel and Obama. I don't know how to run a trotline. I'm a fish out of water. I stay in something of a small-city Little Rock state of mind. 

My idea of a great lyric is from Springsteen's “Youngstown” about the guy who loses his mining job after the ore is all gone. He says this to the corporate boss: “Once I made you rich enough — rich enough to forget my name.” 

There's the American economic and political issue of 2008 right there.



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