Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"Let there be country/Let the music roll along"

This is a long post defending country music against vague and amorphous nemeses, part of which I wrote two years ago in response to a series of now-antiquated blog posts, and part of which I wrote last February, so it no longer makes any chronological sense. But since the issue of country music's politics has been raised here and at Athens and Jerusalem recently, I decided to unearth it in its rough state. While you read it, I'll be flying to Boston for a semester of hopefully productive TA-ing and dissertating, and probably mocking the Crimson's groundbreaking sex reporting.

After two months of intensive radio rotation, fun.'s "Some Nights" has finally driven me up the wall. I am now writing this post from that location. Although I listen to pop music* constantly out of an unfortunate adolescent habit to be always attached to a pair of headphones, I generally think of it as part of the realm of what early Protestants (and others) called "things indifferent." There's just no reason to proscribe things or be stirred (from my usual state of ataraxia, of course) over things about which so little effort was taken to make coherent in the first place, and that is clearly true of pop lyrics.** But then there is "Some Nights." "Some Nights" is a rousing ballad, an anthem-like tirade against something, or maybe many things, that are really, terribly unjust. Only, what the hell are they? This is what they are, in snippets (it doesn't make more sense in context, but you can examine the context independently if you doubt me):
Oh, Lord, I'm still not sure what I stand for oh
What do I stand for? What do I stand for? 
This is it, boys, this is war - what are we waiting for?
Why don't we break the rules already?
I was never one to believe the hype
Save that for the black and white 
So this is it. I sold my soul for this?
Washed my hands of that for this?
I miss my mom and dad for this? 
My heart is breaking for my sister and the con that she call "love"
When I look into my nephew's eyes...
Man, you wouldn't believe the most amazing things that can come from...
Some terrible nights
These are big issues - what you stand for! war! race! selling your soul (hilariously paired with missing your mom and dad)! and your sister's one-night stand that resulted in an illegitimate child! It sounds like the song as a whole must be about something serious and important, even - given the rousing melody - a call to action (this is war!) against...some vague bad things and how life is...confusing, especially at night? Now, this is obviously not the first time that pop music has produced a very moving song attached to the most inane verbal sentiments imaginable, but when the music is tepid to match the lyrics, I can maintain my ataraxia. Most songwriters don't pay attention to lyrics, and often those who do, like Ani Difranco and her angsty folk brethren (err, sisterhood?), can't pair good ones very reliably with non-weird music. When, however, the music is so thoroughly out of proportion to the lyrics that it suggests that the writers of the song are cave-dwelling lemmings who have never considered that music might actually have an effect on its listeners and have no clue that language-enabled people might actually be among their audience, I am reminded of the many great and unappreciated virtues of country music on this front.

About a year ago, a friend from college forwarded me this rather long chain of overwrought analyses of country music by people who once heard a country song on the radio and thought, now here's something to politically over-analyze. [Recent update: Now you can also read this awesomely condescending NYT Mag profile of Kacey Musgraves to get the same argument.] It's been so long since I got around to blogging about it that the forwarder of the links has had a second child in the meantime. Nonetheless. All these people - sorry, I obviously mean folks - agree that country music is really parochial and stodgy, and so perhaps represents the psychology of conservatives, who we know are parochial and stodgy and also country music fans. And the super-serious science of the bio-psychological basis of ephemeral partisan disagreements agrees! Sayeth Will Wilkinson:
Country music reinforces the conservative antipathy to "openness" and the importance of the sense of enchantment of the everyday and the profundity of ritual. Even a little change, like your kids playing with different toys than you did, comes as a small reminder of the instability of life over generations and the contingency of our emotional attachments. This is a reminder low-openness conservatives would prefer to avoid, if possible. What high-openness liberals feel as mere nostalgia, low-openness conservatives feel as the baseline emotional tone of a recognizably decent life. If your kids don't experience the same meaningful things in the same same way that you experienced them, then it may seem that their lives will be deprived of meaning, which would be tragic.
So country music is basically what hunter-gatherers cried themselves to sleep with during the agricultural revolution, when they realized that their way of life was changing forever. Normal people feel something called "mere nostalgia" for the past, so nostalgia is ok, but recurring to "the baseline emotional tone of a recognizably decent life," whatever that is, is the response of primitives. Rod Dreher is so taken with this lofty analysis that he concludes that the reason he doesn't like country music is because he moved away from his hometown and became successful, and country music is for people who have either not wanted or failed to do that. This could be true if the aggregate population of all of small-town America could account for country music sales, but it couldn't do that even if every last resident of these towns were a Kenny Chesney fan.

