Music, Identity, and George Jones

Today George Jones passed away. I have some good friends who don’t listen to country music, so I had to explain who that was and what it meant. It’s always strange, explaining country music. Even eras and sub-genres and artists I don’t listen to can get me pretty impassioned. For some reason, whenever I talk about country music, I feel like I’m talking less about one genre among many, than about an entire culture.

I think there’s something in that. America has a long history of a lot of good music, but when radios and then record players and all their descendants came along, something changed. Music become mass-produced, piped out over the airwaves for miles in every direction, or arriving in stores in every good-sized town.

Think about what that means. People across the whole United States can listen to the same artists singing the same songs in the same way. Music was already a communal event, but now it was one that transcended the local community. You were tied by your love of this or that music to people half a continent away.

And music is not just the enjoyment of an experience. It’s also a carrier of tradition and a marker of our identity and values. “This is what we sing about, these are our songs, and this is how we sing them.” Music, in that era, tied the United States together in one vast musical tapestry.

And this all, of course, was during and after the second World War. This is when American patriotism, in good ways and bad, was at its height. Our identity as Americans, whatever values we held in common, and our national unity were important to the generation who had endured so many horrors to preserve them. And with the rising threat of communism, such values and symbols of unity would continue to be important.

So when a new generation began to question the old value system and the culture shaped around it, it was natural for that generation to express their views and their sentiments in music. The hippies and their ilk had protest songs addressing issues of race, war, poverty, gender, and just life in general from a new point of view. As they stirred up trouble across the country, their music stirred up trouble across the airwaves.

And that’s where I start my history of country music. It existed before that, to be sure. But for various reasons–good ones and not so good ones–country got associated with conservative values. The nation, or at least all the parts I am familiar with, was polarized between cowboys and hippies. And this was reflected in the music of each side.

Since then music has changed. Hippies themselves stopped being a force as such, and carried their causes into more respectable corners of the world and established them there. The same thing happened with their music. Rock, funk, folk, and others were invented or reinvented by that generation.

Country carried on in another way. Though it effected other genres from time to time, and was influenced in turn, it remained itself. It was still country music, and it was still identified with that same conservative culture.

Music can be a powerful statement of identity. Are you an Okie from Muskogee? Are you not a fortunate son? It can communicate values. Maybe “times, they are a-changin’,” but perhaps we should” stop rolling downhill like a snowball that’s headed for hell.” Sometimes a genre is just a style of picking you prefer. And sometimes it’s a stand you take.

I won’t make any claims about the culture country music represented in George Jones’s day, or what it means in our day. But I will say that, for better or worse, that culture shaped who I am. And it is strange to see one of its legends pass away.

Rest in peace, Mr. Jones. You will be missed.

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