By SEAN DIETRICH
A no-name beer joint. Just off the highway. Somewhere outside Atlanta. Glowing Coors signs. Un-level pool tables. I had been driving for several hours. I’d just hit town and my throat was dry.
I stepped into the dark room and made my way to the bar alongside the other hands. There was a kid playing music on a plywood stage. He had tattoos, a trendy mullet haircut and wore his ball cap backward. He looked like a frat boy. He was singing what passes for country music in today’s melodically deprived America.
Then the kid started “country rapping.”
“Country music is dead,” said my bartender, who was pushing 70. Or maybe he was pulling it.
“The real cowboy singers have disappeared,” he went on. “I miss Willie Nelson, every day.”
He brought me a cold Pabst and asked what I wanted to eat.
“A burger,” said I.
He leaned onto his elbows. “We got vegan burgers, black bean burgers and chicken burgers.”
“Vegan burgers? I thought this was a beer joint.”
“But, I want a beef patty that’s bleeding so badly it needs Band-Aids.”
The bartender sighed. “Don’t we all.”
The barman looked like a real cowpoke. He had smoker’s teeth. His skin was crepe paper. He wore a tan so rich he looked as though he’d been born in the Mojave.
His hands were veiny and rough. I know this because we actually shook hands. Just the way real guys used to do before the “fist bump” made us all look like schoolgirls playing Patty Cake at recess.
The kid strumming the guitar was still rapping. It was hard to watch.
The bartender looked at me. “They call it redneck rap. It’s all over the radio these days. Kids eat it up.”
“But it ain’t music,” said the guy next to me. He was wearing a crumpled suit. He looked like Fred Mertz after a long day. “Just a bunch of stupid talk with a drum beat.”
When the kid finished rapping, he started singing a song by Taylor Swift, entitled “Shake it Off.” There wasn’t a middle-aged man in the joint who didn’t cringe.
The kid was singing to a pair of young lovelies near the stage. The two women wore lacy tops and $300 boots. They were scrolling on their phones. And something was all wrong here.
Nothing about this place felt like the Great American Beer Joint. A small piece of me grieved. What happened to our honkytonk angels? What happened to our sacred music? I’m not against change. I understand that things must progress. But there is beauty found in tradition. And we’ve killed the traditions of country and western music.
The musical genre I grew up with was built on piercingly clever lyrics, witty storytelling and interesting melodies. But today, our music comes from kids with iPhones.
I don’t mean to complain, but I’m not alone in my misgivings. The old school doesn’t like this new change any more than I do.
For example, some years ago Blake Shelton publicly called fans of classic country “old farts and jackasses.” Shortly thereafter, Willie Hugh Nelson renamed his national tour the Old Farts and Jackasses Tour.
So it just goes to show you. For some time, country music has been going downhill like a snowball headed for hell. And it’s no secret. The CMT Awards once cut short a tribute to George Jones, but staged a full performance between musical duo Florida Georgia Line and hip-hop artist, Nelly. Complete with strobe lights.
And all this begs the question, Did Roy Acuff use strobes?
Listen, I realize the days of Hank Sr., Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn are over. But does that mean the whole convention of classic country must die?
There was a time when even the up-and-coming generation of country music was championed by stalwart guys like Randy Travis, Alan Jackson and George Strait. That’s all over now.
Today, people would laugh the Aquanet right out of Conway Twitty’s hair.
My burger came in a red basket. It was made of chicken. Mango chutney came on the side.
The singer took a break. The musician sat at the bar and spent his break playing with his phone and drinking blueberry-flavored beer.
While the kid was busy, the bartender looked at me and whispered suggestively.
“Hey, anybody wanna hear some Willie?”
Without waiting for our response, the old barkeep turned on the radio. The room filled with the rapture of a nylon-strung Martin N-20. I closed my eyes and smiled. If I’d had a BIC, I would’ve flicked it. The song was “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.”
The bartender shook his head and said, “It’s a crying shame so many mothers followed Willie’s advice.”