If we consider that country music wasn't in fact invented last year, or even 30 years ago when the culture wars began, we might wonder whether it's reasonable to take country music as a whole as representing the conservative ideology of the moment. But one of the obvious facts about country music's politics is that they're thoroughly populist, and populism is an amorphous ideology that has a life on both the left and right, and little correspondence with a distinction between "openness" vs. "closedness." Would we say that folk music, for example, is "open" because it's more widely appreciated on the left than country? That would be bizarre given that it draws on the same musical inheritance and a large part of the same body of songs as country music. Populism, not conservatism, explains how the same Merle Haggard whose "Okie from Muskogee" was used by Nixon's 1972 campaign as an emblem of the Silent Majority (though apparently not because Haggard personally sympathized with Nixon) went on to write a song for Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, and another for Obama's. Country music, like its close relative, folk music, is for all kinds of bipartisan hokum: the working man against the boss man, the poor against the rich, and the jus' plain folks against the government fat cats. Since populism is a bipartisan plague, it's easy enough for either side to ascribe country music's politics to the other, but that's a two-way street, or more accurately, a two-way cul-de-sac.

Populism is not, however, country music's virtue. It's not a vice per se, since it's so deeply entrenched in all American popular music from the 19th century that you'd never be able to listen to any of it if you couldn't take that. It's just, let us say, among the things indifferent. What is country music's virtue is its adherence to the view that music has real emotional power, and that lyrics are part of that power. If a song bothers with lyrics, the lyrics must be coherent. They don't have to be sophisticated or edgy (in fact, they should probably never be so), but they should assume a language-enabled audience that connects words to music and can be moved (let's be honest, usually to tears) by the combination. The result is that country music - both from within and without Nashville - is almost always narrative, and so always coherent and meaningful.

This makes it easy to mock on one hand, since its stock of narratives totals about five, consisting of: falling in love, being cheated on, drinking and carousing, devotion to family and the simple life, and homesickness (which splits into sub-categories - being proud of one's small town roots and hardscrabble upbringing, and missing one's family after moving to the city - the former mostly sung by men and the latter by women).*** There are a handful of recent efforts about saluting the troops, sometimes mixed with devotion to family and the simple life, but politics expressed this way tends to end badly, as in the surprisingly vulgar sentiment of Zac Brown Band's "Chicken Fried," which encourages us to
Salute the ones who died,
The ones that give their lives
So we don't have to sacrifice
All the things we love
Like our chicken fried.
Well, there are better ways to phrase that sentiment. On the other hand, there are no country songs like "Some Nights," which seem to be about someone's life but are really just a pastiche of arbitrarily-ordered emotive words that manipulate listeners to no purpose whatever, and are seemingly unaware that there even could be a purpose.

The further virtue of the genre is that with required hokeyness comes more subtle irony and wit. You can love God and your wife and kids and all that, but you can also make fun of yourself for these things. Often, country's wit is channeled into the irreverent songs about drinking and carousing, which demonstrate that country is not all about devotion to family and the simple life because there are times when you need to get plastered. Thus, the Zac Brown Band's "Toes," or one of my favorites, "Ten Rounds with Jose Cuervo."

But the best instances are those that occur inside otherwise sincere songs. The "closedness" argument that country music is about fearing change and clinging to the good ol' way of living assumes that it's completely sincere (as angsty pop music is) - it's really by and for naive rubes who've never left Festus, Missourah and are terrified by all the cosmopolitan modernity swirling around them. But country music is much more like Benjamin Franklin at Paris in his fur cap posing as the simple colonial that the French imagined all Americans must be, while securing war loans from them and bagging their wives for good measure. Country music knows exactly how it comes across to Wilkinson and Dreher and their fellow sophisticates and it knows their game as well as its own. The instances of self-satire punctuate good country songs like unexpected winks, acknowledgments that this is not all sentiment and reflexive parochial prejudice, but also some measured judgment of the alternatives. Country music has in fact heard of and experienced Manhattan and corporate finance and divorce and the importance of whole grains in a healthy diet, and it is not impressed or convinced that these things supersede its own narratives. This too is a populist claim about what really does and should matter to everyday Americans, and what is just glossy ephemera.

