Highway 59 winds through the foothills of Northwest Arkansas. As with so many similar highways, it was once a significant travel route, but is no longer. It tells a story of change, of being left behind, and of apparent rural poverty. I can only guess whether the residents were distressed or perfectly satisfied to be in their familiar setting, even if that meant being “left behind” by a faster-paced culture.
I recently returned to my home in Arkansas for a delightful family visit and a periodic pilgrimage to people and places that formed the foundation for my life. My roots and my DNA are literally and figuratively in the family, the religion, and the belief systems of a small-town. I am the only person I know who is the son of a union laborer. I worshiped in the First Baptist Church that was so very influential in my youth and treasured a visit with a much-loved former youth minister. I visited with my two sisters and their husbands, with nieces and nephews, and with cousins who were eager to swap stories and puzzle over family dynamics that had kept us as near strangers for some 50 years.
Coincidentally with my visit — perhaps providentially —public television was airing Ken Burns’ lengthy series on country music. The two experiences merged to set me thinking. Though I had not experienced the extremes of poverty and abuse that fueled the drive to succeed shown by many of the music stars, I could easily relate to the sense of being a kind of social underclass.
Two messages, sometimes spoken aloud but always understood, were deeply embedded and reverberated with me from the music and from my own past. The first message was one of personal responsibility, that no matter what your circumstances, you must make decisions about your life and not wait to be rescued by someone else. Perseverance, hard work, hope and integrity are the bedrock of character and of whatever success you may attain. The second message is well known to most good Southerners: Don’t git above your raisin’. In its best intention, it is a clear message about humility over arrogance — don’t think you’re better than someone else to put them down. At its worst, it is a message to stay in your place, be suspicious of new ideas and new people, and don’t rock the boat.
Country music is immensely popular because it tells stories that its hearers can relate to. The stories are personal. They are, by and large, stories about individuals and about how individuals cope with life. They often hold up examples of courage and strength in spite of hardships. Abused wives identified and were encouraged when Loretta Lynn sang “Don’t come home drinkin’ with lovin’ on your mind” as a challenge to an abusive spouse, but she was not protesting a bigger cultural issue of male dominance. Protest of social issues is not the vocabulary of country music.
The lack of protest in country music seems to me a piece of the puzzle to explain the animosity displayed in the culture wars. In the session that covered the years of the strongest Vietnam War protests, the Burns series made the claim that country music fans were not so much supportive of the war as they were enraged by the protesters. I wonder if that resistance to protest is somehow wrapped up in the cultural message that says stay in your place/don’t rock the boat. Certainly the roots of country music, especially if one includes early slave music, are of those who dare not rock the boat. They were such underdogs, with so little power, that to challenge the prevailing culture would have been suicidal. If that be so, there is a powerful undercurrent in country music culture that maintains the stories with which fans identify. Those stories are heavily influenced by messages to be tough, handle your own problems and don’t mess with issues beyond those that immediately touch you and yours.
Many years and countless new people, places and ideas have shaped and re-shaped my life since I left home for college in 1966. My heritage is not rural — no farming, hunting, fishing. I simply don’t identify with that lifestyle nor a country music-fed nostalgia (real or romanticized by alienated city folks) for such a life. Professionally, I learned to be a colleague with academics, physicians and others who are easily stereotyped as “elites,” but I don’t readily belong there, either. My values and my faith are deeply rooted in that small town of my birth. But if the warning that I am gittin’ above my raisin’ means “stay in your place, be suspicious, and don’t rock the boat” then count me out.
My most distressing and puzzling attempt to find my “place” has to do with faith issues. I am an ordained Baptist minister and active Baptist church member who believes that Baptists left him rather than the other way around. Both my cultural and my faith background firmly identify with the old message of personal responsibility. But there are some faith and cultural boats that need to be rocked. Sadly, I believe that fundamentalist religion uncritically resists change. It has thus become the bedrock of a cultural, political movement. I find that movement incredibly at odds with its professed faithfulness to a Bible filled with demands for integrity and commandments to be compassionate, seeking justice for the poor, the stranger and all of God’s good creation.