This week, Lit Hub reprinted the introduction to Gone Country, a collection of interviews with country artists edited by Jesse Montgomery, Peter Nowogrodzki, and Alex Spoto. Given the title “On the Complicated Legacy of American Country Music,” it’s an essay that I had to read the moment I got the chance, because I’ve got some complicated thoughts on the genre. On the one hand, I adore country music, broadly construed. When I was living in Pittsburgh, listening to WYEP’s “Roots and Rhythm Mix” was my Sunday afternoon tradition, and most of my favorite artists are a least a little rootsy. On the other hand, I rarely call myself a fan of the genre in conversation, and I find contemporary Nashville country to be borderline unlistenable. So, yeah: right up my alley.
Montgomery, Nowogrodzki, and Spoto hit a lot of interesting points in their piece, so you should definitely read it for yourself. But one paragraph towards the middle of the essay caught my attention more than anything else. The authors argue that country music is
in the running for the most secretly self-obsessed, borderline neurotic form of popular American music. It turns history over and over in its head, venerating heroes, commenting again and again on progressions and digressions, berating itself for a failure to live up to the myths the tradition has created, and never getting to the bottom of any of this. As a genre, it’s rivaled only by rap for a tendency to sing about itself and evolution, to take itself as its own subject and find the emotional resonance of something like a style or a tradition.
It’s not that other genres don’t value their traditions and lineages; I wrote a whole post on how latter-day folk music has rewritten a 16th-century murder ballad. But country music is especially overt about it, with songs that name-check the genre’s greats as though they were figures from Scripture. And all of that got me thinking more critically about an all-time favorite of mine: Lucinda Williams’s “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten.”
Released as part of her 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” is a song soaked in country music’s evolution. The instrumentation features both plucked and strummed guitar strings, light hints of accordion that whisper of the genre’s distant past, and an almost mechanical drum beat to kick-off the track. (And that’s to say nothing of the title, whose spelling is incredibly of the 1990s.) The song is so many different kinds of dated that the track actually ends up being timeless, a quality that the best country music strives for.
Lyrically, the song is equally beholden to the past, and I find this song’s particular reference to tradition especially compelling. Now, Lucinda Williams has never shied away from invoking the musicians who have come before her, and she has an uncanny ability to select the right artist for the song’s mood. For example, the depressed speaker of “Ventura” listens to Neil Young, in a song that sounds like it belongs on side two of On the Beach. By contrast you have a song like “Metal Firecracker,” a warm yet bittersweet reminiscence on a former relationship, which has the speaker and her partner “put on ZZ Top and turn ’em up real loud.” She’s got tunes, and she knows how to use them.
Still, the context of Williams’s musical references tends to be pretty straightforward: the speaker is listening to a recording of a song. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” on the other hand, presents something more complicated. The first verse ends by mentioning how “Mr. Johnson sings over in a corner by the bar,” and that he “[s]old his soul to the devil so he could play guitar.” These lines refer to blues musician Robert Johnson, and like the Neil Young and ZZ Top examples I’ve mentioned above, his music fits the mood of the song well. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” is a song of heartbreak, so the writer of “Love in Vain” is the perfect choice to underscore the sentiment. But I think this reference does even more than that, because the speaker seems less interested in the music itself than she is in the music’s context.
The speaker opts to close the couplet that references Johnson not by describing his performance, but by invoking the legend that surrounds him. Tradition holds that Robert Johnson met the devil at a crossroads one night, whereupon he sold his soul to become a blues virtuoso. It’s well-trod ground, invoking this myth; I dare say the story overshadows Johnson’s music in the public imagination. But I like how Williams treats the legend with some understatement. She doesn’t make it out to be a monumental event, even though she could totally cast it as the origin story of the blues. Instead, it’s an interesting bit of trivia, just a background detail to help paint the scene.
And just what scene is that? “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” takes place at the “Rosedale, Mississippi, Magic City Juke Joint,” with “juke joint” meaning a kind of establishment that catered to African American patrons in the Jim Crow–era South. It is the exact sort of place where the real-life Robert Johnson would play his blues songs, so it’s no surprise to find him “over in a corner by the bar.” And it’s also the exact sort of place that country music has had a tendency to erase from its history.
Country music, as Montgomery, Nowogrodzki, and Spoto note, is the product of artistic and commercial forces that have combined and flattened a wide variety of influences, from the ballad tradition to gospel music to zydeco. But if you were to judge from the demographics of country music’s fanbase and most of its prominent artists, you would assume the genre’s origins were entirely of white America. This state of affairs is not the result of happenstance, but of calculated decisions from within the industry. “We might say country forgot its debt to the blues,” they write, “when executives drew a color line between hillbilly and race records for ease of sale to white audiences in the 1920s.” By writing a country song that breathes in the origins of commercial blues music, Williams offers up something of a corrective to that history.
Of course, I’m making that effort sound like an intellectual exercise. In Williams’s hands, the world of the Magic City Juke Joint is lively and personal. It’s a place that is always on the verge of a little anarchy, where “[t]here’s no good, there’s no bad.” (Not for nothing, the speaker keeps listing off the establishment’s countless rules for behavior.) It’s a place of religious devotion, where a Pentecostal man “says he wants to take up serpents” and the “[b]athroom wall reads, ‘Is God the answer? Yes.'” But most importantly, it’s a place where the speaker can find solace.
After all, the speaker enters the song with a very bleak assessment of life: “You can’t depend on anything, really / There’s no promises, there’s no point.” But for the first two verses, the speaker keeps the source of this despondency to herself. Montgomery, Nowogrodzki, and Spoto mention the tradition of country songs “about struggling to articulate heartbreak,” and “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” belongs in that conversation. Williams’s breathy delivery in the final verse, where the speaker reveals her dramatic break-up, sounds exactly like someone finally getting something off her chest. Just listen to how that accordion soars after that last verse; it’s the sound of someone having an epiphany. It’s a wonderful moment. And it took a “dirty little joint” and the music of Robert Johnson to let her reach it.
Thanks for reading! If you’re looking more of my music writing…well, I don’t have all that much, but I do have a post about Steven Hyden’s Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock that I’m fairly proud of. You can check it out here if you’d like.