Examples of this self-knowing irony include Tim McGraw's "My Next Thirty Years," about all the responsible and mature things he will do now that he's turned 30, like "raise a little family and hang out with my wife" and "eat a few more salads", and also the nice little insert: "Drink a little lemonade and not so many beers/Maybe I'll remember my next thirty years." An even better example is this stanza from Alan Jackson's "Gone Country":
Well the folk scene is dead
But he's holdin' out in the Village
He's been writin' songs speakin' out
Against wealth and privilege
He says "I dont believe in money
But a man could make him a killin'"
'Cause some of that stuff don't sound
Much different than Dylan
I hear down there it's changed you see
They're not as backward as they used to be
But of course the all-time winner of country wit and irony is the entirety of Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee," which I think is simultaneously a sincere homage to American small-town life and an ironic send-up of it. Haggard seems to have had real contempt for the counterculture, without quite believing that "Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA" has all the answers either, only a slightly better grasp of basic social decency. There are of course witty pop songs, like "Stacy's Mom" and many Weezer songs, but they're more like Johnny Cash's satirical songs like "A Boy Named Sue" and "One Piece at a Time" - funny and pointed, but so focused on being so that they downplay the musical appeal that makes you want to listen to a song over and over. I don't think I've heard any pop equivalent of something like "Okie from Muskogee" that toys with the trendy disdain for traditionalism and conventional morality (of 1969) and still defends that traditionalism by asserting the emptiness of the alternative urged against it. Even the aggressive nationalism that horrifies country's detractors can be laced with this sort of self-knowing irony, so that the same song that announces, "If you don't love it, leave it" also jokes that,
When I hear people talkin' bad,
About the way we have to live here in this country,
Harpin' on the wars we fight,
An' gripin' 'bout the way things oughta be.
An' I don't mind 'em switchin' sides,
An' standin' up for things they believe in.
The attack on country's staid moralism also ignores its roots in evangelical folk and gospel tradition, which claims that while conventional morality provides worldly comfort - indeed even the "baseline of a recognizably decent life" - it is nonetheless insufficient to ensure happiness. In this respect, country is moralistic but not self-satisfied about its moralism because morality is insufficient, and mercy and redemption matter just as much. Contemporary country music retains some of this religiosity and, more importantly, some of the older ambivalence about the world. A relatively recent and unusually overt example is Josh Turner's "Long Black Train." But this theme comes out more clearly in bluegrass and other country-esque genres that recycle standards from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and also in places like Johnny Cash's gospel albums and some more religious country singers like Iris Dement. (However, maybe Kenny Chesney's "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven" signals the severing of country music's 19th century evangelical roots. As far as that goes, I've never liked Kenny Chesney anyway.)

It's fine to point out that country music is as much characterized by dark songs about how resignedly hard life is as by "upbeat" ones as Erik Kain does, but we should not confuse dark subjects with automatic truth or profundity as Kain also does, since tragic songs are not necessarily less facile than non-tragic ones. Life is hard whether or not your music tells you so, and if you need your music to expose you to its hardships, then maybe that is less rather more "authentic" than relying on other sources of wisdom like experience and religion to reveal it to you. Songs that are basically catalogs of misery and suffering also lie to us in their own way, since life is both hard and sweet. Country's irony-in-the-midst-of-sincerity captures some of this ambivalence because it points in both directions - devotion to family and the simple life is preferable to the available alternatives, but it's not all that's possible, and it's not always possible. There is some country that simply catalogs woe, but the genre has much richer reserves to dip into when it revives older hymns and gospel standards.There is, as far as I know, no country invention like Leonard Cohen's secular hymn to generalized post-break-up sadness, "Hallelujah."

So I remain blissfully unperturbed by criticisms of mainstream country's formulaic and overproduced schlock, because while a lot of it is bad, it's not bad simply when it's sentimental, but rather when it sounds terrible, or when it gets all self-righteous about opposing the canons of the genre.**** As I've said before, I don't think much good comes from the freedom to write whatever you feel like, since that seems to lead mainly to the writing of solipsistic nonsense and an imperative to shock listeners for the sake of novelty. Constraints force writers to see their own positions more clearly, and that self-knowledge is on display in even some of the slickest Nashville-produced music. Constraints also force writers find other ways of working their wicked ideas into their good ones, and that creates a level of unexpected and sometimes undetected sophistication in country music to which pop music rarely ascends, without forcing it resort to cynicism and vulgarity to convey its deviousness.

