A Taxonomy of Country Boys

Cartoon by Homer Davenport from The Country Boy, 1910. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

To be or not to be a country boy? To my ear, this has always been one of the animating questions in country music. In “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” (1974), John Denver, for instance, revels in the persona. From the picture he sketches, it’s not hard to see why. Country boys, Denver says, have all they need: a warm bed, good work, regular meals, fiddle music. The life of a country boy, he sings, “ain’t nothing but a funny, funny riddle,” and who doesn’t like a good laugh?

For Hank Williams Jr., however, this country boy business isn’t something to joke about. In “A Country Boy Can Survive” (1981), he says the rivers are drying up and the stock market is anybody’s guess and the world, as a general rule, is going to hell and if you knew what was good for you, you’d be a country boy, too, because in the end only country boys—the ones “raised on shotguns,” the ones who know “how to skin a buck” and “plow a field all day long”—will make it out alive.

Loretta Lynn could do without Hank Jr.’s heated rhetoric, but as she sings in “You’re Lookin’ at Country” (1971), “this country girl would walk a country mile / to find her a good ole slow-talking country boy.” Then, so as to underline her preference, she repeats, “I said a country boy.” Not just any country boy will do. Drawl aside, Loretta makes plain she wants a workhorse with a worn shovel who, in exchange for a tour around the farm, will “show me a wedding band.”

It’s doubtful Lynn’s narrator would have gone for the type Johnny Cash sings about on his first album, Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar!—not that Cash’s country boy would care. He has “no ills,” “no bills,” “no shoes,” “no blues.” A country boy’s greatest privilege, Cash’s “Country Boy” (1957) suggests, is his ignorance of the finer things. In part, he’s happy with his “shaggy dog,” fried fish, and “morning dew” because he hasn’t been exposed to much besides.

Having little, Cash says, country boys have “a lot to lose.” Cash, who by this stage in his life had traded Arkansas fields for a Memphis recording studio, spends a lot of time wishing he could get back to being a country boy, but his hot-and-blue guitar says otherwise. The truth is you couldn’t go back if you wanted to, but would you go back even if you could?

It’s when country boys leave the country, or are made aware of other ways of living, that problems arise. They either get nostalgic (Cash) or defensive (Hank Jr.), or they come down, in the case of Glen Campbell’s “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.)” (1975), with a bad case of impostor syndrome.

In the first song on his album Rhinestone Cowboy, Campbell sings about a country boy who has hit the big time:

You get a house in the hills
You’re paying everyone’s bills
And they tell you that
You’re gonna go far
But in the back of my mind
I hear it time after time,
Is that who you really are?

Having lived for so long on so much less—“I can remember the time,” he sings, “when I sang my songs for free”—this country boy can’t enjoy his change of fortune. His modest beginnings are both a grace and a liability. On the one hand, they keep him from getting carried away. On the other, they prevent him from being fully present. To do so, he fears, would be a self-betrayal. In the end, he realizes that he’s going to have to choose. A country boy in Hollywood won’t stay so for long.

What about a country boy in finance? In the video for Ricky Skaggs’s 1985 hit “Country Boy,” the bluegrass legend Bill Monroe accuses Skaggs of losing his bearings. The scene takes place in a Manhattan office building, where Skaggs sits behind a big desk in a business suit. Buzzed in by Skaggs’s secretary, Monroe looks around. “I heard it was bad, boy, but I didn’t know you’d sink to this,” he says, at which point Skaggs whips out his guitar and tries to prove him wrong.

Monroe’s disapproving presence turns Skaggs’s foot stomper into a précis on Nashville’s shifting sensibilities in the eighties. Skaggs had come up under Monroe’s tutelage. He first played mandolin with Monroe’s band when he was six years old. In his teens and twenties he had toured with the Stanley Brothers and the Country Gentlemen, more bluegrass royalty. With his high-lonesome voice and confident grasp of the bluegrass canon, Skaggs had often been regarded as the future of the genre, which is to say a faithful steward of its past. Now he was making mainstream country. Had he sold out?

