There was this successful show biz guy that I knew in Canada who used to say, “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.”
This makes eminently good sense to me. “Rich” is a comparatively superior thing to be. “Rich” does not necessarily mean money-grubbing. Or heartless. Or cheap. “Rich” simply means having options. You can be rich any way you want. Poor, you can only be one way. And that way, in its purest form is expressed in the three words: “I have nothing.”
“I have nothing.”
“You buy food with money. And I have nothing!””
“And, this being America, we’re not talking about health care.”
“Are you listening to me? I have. Nothing!”
Despite the easy talk about contented freeloaders, poverty is a condition the vast majority of people would eagerly like to get out of as soon as possible. You would think, understanding the difference between grinding poverty and having things, that this is a universally held preference.
And yet, there is at least one group of people I’m aware of that do not seem to feel that way.
It is my habit, as I write these blog posts, to have, playing in the background, music broadcast over one of the cable music stations on my television. My Time-Warner Cable plan offers forty-six different choices, everything from “Toddler Tunes” to “Retro Rock” to “Stage and Screen” to “Holiday Favorites.” My personal station of choice is “Classic Country.”
For some reason, in contrast to what I would venture to promote as “Conventional Wisdom”, there are extremely popular performers on “Classic Country” – I am thinking of country legends like Loretta Lynn – who score their biggest successes extolling the unique virtues of growing up dirt poor.
I was born in Butcher’s Holler
Where we lived in abject squalor
Daddy never made a dollar
We didn’t have shoes but we had fun.
By the way, I made up those lyrics. Though the actual lyrics are not all that different. In fact, a surprising number of country songs seem to glorify an economic status, which, if the census measured such things, would indisputably qualify as “Desperate.”
And yet…somehow…they loved it.
Sometimes, the word “poor” is synonymized with the word “country”, “country” being the stand-in word for “a simple, minimal existence.” Once again, extreme penury is portrayed as an experience people of superior means should be pitied for having missed out on.
Daddy kept his family fed
Momma whipped up fresh-baked bread
We slept four kids to a bed
Those were the days…
Why? I am totally confused here. Somebody please explain to me what exactly the appeal there is in having nothing? And yet, that’s what these songs keep celebrating:
Simple people, simple things
No big cars or diamond rings
Mansions aren’t the place for me
Give me down-home poverty.
The real confusing part, however, is this. All those big-time country singers glamorizing “the simple life” have not lived that “simple life” in decades. They have fleets of cars and drawers-full of rings! And, albeit on a considerably less lavish level, their audiences are doing pretty well themselves. I mean, those concert tickets don’t come easy; you don’t just fish ‘em out of the crik.
“Lookie here! Concert tickets!”
“Well, I s’pose if we can’t catch us a fish, concert tickets is the next best thing!”
You know, generally speaking, the most vibrant material emanates from writing about what’s happening in your life, most specifically, in the current moment of your life. Country singers cannot possible do that. Otherwise, they’d be singing,
I fly my own
I swear I’ll never
The past is easy
I dumped my pick-up
And bought a jet.
You can’t sell that song. Country hits need a hole in the roof, the bills pilin’ up, and a new young ‘un on the way.
I am not familiar with the current country music trends, but the greatest country singers of the past got rich selling “poor.”
I once lived in a one-room basement apartment. The rent was fifteen dollars a week. Rats would show up, shake their heads, and scurry off to someplace nicer. It was all right; I mean, it was livable. But I couldn’t wait to make some money and get the heck outta there. I should have written a country song about it. It’d probably have done pretty well.
I live buried in a hole
The other tenants call me “The Mole”
Damp and dark and caked with dust
Turn on the tap and out comes rust...
Well, maybe not. But I do know this. I have little to no nostalgia for “The Hard Times.” More importantly however, for this writing, is this question:
Given the choice, would these iconic country singers of old have really exchanged the material comforts that performing songs about “The Hard Times” earned them for the life of deprivation and want they were constantly saluting?
If that was truly the case, then their wisest course of action would have been to immediately stop what they were doing, because their success was taking them further and further from the world their songs insistently proclaimed they liked better. Yet, as far as I know, they didn’t.
That’s kind of sad, don’t you think?
It’s almost worthy of a country song.