Finally, in illustration of country music's self-knowing wit applied to the particular question of its political proclivities, I leave you with this classic example from Johnny Cash:
There once was a musical troupe
A pickin' singin' folk group
They sang the mountain ballads
And the folk songs of our land 
They were long on musical ability
Folks thought they would go far
But political incompatibility led to their downfall 
Well, the one on the right was on the left
And the one in the middle was on the right
And the one on the left was in the middle
And the guy in the rear was a Methodist 
This musical aggregation toured the entire nation
Singing the traditional ballads
And the folk songs of our land 
They performed with great virtuosity
And soon they were the rage
But political animosity prevailed upon the stage 
Well, the one on the right was on the left
And the one in the middle was on the right
And the one on the left was in the middle
And the guy in the rear burned his driver's license 
Well the curtain had ascended
A hush fell on the crowd
As thousands there were gathered to hear
The folk songs of our land
But they took their politics seriously
And that night at the concert hall
As the audience watched deliriously
They had a free-for-all
Well, the one on the right was on the bottom
And the one in the middle was on the top
And the one on the left got a broken arm
And the guy in the rear, said, "Oh dear" 
Now this should be a lesson if you plan to start a folk group
Don't go mixin' politics with the folk songs of our land
Just work on harmony and diction
Play your banjo well
And if you have political convictions
Keep them to yourself 
Now, the one on the left works in a bank
And the one in the middle drives a truck
The one on the right's an all-night deejay
And the guy in the rear got drafted

FOOTNOTES (no kidding): 
* Pop music is defined as: "If I've heard it, and it's not country or from before the 20th century, then it's pop." Having spent my entire music-listening life avoiding the obscure and subcultural, I am my own litmus test, and while you may insist that some errant name I mention is not really pop, but rather the sustenance of your snowflakey tribe, I will remain deaf to these claims.
** One of my favorite examples is John Mellencamp's "Small Town," whose ubiquity on the radio reminds me all the time of the greatness of the line, "I cannot forget from where it is that I come from," a noble effort at grammatical correctness gone sour. Another, more recent suggestion of how little concern songwriters seem to have for language, is Pink's "Raise Your Glass," which informs us that she will "never be anything but loud and nitty gritty," by which she clearly intends to suggest that she will be detail-oriented even while recklessly inebriated.
*** There is also "cancer country," which is bad news, but is really just a particularly icky subset of devotion to family/the simple life.
**** What does perturb me is that country is perpetually giving succor to washed-up pop acts like Hootie and the Blowfish, Bon Jovi, Kid Rock, and Uncle Kracker, who failed at pop and fail no less at country.  


Anonymous said...

Maybe intentionally, you seem to make no distinction between varieties of country music -- i.e., it kind of pains me to think of Iris DeMent considered in the same category as Kenny Chesney, even if you don't like him. And even if it marks me as a Dreher-esque snob, I'm ok with loving Robert Earl Keen while thinking that at least 50% of country radio is pretty junky, and the product of an assembly-line culture in Nashville that is just as condescending as the NYT in its own way. Also, I think the Hootie and the Blowfish guy is actually not that bad as a country singer, at least if you are ok with ZBB and Tim McGraw. I like the Wagon Wheel cover. I wish Keith Urban could be permanently expelled to a Top 40 station, though.

PG said...

"I'm ok with loving Robert Earl Keen while thinking that at least 50% of country radio is pretty junky, and the product of an assembly-line culture in Nashville"

Exactly. Especially wrt REK. And I like Darius Rucker's voice. Like Nelly, he is from the South and was steeped in the country music tradition before he got involved in it. This reminds me of Jamie Foxx at a tribute to George Strait, talking about trying to go to a Strait concert in a small Texas town in the 1970s and being bullied away because he's black. If you grow up where country music is popular, you'll hear it even if country music's gatekeepers didn't welcome you.

Also, there seems to be some misreading of pop in this post. For example, "nitty gritty" only means "details" when used as a noun -- and even as a noun it can alternatively mean "the essential substance of a matter; basics; crux." Used as an adjective, as "Raise Your Glass" does, it means "fundamental" or "direct and practical." Finally, in the context of a post about country music, it's odd that you don't recognize the possible country shout-out -- the word immediately after "nitty-gritty" is "dirty."

