the moral universe of outlaw country

"I never would have pegged you for a fan of outlaw country," wrote a college friend who recently caught up with me on Facebook.



Let me tell you something, friends: I loved Johnny Cash before Rick Rubin ever got hold of him (not that I don't love the Rubin projects, because I do). I was country when country wasn't cool. I wasn't particularly cool, either-- a pretty big dork, in fact-- so me and country? We're a good match.

But there's country music-- the sequined, blow-dried '80s Nashville country I grew up on (Islands in the stream/ That is what we are!), and to which I can listen with a good dose of Gen-X irony-- and then there's outlaw country, which I unabashedly love.

The Recovering Sociopath loves outlaw country because so many of those guys are in recovery, too. "Songs of loss and regret," a phrase I picked up from someone whose loss I regretted, at least for a time, gets pretty much to the heart of outlaw country's appeal.

In "Mama Tried," Merle Haggard sings

And I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole.
No one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried.
Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied.
That leaves only me to blame 'cause Mama tried.

The thing about outlaw country is that the guys self-identify as outlaws. This is important. They know they are outside the law. They know they have broken the rules. And they recognize that they were wrong for breaking them. "That leaves only me to blame" means Merle acknowledges that blame belongs somewhere. He recognizes himself as morally wrong.

"Mama," incidentally, is very important in the moral universe of outlaw country. She is consistently the voice of conscience and warning; the civilization to the outlaw's wilderness.

For the outlaw to recognize himself as an outlaw, he first has to recognize the law. And the story of outlaw country is the outlaw, having placed himself outside the law, is then driven-- either by force of circumstance, such as imprisonment, or by his own conscience-- to contemplate his guilt.

In the iconic "Folsom Prison Blues," Johnny Cash sings,

I hear the train a comin',
It's rollin' 'round the bend,
And I ain't seen the sunshine
Since I don't know when.
I'm stuck in Folsom Prison,
And time keeps draggin' on,
But that train keeps a-rollin',
On down to San Antone.

When I was just a baby,
My Mama told me, "Son,
Always be a good boy;
Don't ever play with guns."
But I shot a man in Reno,
Just to watch him die.
When I hear that whistle blowin',
I hang my head and cry.

Why is does he weep? Initially this looks like self-pity. But I submit it is more. Johnny Cash said that when he wrote this song he purposefully used the line "just to watch him die" because that was the most evil reason he could think of for killing someone. He wanted us to get that the protagonist in this song is Not A Good Person.

I bet there's rich folks eatin'
In a fancy dining car.
They're probably drinkin' coffee,
And smokin' big cigars.
I know I had it comin',
I know I can't be free.
But those people keep a-movin',
And that's what tortures me.

It's not merely self pity at work here: he knows that, in his case, justice (or at least its best human approximation) has been done. He deserves to be imprisoned. What brings him to tears is the thought of those who are free.

Why would their freedom be torture to him, if he recognizes the justice of his situation? I think it's because he's moved beyond contemplation of his own wretchedness to meditating upon the wretchedness of human beings in general: we all, including his hypothetical "rich folks," deserve punishment for our sins, though some of us dwell in ignorance of it, distracted by the trappings of material comfort. It's not the justice at work in Folsom Prison that drives him to tears; it his awareness of the injustice outside its walls.

My parents used to sleep with their bedside clock radio tuned in to KWKH in Shreveport. The volume was set so low you could barely hear it during the day, but when I used to wake up at night and sneak into bed beside my mom, I could hear it clearly, and I would lie there and stare into the dark and listen to all the mournful songs requested by truckers, passing through and lonely for their families or maybe just longing, like me, for another story of loss and maybe redemption. It seemed like every night, if only I could stay awake long enough, the DJ would play "The Ballad of Pancho and Lefty," and once again I would close my eyes and drift off to witness a betrayal under cold desert stars.

Livin' on the road my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
And your breath's as hard as kerosene
You weren't your mama's only boy
But her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams

There's a lot in that first verse about the origins of the outlaw. He doesn't begin his life of crime with the desire to be evil, but the desire to be free. The problem, of course, is that no citizen of any society is totally free-- our liberty is always tempered (to various degrees, depending on the law of the land) by the necessity of certain rules to establish some measure of order. I contend that where outlaw country is concerned, this state of affairs is not merely political exigency but a reflection of the order of a moral universe in which human beings are at their best when they voluntarily submit their liberty to the demands of love. The opposite of love is not hate, but selfishness. When our desire for total freedom overrides our commitments to love others, we remove ourselves from civilization to wilderness. In the case of the outlaw here, he has abandoned filial piety (and, of course, the source of conscience in his mother) for the sake of freedom.

