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America, Where Have You Gone?

Donald Teplyske  |  January 15, 2012

I haven't been doing very much writing about music lately; listening to much of the Jackie Leven catalogue will do that to you- Why bother trying to match such precise observations, right?

But more than being intimidated by Fife's favourite son (this side of Ian Rankin), what has imposed my non-fiction writer's block (because, really I have been a bit productive on the short story side of things) has been my anger toward Larry Cordle.

How can one be angry with Larry Cordle, you may ask? The guy is a legend in bluegrass circles, having written some of the finest songs we'll ever hear:Lost as a Ball in High Weeds, The Hero of the Creek, Lonesome Standard Time, Jesus and Bartenders, Black Diamond Strings, not to mention Highway 40 Blues and Murder of Music Row. Personally, his performance with Lonesome Standard Time at World of Bluegrass the only time attended is etched in my mind as masterful. I love his voice, his way with words- heck, I've compared him to Guy Clark, the highest praise I can likely bestow upon a songwriter.

And because I have hesitated to write about Larry Cordle, despite the churning that occurs within me every time I think about one of his recent songs, I haven't felt the willingness to write about anything else bluegrass related for about a month.

So, why am I angry at Cord? I'm not sure I can express it, but I'll try. Maybe I'm really mad at myself for feeling anger toward someone's art. I'm not sure, but I know this- I'll have a hard time getting America, Where Have You Gone? out of my brain, and not in any good way.

Released early in 2011, "Pud Marcum's Hanging" was only purchased (via download) by me in the late fall. The album's first three songs- Justice for Willy, Hello, My Name is Coal, and the title track- absolutely devastated me with their quality, not just the words and melodies, but the performances; beautiful stuff and exactly what I come to bluegrass for- stories of both today and the past, stories of people and places that have no connection to my life but which have become engrained in my soul.

Uncle Bob Got Religion, Molly, and even Angel on His Shoulder- with a theme of internal struggle I don't necessarily accept, but certainly appreciate when artfully presented, as it is here- the songs unfolded wonderfully, a nice balance of powerful literature and workmanlike rhyme. Heck, I have no trouble with the mountain community justice of The Death of Bad Burch Wilson. The quaint convenience of Shade Tree Mechanic- really, burying him in a Bonneville?- does nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for the first eleven songs on the album.

And then I got to the final cut and truly couldn't believe what I was hearing. I understand that not everyone is going to share my view of the world. As has often been suggested, that is one of the wonderful things about living in a free society.

But when the hatred is so real, as it appears in America, Where Have You Gone?, I am troubled. In just over three minutes Cordle expresses his opinions on the lack of prayer in school, his disdain for the rights of the minority, gay marriage, and overseas exportation of jobs, among other things. Again, Cordle is allowed his opinion, but the self-centered hate I hear in his words troubles me.

Let me start with the refrain: "America, Where Have You Gone?" Far as I know, it is still there, several hundred miles to the south of me and welcoming to people who for a couple centuries have viewed it as a land of promise and second chances. I understand that Cordle is speaking from his heart, writing and singing of his own convictions- "I'm not trying to smooth nobody's fur," he sings (a great phrase, by the way), but to be so arrogant to suggest, 'Things aren't going the way they should because I don't like it' is perhaps overstepping. Just as I would never suggest anyone should share my view of the world or America, I find it troubling when a writer I respect states his discomfort and hate as fact and as tied to the values of the country in which he was raised.

I could accept that as a personal misstep- hell, I likely don't share Guy Clark's opinion on every issue impacting our continent and not every song is going to resonate with every listener. But the hate I hear coming through in Cordle's voice left me cold. As did the laziness I could hear in some of his word choices: "When a man takes another man's hand in marriage, what the (bleep) is going on?" If you want to swear, Cord- actually do it- it is less offensive than the contrived words which follow. Really, an Adam and Steve reference? Talk about taking the easy way to make a point about literal interpretation of The Bible. Elsewhere he sings, "We'll welcome you with open arms." But, apparently not if you are gay or not Christian.

"Whatever happened to majority rules?" he asks early in the song, conveniently forgetting that the majority has a duty to be respectful and tolerant of individual rights. He takes on immigration, calling on it to be legal (no problems there) but insisting with no little bit of venom, "learn English, too or else just stay where you are." Are those the words that have replaced these better known ones: "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be breathe free"?

I appreciate Cordle's frustration with the "working man pick[ing] up the tab" for bailing out banks and corporations, but for me the self-righteousness of the majority of the song goes a long way toward ruining the listening experience of "Pud Marcum's Hanging."

Hey, I'm a Canadian and we have no end to our own challenges: a language and cultural divide that is as old as the country, rampant gang violence, illegal immigration, a political system that is as self-indulgent as it is ineffective. So I'm not suggesting I know the answers to the factors that are troubling Larry Cordle. And I'm not going to try to bridge the chasm that exists between the America of Jon Stewart and that of Bill O'Rielly. I'm not even sure who is Red and who is Blue. But America, Where Have You Gone? is a hateful song, and one that I can't bear to listen to again. I'm certainly thankful it is affixed to the end of the album so that I can pop the disc out before the song begins.

I respect that Larry Cordle's opinions are different than mine. I acknowledge that he is welcome to them, but only in so far as they don't hurt other people. And that is what I fear here, that the words written and sung by one of bluegrass music's most important voices will negatively impact someone- a child struggling with his or her sexuality, an impressionable person looking for an outlet for anger- in a devastating fashion. As much as anything, that is what concerns me with America, Where Have You Gone?.

I hope the relative silence of the bluegrass community in light of this song means that just as many people are offended by America, Where Have You Gone? as I am.

I don't expect you to agree with me. But I needed to get this out of the way and now, maybe, I can go onto other writing.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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