West

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This is the last cowboy song.
The end of a hundred year waltz.
The voices sound sad as they're singin' along.
Another piece of America's lost.

-"The Last Cowboy Song", The Highwaymen

Someone asked me recently what I mean when I say I'm a Western girl. Like a lot of people, I think she was picturing what I was missing as a liberal oasis full of organic food and good pot and possibly naked hot springs. And yeah, that stuff all exists in my West, but it's so much more than that. Much of it is counter-intuitive to that vision.

One of the reasons Texas has been able to feel like home to me is that, however it differs from home in the Umpqua Valley, there is some of that same Westerness. Austin is a city, but around the edges there is that little bit of cowboy. And I think I'm going to miss that on the East Coast.

Boots and jeans make a lot more sense to me than black tie. I grew up on classic country music and I love it relentlessly. I've bottle-fed a calf; I know the difference between bear shit and bobcat; I've seen a bald eagle in its natural habitat. There is this whole world that was almost lost by the time I was born and is even more lost now. I am privileged enough to have caught that last little bit of it, and to have it in my blood. And my God do I miss it.

I never thought I would. When I lived in that world, I couldn't wait to get out. In part, I didn't know the rest of the world was different. I expected everybody to know who Gus McCray was. And, in part, I thought I was too good for it--too smart, too cultured, too experimental and wild and outlandish. Even as a pretty young kid, I consciously steered myself away from anything to "country." I wanted to do more.

Now I've done more. I've lived in cities for a dozen years. I've been to New York and to Europe. I've worn formal clothes, gotten a graduate degree, and read a whole lot of really important books. I taught myself not to say "pop" or "crick" or "rig." I learned to like effeminate men and to use multiple forks to eat the same damn meal.

And some of it, I was right about. It's a big, diverse, strange world, and I love that. I love knowing people who didn't all come from the same place. I really do like Indian and Thai food more than venison and boiled potatoes. But mostly, I was completely wrong. I haven't seen everything, but nothing I have seen is nearly so impressive and summer on the river where I grew up. I've read a lot of books, and I keep coming back to Larry McMurtrey and E. Annie Prolix and Pam Houston. I've been to probably hundred concerts, and nothing has ever beat the time Willie Nelson played for three and a half hours at the county fair.

It should have been obvious all along, I guess, but I just figured it out. I'm not just homesick because I'm far away geographically and getting farther. I'm homesick because the way I grew up is fast becoming extinct. Even if I were a different person, one that could live full-time in a small town or on a rural ranch, it's unlikely my kids could grow up the way I did. I couldn't be the parent my parents were not just because of my different personality, but because the world has irreparably changed around us all. The West in which I grew up is, mostly, dead. What is left is so hard to find and so hard to maintain that I hold out very little hope it's going to stick around.

Country music illustrates exactly what I am talking about. The great country was mostly already recorded before I was born, but even when I was a kid there was some real country music being produced. ("The Devil Went Down to Georgia" was the number one song the year I was born.) People were still, at least occasionally, making music about drinking and fighting and trains and Mama. Today's country music is just like today's pop music--it's about marketing and money. (Personally, I blame Garth Brooks.) It can't go back. The greats are mostly dead, and the ones who aren't are retired to Hawaii or making reggae albums.

The whole thing is enough to make me cry into my beer. But I won't. Instead, I have to focus on how incredibly lucky I am to have caught even the end of the West. I didn't grow up in Remington painting, but I at least I recognize what is going on in one. It is important to me--more so every year, and with every mile further away I get--to preserve that little bit of the West that I inherited. How one does that, in the world in which I live, I'm not exactly sure. I think it's safe to say, though, that's it isn't about fashion or music choices, or even where you live. It's about respect for the land and for the past. It's about loyalty to your loved ones. It's about valuing hard work and not being afraid to get your hands dirty. And I can hold on to those values. After all, I am a Western girl.