Pancho was a bandit, boys
His horse was fast as polished steel
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel.
Well, Pancho met his match you know
On the deserts down in Mexico;
Nobody heard his dyin' words
Ah but that's the way it goes.

For years I thought the direct address in the first verse was aimed at Pancho (helped to that conclusion by the video, which I think misinterprets Townes van Zandt's words a bit), but now it seems fairly obvious to me that it's aimed at Lefty. He is Pancho's match-- first as a friend, and then as the one who brings him down.

All the Federales say
They could have had him any day
Only let him hang around
Out of kindness I suppose.

Again, I once believed these words applied to Pancho, but now I believe the "him" refers to Lefty.

Lefty, he can't sing the blues
All night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down south
Ended up in Lefty's mouth
The day they laid poor Pancho low
Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go
There ain't nobody knows.

Except that of course we, the listeners know: the Federales paid Lefty to betray Pancho out there in the desert. Hence the dust in his mouth. A life lived in service to nothing but his own desires has hardened Lefty to the point of betraying his friend. But oh, there's a price to pay.

Well, the poets tell how Pancho fell
And Lefty's livin' in a cheap hotel
The desert's quiet and Cleveland's cold
So the story ends, we're told.
Pancho needs your prayers, it's true
But save a few for Lefty too;
He only did what he had to do
And now he's growin' old.

A few gray Federales say
Could have had him any day
Only let him go so long
Out of kindness I suppose.

Of course their "kindness" is anything but. Leaving Lefty to his own guilt, misery and solitude is a far worse punishment than any justice the Federales could mete out to him.

Outlaw country consists not merely of loss, though-- they are, as I said, songs of loss and regret. Thus, despite its bleak ending, I find this song-- and the genre-- hopeful because of Lefty's misery-- the dust in his mouth indicates a conscience still at work.

Mama has not disappeared entirely from his dreams.


Recovering Sociopath said...

BY THE WAY, I copied and pasted all those lyrics. I tried to proof them, and did correct a ton of punctuation, but some errors may have gotten past me.

I just wanted you to know they aren't mine. :)

Michael said...

Are you still thinking of that pop-culture and philosophy program? Your dissertation could be something like "The Moral Universe of Country Music."

Recovering Sociopath said...

I have thought about that. I just don't know.

It's so hard, Michael. One of the reasons the IPS was such a good fit for me was not having to sacrifice one discipline entirely in order to study another. I guess in some sense I'm still longing for that. So when I consider a philosophy program, I think, but what about theology? If I think about seminary, I remember how much I love literature. And so forth.

So, I have thought about it, but am yet undecided. Besides, I have this goal of paying off all my current education debt before going off to another program. :)

Michael said...

Ah, debt. There is also the eternal question of the grad student: "why in the name of all that's holy am I doing this to myself?!"

Have you looked at CUA? I think--I might be wrong--that they have some sort of interdisciplinary thing going on there which somehow orbits theology. Another option would be going to do a second MA at St. John's Annapolis, focusing on "dusty old books" (which is a fine thing). There's also a program at UTD in intellectual history, but that has the distinct disadvantage of being here in Dallas (and, quite possibly, being TOO interdisciplinary for its own good, if you get my drift. I had looked at it before going back to the IPS).

Of course, the kids are probably more fun than college professors any day (I am pretty confident of that).

Allie said...

First off, the post itself is excellent. I am a fan of all genres within the genre of country and have been since I was about 9. Big fan of Cash. And what I really love is the fact that, whether you know it or not, you are teaching others by doing in depth posts like this. I have learned an awful lot by reading your posts on FB and on your blog here and it has given me a certain sense of freedom that I have not had since having 2 beautiful children. I feel like I'm using my brain for something other than how to do laundry and clean and run around after 2 people with far more energy than I have. It has been a blessing to me. And, since teaching via this outlet allows you to, in essence, probably also learn and explore whatever you like, I would stick with what your doing :) It's also a lot cheaper and this is coming from someone who is still digging out of spousal law school fees 10 years out of law school. It t'ain't worth it if it puts a financial burden on you and your family, and I think that may be something that mama would say :)

blonderthanyou said...

loooved it...