You can take the boy out of the country but not the country out of the boy—that’s what Skaggs contends. Despite ills and bills and all the rest of it, not to mention a streak of No. 1 records, a country boy is a country boy once and for all. He might work in a bank instead of a coal mine and live in a walk-up instead of a cabin in the woods, but deep down, he’s still a “cotton picker,” still a “hog caller chewing cud on the stile.” Monroe isn’t convinced. He shakes his head in disgust. “I’m just a country boy,” Skaggs counters, over and over, “country boy at heart.”

“Just a country boy.” For Skaggs, the words are a pledge of allegiance. For Don Williams, however, they’re a convenient excuse. In “I’m Just a Country Boy,” a song first recorded by Harry Belafonte and which Williams took to No. 1 on the country charts in 1977, the meagerness wrapped up in the word “just” has real-world consequences.

Williams’s country boy won’t be marrying the woman he loves because he can’t afford her. He can’t afford much of anything. He might have, as the chorus says, “silver in the stars” and “gold in the morning sun,” but they don’t take sunshine at the jeweler’s. And yet the “justness” of being a country boy resigns him to his letdown. The song is less a dirge than a shoulder shrug. “I’m just a country boy,” Williams sings, as if to say, What did you expect?

Even so, resignation has its own complexity. That’s the theme of another Williams song, the somber “Good Ole Boys Like Me” (1979), which might as well be called “I’m Still Just a Country Boy.” In that song, which was written by Bob McDill, the narrator looks back on a childhood full of sensually overwhelming contradictions and tries to reckon with his place in the world. In a chapter about Nashville from his travelogue A Turn in the South, V. S. Naipaul describes McDill’s achievement as a kind of magic composed of “the calling up and recognition of impulses that on the surface were simple, but which, put together with music, made rich with a chorus, seemed to catch undefined places in the heart and memory.”

The narrator of “Good Ole Boys Like Me” recalls his gin-drunk father reading him the Bible at bedtime, lecturing him “about honor and things I should know,” then staggering “a little as he went out the door.” In the chorus, he declares his allegiance to Hank and Tennessee Williams, one a honky-tonk hero who forever exploded the boundaries of country music, the other a playwriting shake-scene who left Mississippi for New York and European cities and never stopped writing about displaced country people.

The country boy remembers falling asleep to the sounds of John R., a Nashville DJ who played rhythm and blues, and to the words of Thomas Wolfe “whispering in my head.” Wolfe’s two most famous novels, the autobiographical Look Homeward, Angel and the equally autobiographical You Can’t Go Home Again, tell the story of a country boy’s struggle to leave and return to the South. Don Williams’s country boy has taken Wolfe’s cue.

Unsettled by the death of a friend from substance abuse and, we might infer, by the fear of becoming a sentimental drunk like his old man, the country boy has “hit the road,” and in more ways than one. He admits, in the final verse, that he has purposefully moderated his Southern accent to sound like “the man on the six o’clock news.” Maybe he’s not a country boy at all. Maybe he never was one to begin with. “I was smarter than most,” he says, “and I could choose.”

Still, that he can recall these experiences and artifacts with such precision reveals how inured of them he remains. So much so that in the end, his statement about freedom of choice has been allayed by a kind of fatalism. “I guess,” he concludes, “we’re all gonna be what we’re gonna be / so what do you do with good ole boys like me?”

I’m not sure how to take that question. Which way is it aimed? Is the “you” a world that no longer has much use for country boys? Or is the “you” the country boys who couldn’t care less about their own relevance and so regard this narrator with suspicion? Don Williams’s country boy is some combination of Skaggs’s and Hank Jr.’s varieties. He’s survived, all right, but in spite of his upbringing, not because of it, and what would it mean if in the end it turned out he wasn’t a country boy, not even at heart?

“Good Ole Boys Like Me” has always reminded me of a painting by Marc Chagall called I and the Village, a framed poster of which hung on a wall in my Tennessee elementary school. Chagall completed I and the Village when he was in his midtwenties. He had traveled from Belarus to Paris and back. The painting, a spectacular of rapt disorientation, describes the churn.