And if you have to resort to the late Johnny Cash, who's been pretty thoroughly absorbed by the mainstream and elites (covering Nine Inch Nails; biographed in a major Hollywood film), to make your argument about under-appreciation of contemporary popular country music, you're really stretching.

I was at a Lyle Lovett concert last night and two of the new guys in his Large Band make for a good illustration of two tendencies in country music. By way of giving the rest of the band a break, Lovett had those two each play an original song. The guy on the electric fiddle did a great one based on the classic "Temperance Reel" with his own lyrics -- if he'd had it on the EP he was selling at the merch table, I would have bought it. The guy on the mandolin, on the other hand, had an OK tune but the lyrics were a pile of cliches.

If you want to ascribe a specific narrative behind "Some Nights," I recommend the video, or just thinking of Mitt Romney when you listen to it.

Miss Self-Important said...

Anonymous: Sure, I have my order of preferences too, but I'm trying to describe some common denominators of the genre. I don't like Kenny Chesney, but I still think he exemplifies more of them than fun - the song I mention here about not wanting to die is a pretty direct jab at the dominant theme of a lot of 19th and early 20th C. bluegrass and folk songs about wanting to be saved, asap. There are also varieties of pop which I'm also conflating here. It's not a dissertation, I admit.

PG: I'm not saying Hootie's lead singer is not allowed to like country music, or has never heard it. I don't know anything about him, except that "Don't Think I Don't Think About It" is lame. But, still coherent and narrative, which I suppose is more than can be said for the Hootie songs I used to hear on the radio.

You think "Raise Your Glass" is a country shout-out? "I love when it's all too much/5 a.m. turn the radio up/Where's the rock 'n roll?" - seems improbable. Granted, the lyrics don't make a ton of sense, but isn't the song just about how much she loves to party? I know "gritty" means dirty, but "nitty gritty" sounds like a careless error made b/c someone thought it sounded cooler to say that than the shorter version. I don't think I've ever come "nitty gritty" meaning dirty, and it's not any more clear to me what it means to say, "We will never be anything but loud and [insert choice of: fundamental/practical/direct], dirty little freaks."

Why should Cash's having been both hugely popular and extremely good invalidate him as an example of the virtues of country music? I'm not actually arguing that country music is under-appreciated here; I assume its overall sales are fine. I'm only arguing against certain accusations about its content and style that Cash, among others, disproves. So I think it's quite fair to use him as an example.

I'd never seen that video, but now having watched it, I'm not sure how it clarifies the song at all. It's about fighting in the Civil War, but missing your girlfriend? What then of his sister and his nephew? Of dying "dried up in the desert sun"? What aspect of Mitt Romney should I be calling to mind from this?

Dave Marney said...

I quite agree that what sets country music apart from other forms of popular music is that it has words that actually mean something. This is one of the reasons I am so drawn to hymns as a musical form. In a great hymn, the words tell you what you should be thinking, and the music tells you how you should be feeling about it. The perfect combination.

Over the last 20 years, there has been quite a resurgence of hymn writing -- do a web search for "new hymns", for example.

Sigivald said...

Normally I think Wilkinson is a pretty sharp guy.

But this reminds me why he should stick to what he knows, and to his happiness-research schtick, and not to Explaining The Other.

Because that never works.

PG said...

"I quite agree that what sets country music apart from other forms of popular music is that it has words that actually mean something."

But lots of other forms of popular music DO have songs with words that actually mean something. Is someone ready to contend that Bruce Springsteen's "The River" doesn't have a clear, coherent narrative with words that mean things? What distinguishes it from country music is that if he took that song to Nashville today, he'd be ordered to change it, so that it turns out knocking up your girlfriend as a teenager doesn't ruin both your lives after all.

What makes "Just Give Me a Reason" (by Pink and the lead sing of fun.) incoherent or meaningless? I think it would be entirely acceptable as a country duet as well.

Country music's main lyrical distinction is not in meaning or narrative, but its general preference for detailed particularities.

Withywindle said...

Miss Self-Important said...

Dave: That's interesting. I wasn't aware that hymn-writing had been in a previous dry spell. I'm still slowly learning the hymns from the early 20th C., so I'm behind.

