Country & Western: Billy Joe Shaver, Guy Clark and Los Angeles, Part 1

The internet is a dark place, full of rage and envy.

It’s also a humbling place.

Because–even if it serves no other benevolent purpose–the internet reminds us, as John Lennon once did:

There’s nothing you can make that can’t be (and hasn’t already been) made.

I had big plans for this post.

A revisiting of my ongoing love-hate relationship with my dopey three-legged dog of an adopted hometown, Los Angeles.

A couples therapy session, expressed through pop music. “Walking in LA,” “LA Freeway,” “I Love LA”–see, everybody thinks you’re a joke! They write songs about it! And I have to live in you! How do you think it makes me feel?

Too obvious. I decided I’d drop the Missing Persons and the Randy Newman, keep the Guy Clark and throw in some Billy Joe Shaver and Gram Parsons to boot–

Why LA Sucks: A Critical Analysis of Conflicting Cultural Mores As Expressed Through The Idiom Of Country & Western Music.

But then I found this.

Some young longhorns at The University of Texas beat me to it. And, hey: they’re Texans. It kind of gives them the right.

It was a fun little read, a concise breakdown of Country Music’s own love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with our fair city/extended strip mall.

I had never really considered that this relationship existed before. And God knows, these days the mere thought of American geographical animus is enough to make me break into a sweat and run screaming from all WiFi-enabled devices, so fraught and symbolic have our regional and cultural affiliations become.

Here in the heart of coastal elitism, it’s easy to forget we are, in fact, in the West, and though it may be Golden here on the shores of the Pacific, it’s nothing but hard, forbidding country in every other direction.

Less Californication, more Deadwood.

America ca. 2020…er, I mean 1870

A land settled* by psychos, drifters, megalomaniacs and outcasts.

[*A relative term]

I was driving through Arizona recently and passed billboard after jaunty billboard touting historic Tombstone, site of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

The region’s main export is making murder seem “colorful.”

And in that sense–i.e. showmanship–the Hollywood-Nashville connection does seem logical, even down to the metonymic kinship. Both institutions are built on self-mythology, with Los Angeles being the physical and spiritual culmination of America’s two frontiers–one actual and one imagined, though no less real.

Country singers sing about being cowboys and for years, Hollywood made nothing but Westerns. Year in and year out, one cowboy flick after another.

(To this day, if you go hiking outside of LA you’ll come across a sign that’s like, “On this site in 1927, Hap Dooley filmed his classic, ‘The Yodeling Rodeo Clown,’ and you’re like ‘Who the hell is Hap Dooley?’ and then you go home and Google it and find out he was the biggest star on earth and made 700 films in 5 years before eventually dying of liver cirrhosis at the Spahn Ranch.)

Then, as now, the red and blue states had a symbiotic but mutually antagonistic relationship. It’s complicated.

And like Los Angeles, Country Music is a little obsessed with itself. Country singers like to look good. And even more so, they like to look authentic. The genre’s constantly running down its own bonafides, which actually makes it a lot like Hip-Hop (but whatever you do, don’t tell them that!).

Speaking of Hip-Hop–and viewing the world, as I do, through the lens of a New York-LA binary–I also wondered why Country animosity seems more frequently aimed at LA rather than than big city, Yankee-fied New York.

To be fair, there are those Country artists who have taken their shots at the Big Apple, most notably Hank Williams Jr., in his Fox News presaging, Death Wish by way of Appalachia treatise, “A Country Boy Can Survive.”

Maybe don’t read the comments

Us Scots-Irish. Always so goddamn sensitive.

I like Bocephus as much as the next guy, but a) he’s an insane person, b) his work hasn’t aged gracefully (“If The South Would’ve Won” comes to mind) and c) when I say Country artist, I’m not really talking about Hank Jr’s progeny–the red solo cup-hoisting, tight Dad-jean wearing twang-bros who comprise the Nashville Top 40 scene.

I’m talking about an older, more literate and cooler class of artist–the post-Dylan Nashville singer songwriters who gave birth to what many know as “Outlaw Country,” critical darlings if not always commercial successes (and even within these hyper-specific delineations, cultural conflict arises. Top 40 vs. NPR. Real vs. Vintage. Redneck vs. Hipster. Austin vs. The Rest of Texas).

I like to think that these kinds of artists respect New York’s literary and cultural preeminence, even if the accent is a little different. But maybe it’s also a Texas thing. Both places have an inflated sense of self. As the great Colin Quinn said, Texas (where all country singers are from) and New York “both act like they’re doing America a favor by being part of it.” Real recognize real.

Anyway, this is all a (very) long way to saying, I want to discuss two songs by two great Texas singer-songwriters that are about LA. Because A Country Boy might be able to survive New York, but he seems to have a damned hard go of it here in sunny Los Angeles.

However, in the interest of time, I’m dividing this into two posts, so we’ll visit Guy and Billy Joe next time.

Leave early to beat traffic.

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