In it, scenes from Vitsyebsk, the town where Chagall grew up, wheel around a polychromatic dreamscape. The characters are earthy, low down, and yet the picture radiates a kind of weightlessness. A man with a green face and white eyes holds a little tree of life. There’s a woman milking a goat on a cow’s cheek. In the background, a woman in blue skirts stands on her head, a kind of yin to the yang of a peasant shouldering a scythe.

I and the Village projects a cockeyed vision of village life. Later, Chagall would write in his memoir, My Life, that the flying figures and transmogrifying vistas that characterized his early breakthroughs had come in response to a desire, expressed in desperate prayers while walking the streets of Paris, to “see a new world.”

In the third or fourth grade, I would not have had the vocabulary to articulate such thoughts, but I think I sensed, as I walked by I and the Village en route to class or hovered in front of it while waiting in line to go to the gym or restroom, something of Chagall’s fraught relationship with his roots.

There was adoration in the Chagall, and there was also revulsion, nearness and distance, the red and the green. The artist loved this place and these people even though, as I suspected, he wasn’t one of them. His village wasn’t Vitsyebsk; his village was the canvas. Likewise, Don Williams’s “good ole boy,” out of place in the country and the city alike, finds comfort, if nowhere else, in the country song, which for all of its parochialism never comes off as provincial.

It’s telling, if not surprising, that the chorus of “Good Ole Boys Like Me” commends, out of all the country singers in the canon, Hank Williams Sr., Hank Jr.’s dad. Ol’ Hank, to my knowledge, didn’t write any songs called “Country Boy.” What he did write, unforgettably, was “Ramblin’ Man” (1953), a minor-key manifesto, delivered in a brazen blue yodel, about the allure of the open road, a place he calls in another song “the lost highway.”

What is a rambling man? A country boy gone rogue. As much as he sees the good in a simple, even simplistic way of life, a rambling man values his freedom more. He’s a flight risk. In love and work, he’s liable to unlatch at any moment, not caring who he works up or lets down in the process. Ashley Monroe, a country singer who has taken up the rambler mantle, describes the calculus in her song “I’m Good at Leavin’ ” (2015):

A couple times I said I do
A couple times I said we’re through
I never really seem to get what I was needing
I’m good at packing up my car
I’m good at honky-tonks and bars

Waylon Jennings, in his 1974 cover of Ray Pennington’s Hank-inspired “I’m a Ramblin’ Man,” puts it more bluntly: “You’d better move away / You’re standin’ too close to the flame.”

More than a personal liability, though, Hank’s rambling man is also something of a jongleur. Hank recorded “Ramblin’ Man” under the auspices of his alter ego, Luke the Drifter. The songs Hank recorded as Luke tend to deliver morality tales. Luke is a kind of itinerant preacher, a wandering prophet whose home church seems to consist solely of Hank Williams, whose own songs, reflective of his life, were often about carousing, heavy drinking, and existential despair.

Instead of Dr. Jekyll to the country boy’s Mr. Hyde, Hank’s rambling man is a wiser, more bruised iteration of himself. He seems older than Hank, at once more frightening and more reasonable, cut off from society and yet drawing from a deeper source. He hasn’t abdicated responsibility so much as secured the necessary distance to appraise experience and report back. Rambling, in this sense, is the process by which a country boy becomes a man.

“Ramblin’ Man” was never released as a single. The song was the B side to “Take These Chains from My Heart,” a honky-tonk ballad that went to No. 1 following Hank’s death, at age twenty-nine, on New Year’s Day 1953. Hank’s passing translated “Ramblin’ Man” into a last will and testament. “And when I’m gone,” he sings,

And at my grave you stand
Just say God’s called home
Your ramblin’ man

Like John Denver, Ol’ Hank invokes the Almighty. “Let me travel this land,” he prays,

From the mountains to the sea
’Cause that’s the life I believe
He meant for me

One thanks his stars he’s a country boy. The other thanks his he isn’t only that. The question, in other words, is not whether or not to be a country boy. The question is, What kind of country boy are you going to be?

 

Drew Bratcher was born in Nashville. He received his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. He lives in Chicagoland.

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