PG: I don't think I say here that country has some sort of genre monopoly on narrative coherence, only that it relies on it far more heavily than pop. Obviously there are pop songs with narrative coherence, but that's not a given for the genre. Springsteen in particular likes first-person lyrics, and his blue collar populism tends towards recognizable political narratives (cynically, I would say stock narratives). But "I'm on Fire," for example, is lamer than his usual fare - it's clear that it's about him wanting to have some menacing-sounding sex with some girl who's "all alone," but the lyrics are schlocky metaphors: "it's like someone took a knife baby/edgy and dull and cut a six-inch valley/through the middle of my soul." But Springsteen and singers like him (Mellencamp would fit this bill too) are more crusader-y than the typical top 40 fare. Pink is closer to that, or Rihanna, who "fell in love in a hopeless place," whatever that is, however that happened, there was generalized sadness before, now there is generalized betterness, something about "yellow diamonds in the light." It's all enjoyable enough to dance to, no denying that, but no one seems to expect narrative coherence from it. Where there is some, added bonus.

Withywindle: Yes, what about it? There is a Merle Haggard song about exactly the same thing.

PG said...

I think the distinction is between prose and poetry. Prose requires a coherent line of thought, whether it's narrative or argument. It's a valid criticism of prose ("valid" in the Ebert sense, i.e. taking something on its own terms rather than applying those of a different genre) to say it's not coherent.

Poetry doesn't require a coherent line of thought as prose does, instead quite often seeking to express inchoate emotions and relying heavily on metaphor to do so. If one demands narrative coherence from all words strung together, then there's a certain amount of literature ranging from "Song of Myself" to most of Wallace Stevens that will look like "things indifferent."

Since pop and rock are largely the poetry of young people, they tend to be heavy on attempts to express a sense of rebellion and defiance, of trying to break through something, of uncertainty and lack of direction. But you can move those emotions into another musical style and thereby alter them without changing the lyrics, as with Mary Chapin Carpenter's cover of Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark." The song goes from the restlessness of an Angry Young Man to the near-hopelessness of an exhausted woman.

Where mainstream country* seems to be pretty much only in narrative form, pop and rock mix the two. P!nk has some songs about inchoate youth emotions (like "Raise Your Glass") and others that are fairly clear in their message: go away, dude at club, I just want a night out with my girls ("U + Ur Hand"). Rihanna also mixes narrative with inchoate emoting: "Take A Bow" for the former, "We Found Love" for the latter.

PG said...

I'd never seen that video, but now having watched it, I'm not sure how it clarifies the song at all. It's about fighting in the Civil War, but missing your girlfriend?

I actually thought those were the two most well-connected aspects of the video's story. There's a pretty famous historical record of men going off to fight in the Civil War who missed their sweethearts. What do you find inexplicable about those two ideas together?

What aspect of Mitt Romney should I be calling to mind from this?

Oh, I just thought the song was a bit pat for certain aspects of Romney's image. The ghost of course would be his father; the martyr his wife who has an incurable medical condition; the night when he referred to the 47% being when it would be better if his lips had fallen off, etc. Certainly not every part fits -- I'm sure he has no nephews born out of bad relationships.

I like to think out how I would script alternate music videos to fit stuff in the news. Obama's in 2008 was "When You Were Young," which doubtlessly also seems an incoherent mass of words and words for some lyrics, not so clearly for others (eg, there's no literal mountain that Obama's supporters worried about climbing).

In all seriousness, my best guess at what is meant by "Most Nights" is a musician talking about his own life, in large part through metaphoric terms: the "war" is the effort to succeed in the music industry, where his band might as well break the "rules" of the business.
"I try twice as hard and I'm half as liked/
But here they come again to jack my style."
(The phrase "jack my style" refers to people stealing something he deems his intellectual property although he cannot obtain patent, trademark or copyright for it.)

Like many musicians achieving mainstream success, he wonders if he's "sold his soul" and if the 10 years he's spent away from family struggling for recognition was worthwhile. But ultimately it's what he had to do; he needed to get the hell out of Arizona so he wouldn't just "die alone all dried up in the desert sun." In a similar vein of good inextricably intermingled with bad, he feels sorry his sister fell for a false romance, but is glad that his nephew exists.

* I distinguish mainstream country from more genre-bending acts like Lyle Lovett, who sometimes sings coherent -- albeit fantastical -- narratives like "Church" and sometimes sings romantic and presumably metaphorical nonsense like "Penguins." (If you go by the music video, the most coherent and non-metaphorical story for that song is that Lovett is a furry.)