9 Comments

So, I don't know exactly where in NoVA you're moving to, but don't give up yet! While a lot of it is suburbs, it gets rural pretty quickly, in my estimation.

I moved from the California Bay Area to central VA about 7 years ago, and was shocked at how rural parts of the state are. Granted, I'm not in a part of the state that has been swallowed by suburban developments (yet), but there are TONS of farms, and ranches (not the western kind, but they do okay) and a very active pioneering spirit accessible by day trip to you.

It's not the same, but nowhere is ever the same as home. It took me a long to time to stop hating it here because it wasn't CA. I've gotten used to it - and I've even grown to appreciate a LOT of what it has to offer.

first--virginia was the west way before your West was the West--read some Zane Grey! Some of it takes place in Utah but most of it is EAST of Ohio. That idea is really interesting to me--what I think of as the West was not really what early Americans thought of as The West (culturally). I don't think it's all lost--watching a British documentary about America recently I realized how lucky we are to have mile after mile of wilderness. And there's never been as big a DIY movement as there is today--Foxfire is HUGE now, etc. Although I guess that's more Appalachian than West, but a lot of skill overlap.

Second, When I saw Kinky Friedman play in NYC (and even in reading his books) he makes a huge point about how NYC used to be the center of country and folk music in America. His stories of living in the West Village with Bob Dylan and people who I would NOT ASSOCIATE with the west village really again point to a time when everything wasn't "country folk against NYC." I think that turning point came in the 70s with the invention of more pop country. It's something I've been researching a bit. My major touchpoint songs for that are the work of Hank Jr. (very anti-NYC) and Roy Acuff's "I wouldn't live in NYC (If They Gave Me the Whole Dang Town)." (1970) I think it's an artificial opposition that's part of this whole red v. blue business.


Finally, I think there are people making an old tymey version of country music today. God Bless Dwight Yoakam, eh? In NYC there was wayyyyy more of a country scene than there is here, which I find totally weird based on my preconceptions of place. Though a lot of VA is suburbs it IS the South, so I am guessing there'll be some awesome local country.

Also, if you're every feeling like real country is dying visit Nashville. Sure it's the heart of pop country but in most bars there's peeps singing the old tymey style stuff they wrote.

I bet you never thought a discussion of country music would spur me to write 23 paragraphs, huh?

Do you have any opinion on Hank III?

Such a different world to England, but so interesting to read!

It will be interesting to see your perspective after living on the east coast for a bit. If your ultimate goal is to get back home one day, I think experiencing as much of the US as possible should be a great thing.

I think you lack a real understanding of what the "east" is like.

I have seen both cows (every morning) and bald eagles (often) on the road on which I live. And, in Virginny, I'm pretty sure you can find both kinds of music: country and western.

And, respect for land? I certainly don't think the West has any lock on that "virtue"

I know exactly what you mean. I miss Arizona so much sometimes that I have to stop thinking about it. I don't think I ever understood being homesick until it was clear that I wouldn't be leaving Georgia anytime soon.

On the plus side, I've found so many things to love about the southeast (and things to hate), that I've decided as long as I'm in the Southern part of the US, it'll be ok.

Every place I've ever lived is totally changed since I left. That's the way it goes. Happily there are changes for the good as well as for the bad.

It sounds like you're missing what is more of a state of mind and a way of thought more than anything else. I think I get it. I miss some of the 'can do' of the midwest. The self-sufficiency of people.

I couldn't wait to get out of there, and now I want to go back and raise my son in that same place.

I totally get what you're saying about country music. I grew up watching reruns of "Classic Country" and listening to Patsy Cline, George Jones and Hank Williams. Our country stations still played them back then, and I had mom & dad's albums to refer to as well.

I miss that old way of life in so many ways. I mourn its loss in some ways, while appreciating my Indian, Thai, Mexican foods, my avocados and arugula, goat cheese, and all that "weird" stuff we didn't have growing up. I hope I can find a balance between the two.

Ah, we could have had so many great talks about music, had I only known!

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