The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Listening to Country in China

I was listening to music and watching Chinese countryside whiz by when a nine-year-old girl with her hair tied up in buns with pink ribbons approached me. After I communicated with her all I could—which was mostly the fact that I couldn’t speak Chinese—I offered her one of my headphones. I played for her every genre I had on my iPod, and it was clear that she found everything from The Blow to Beethoven boring. Resigned to the fact that she just might not like my music, I played one last artist: Townes Van Zandt.

The moment I put on the Texas troubador the girl shot me an enthusiastic smile and gave me a thumbs up. Though famous in Texas and in country music circles, I’d never heard of Townes Van Zandt until recently. I had no idea which songs the young girl might like so the two of us listened to every song of his on my iPod—forty in all. At times the girls would move her arms and shake her head to the beat, and at other moments, she would concentrate intensely trying to decipher what the song might be about. Townes’ music humorously touches on the usual country music themes—love, loss, and alcohol—but without understanding the lyrics, it was clearly Townes’ cracking, bending voice that fascinated the young Chinese girl. Perhaps it’s microtonal wavering was reminiscent of traditional Chinese music.

Growing up in Portland, I hated country music. After all, I only knew the likes of Shania, Garth, and Kenny Chesney, and it was easy to feel superior to the places where people listened to country. During the Cold War, the US sent out musicians—most famously jazz artists like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington—to counter Soviet propaganda depicting the US as a cultural wasteland, and throughout the world, people found something to like about the US. With the American election coming, the US doesn’t just need international ambassadors but also domestic cultural ambassadors to bridge the divide between people who wear trucker hats in earnest and in irony. Now that the America is in the middle of a so-called “Culture War,” the red states should send their best country musicians to places like Portland to counter the Country Music Channel’s portrayal. In return, Portland will issue a public apology for Courtney Love.  After eight years of George W. Bush, the US needs some real post-partisan rhetoric from a Texan, and the tunes of Townes Van Zandt are a good place to start.

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One Response

  1. Schneider says: NPR did a whole story about how American country music is big overseas–having to do with the 20th century being the time with the greatest shift from rural to urban across the globe, perhaps. Somewhat related.

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