My son’s been at a rehab center for a while now — he’s a graduate, going to school and working part-time — and he wrote me a few weeks ago to ask if there was any country music I liked. The list of approved music had gone from Christian rock and soft pop (Adele is about as hardcore as they get there) to country, for some reason.
My relationship to country music dates back to high school, hearing bands like the Byrds and the Dead do (I later learned) rather lame versions of songs by Merle Haggard and the Louvin Brothers, et al. It was like getting to Howlin’ Wolf through the Rolling Stones — it’s hard to listen to Mick singing “Little Red Rooster” once you’ve heard the original. Bob Weir kind of yelps “Mama Tried,” while Merle sounds like a guy who turned 21 in prison, doing life without parole. So I went to Rasputin’s and bought a brace of CDs and mailed them off in a package along with toiletries and candy.
It was only later, when listening to some of the songs I’d sent him, that I wondered how well these would fare with the rehab censors. Merle of course is a prophet of alcoholism — “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” “Misery and Gin.” The bard of Bakersfield knew his audience, not to mention his subject matter. (Legend has it that the stint that landed him in prison began when he and some drunk buddies tried to break into a restaurant … unaware that it was open.) And some of his songs are downright unrepentant. “I Got No Reason to Quit,” off his excellent 1971 album "Hag," is a wino’s banner: “There’s a circle of people/Where I’m no longer welcome/And I’m ashamed to say that I no longer fit/I could sober up tomorrow and face my friends again/But I’ve got no reason to quit.”
But country music, God bless it, is about sin and redemption — to say nothing of the punishment that usually lies between the two (see: prison, above). Maybe the people running my son’s rehab know that whatever joy that their charges might find in a song like “Swinging Doors” or Johnny Cash’s “Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea” or Waylon Jennings’ “Honky Tonk Heroes” will be followed by “The Cold Hard Facts of Life” — the title of a Porter Wagoner song in which the protagonist kills his wife and her lover when he comes home early from a business trip. He’s on death row, by the way.
Or maybe they’ll listen to it and say, “Blechh! That sounds like my old man’s music!” That ought to keep ‘em sober.