Figures of Speech–Can a Country Boy Survive?

Figures of Speech–Can a Country Boy Survive?

By Allen Tullos

Vol. 4, No. 3, 1982, pp. 1-3

You have to stay up awful late in Alabama nowadays to put nostalgia and melancholy under the table. In cahoots, Action News and the jukebox are blowing the null breath of extinction. Some of the good ol’ boys feel the hair rising on the backs of their necks. They even have a tune: “Who’s Going to Sing the Last Country Song?”

But it is the NAACP’s Benjamin Hooks who asks the musical question. Blacks, he says, have lived so long with hard times and thwarted hopes that they know the territory. What will the white folk do? Spook and go off halfcocked, he fears. Realize a common plight? Not likely. Hooks is familiar with the shape and color of banty messiahs and traditional scapegoats.

As I drive a car-full of friends across Birmingham’s Red Mountain one night this May, the signals come clear. Vulcan, the iron man, holds high a red torch to show a death on the highway. The familiar cracks about his near-nakedness are more biting: how the Vulcan forgot to cover his ass, how Birmingham is mooning the affluent, over the-mountain community of Homewood for its failed merger vote. Looking down upon miles of city lights, we hear the car radio offering Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama. Down home this song is always in revival but tonight I hear, in a new way, the line “In Birmingham they love the Governor . . .” For the last twenty years, Alabama has really had only one Governor.

The news in Birmingham, bad for months, got worse in May and June. Magic City unemployment hung around twelve percent even before word came that U.S. Steel (a major employer for three-quarters of a century) was closing its Fairfield Works and even before local schools turned out for the summer. As a state, Alabama s jobless rate is second only to that of Michigan. The Governor, who carried Michigan in the 1972 Presidential primary, insists that he left the Heart of Dixie a different legacy. “When I was Governor the last eight years,” he proclaims, “we were first in the Southeast in new and expanded industries.”

On the radio, some Fairfield workers are interviewed.

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Twelve thousand steelworkers punched in at Fairfield just five years ago. Now, their numbers cut to nothing, their feelings are variously strong and resigned. Almost all of them resent the secrecy and hard-heartedness of U.S. Steel. Some blame the Japanese, some the “business cycle.” The district’s Congressman, Republican Albert Lee Smith, audaciously blames the workers themselves.

“I’d be willing to take a cut in pay,” says one veteran, “if we could keep the plant open. But the big man has to do some giving back too.” The Big Mules at U.S. Steel refuse comment. They check their digital watches and have their secretaries dust decades of fly ash and tailings off of ancient carpetbags.

Such were the Steel City’s ironies this May that among all the layoffs and rumors of layoffs, the AFLCIO was holding its Southeastern labor conference. Union officials heard the growing rank and file anger, noted the increasing toll that Reagonomics was taking on industrial membership and speculated. that momentum, continuing to build from Solidarity Day, would bring some election results this fall. The Southern union leaders pledged stronger organizing campaigns among service workers. Black and white women working in hospital, office and food service jobs may help shape labor’s direction in the l980s.

Meanwhile, a quarter gets you only two plays: Merle Haggard ringing the jingo bell with his latest “Okie From Muskogee” spinoff, one called “Are the Good Times Really Over For Good?” and George Jones singing “It’s the Same Ole Me” as he fails to show for a performance at Boutwell Auditorium.

Birmingham’s Post-Herald observes that as of January 1982, more than 45,000 people, about seven percent of the Jefferson County population, take their guns to town. Thousands more keep them handy at work or at play.

Guns take the worry out of being close. “Knowing what’s going on in this town,” says one citizen, “you need a gun.”

No matter how early you wake up in Alabama nowadays, a mean taste whispers in your mouth. A whisper that sometimes rises to a scream. Lately, it has found voice in Hank Williams, Jr., providing an unauthorized campaign anthem for a re-tuned George Wallace, The Governor:

I live back in the woods, you see,
My woman and the kids and the dogs and me.
I got a shotgun, rifle, and a four-wheel drive
And a country boy can survive.*

* A Country Boy Can Survive,” copyright, Bocephus Music, 1981.

It hurts that Hank Jr. has chosen this tact that country boys will be boys. For several years his considerable musical gifts and poignant Iyricism have shadowboxed his father’s awesome legacy and struggled against country music cliche. But his toughest opponents remain the sexism and the half-snarling, half-plaintive, go-it-alone stance which plagues the genre, the culture and the family tradition of which he sings. On his recent album, The Pressure Is On, Hank Jr.’s antagonisms too often invoke the emotions of reaction. Codewords are just a shot away. He sings in his powerful solo voice, while the electric guitar drives in dead earnest:

I had a good friend in New York City
He never called me by my name, just “Hillbilly.’
My grandpa taught me how to live off the land
And his taught him to he a businessman.

He used to send me pictures of the Broadway nights
And I’d send him some homemade wine.
But he was killed by a man with a switchblade knife
For forty-three dollars my friend lost his life.

I’d love to spit some Beech Nut in that dude’s eyes
And shoot him with my ol’, forty-five.
Cause a country boy can survive.
Country folks can survive.*

* A Country Boy Can Survive,” copyright, Bocephus Music, 1981.

Hank Jr. turned thirty-three in May and allowed the photographers to snap him hunkering at his daddy’s graveside in Montgomery. Yet along with the new confidence that he gives off, it is as if at the entrance to his country-rock domain in Cullman, Ala., Bocephus has thrown up a guardhouse and razor wire fence. Here, the passwords–“We say grace and we say ma’am”–give clues to the same fierce anger which, in part, propels the Wallace candidacy–“if you ain’t into that, we don’t give a damn.”*

* A Country Boy Can Survive,” copyright, Bocephus Music, 1981.

Behind the swagger, and despite the worthy call to more self-sufficiency, the message is one of romantic retreat and retrenchment. And this in a state where country boys’ farm debts now total more than two billion dollars, a rise of eighty-four percent since 1977. What happens when the bank comes to repossess the four-wheel drive? The romance of outlawry is thin solipsism to pour over the hard biscuits of attrition. Perhaps country boys can survive. Can they grow up?

For George Wallace, May brought another sort of commemoration and a resurrection–that most miraculous of survival tactics. First elected Governor in 1962, Wallace has served three terms, four really, if you count

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the time his late wife Lurleen sat in for him until her death by cancer. Now, after a self-imposed four-year “retirement,” and with a new wife, Lisa, who once sang country songs with her sister (Mona and Lisa) in the 1968 Wallace For President campaign, The Governor is ready to honor the state again with his service. Ten years to the month after he had been shot and partially paralyzed, he made the announcement. As of today, his chances for election seem excellent. Much depends on whether he can maintain the appearances of strength, stamina and coherence. It’s hard for anyone to campaign against a man come back from the grave with an electorate desperate to prevail with ah’ its myths intact.

“So hell,” The Governor told a Post-Herald interviewer, “I nearly died ten times after I was shot. I’d get well and peritonitis would develop. I would never do anything that would injure my health because I have a God-given instinct to want to survive as long as I can.”

In June, as he hops about the state from barbecue fundraiser to television studio, it is not George Wallace who appears immobilized, but many of Alabama’s voters and politicos. The spectrum of opposition appears ideologically narrow, tentative and uninspired. A few black leaders, most prominently Montgomery’s E. D. Nixon (the bus boycott leader) and Tuskegee Mayor-Johnny Ford, have even made horse trades with The Governor and are willing to swallow their history lessons in exchange for the promise of small leverages and front seats on the early-rolling bandwagon.

So back to the jukebox and one more play. This time however, it’s Tammy Wynette singing, not “Stand By Your Man,” or “Take Me To Your World,” but a different story. In it, a woman begins to find herself only after her man has moved out. She is glad to be rid of his hang-ups, gives his favorite chair to charity, wears her jeans a little tighter, changes her hair style and learns how to dance. Then, when her used-to-be wants to do her the favor of moving back in, Tammy sings, “Maybe you better wait a little bit longer, before you come back and give me another chance.” It is a promising tune which Alabamians ought to consider in this season of survival.