Friday, March 1, 2013

Country Drunks and the New Public Death Spectacle

Mindy McCready
Back in 1996, Mindy McCready appeared on The Tonight Show to promote her only chartbuster single, “Guys Do It All the Time.” In the interview after her performance, McCready confessed that, in deference to her conservative Christian upbringing, she had never gotten her ears pierced, even at the peak of stardom. Then she got a huge audience reaction by lifting her shirt to show a national TV audience her newly pierced navel.

This gulf demonstrates the massive gap inherent in country music. Rock stars revel in public displays of wretched excess, and a drug-fueled death like that of Jim Morrison is practically a mark of distinction—bonus points for a dramatic suicide like Kurt Cobain or Ian Curtis. Country musicians, by contrast, maintain a double standard. Their white suits, Christian rhetoric, and Republican affiliations mask profoundly indulgent, even self-destructive tendencies.

After McCready topped the Billboard country charts, at the absurd age of twenty, she became better known for her personal excess than her music. Her multiple engagements, suicide attempts, drug abuse, and two sons by two fathers became relentless tabloid fodder. Meanwhile, her four albums after her debut failed to crease even country audiences’ attention. The closest she came to later stardom was her stint on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.

Tammy Wynette & George Jones
This makes a remarkable contrast with prior country stars—say, George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Though it was an open secret during their marriage that George’s alcoholism had caused him to progress from manipulation to bullying to violence, fans never had the extent of the problem confirmed for them until Tammy filed for divorce. Even when they saw how dangerous Jones had become, fans wouldn’t forgive Wynette for her actions.

On the surface, country fans, who run to moral conservatism, blamed Wynette for seeking a divorce. This was specious anyway, as she’d recorded “Stand By Your Man” after her second marriage collapsed, before Jones. But as details of their marriage became public, including Jones threatening her with a gun and chasing her on a lawn tractor when she took his car keys, fans only increased their anger at her. Basically, they blamed her for breaking the silence.

Country fans like their stars broken. Merle Haggard and David Allan Coe got “rural route cred” for their time in the hoosegow. Loretta Lynn turned her child marriage, struggles with a drunken husband, and repeated money struggles into gorgeous songs, a movie deal, and plenty of money. Recent implosions, like Sara Evans and Shania Twain, have breathed new life into flagging careers.

Yet this brokenness was, until recently, supposed to remain implicit. Wynette broke that contract, violating her and Jones’ glittering stage presence. When Loretta Lynn sang classics like “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’” or “One’s On the Way,” she did so with a carefully constructed stage glamour. Footage from her career peak shows her emulating rural poverty while looking about as impoverished as a Holly Hobby doll:

The romanticism surrounding brokenness goes back almost all the way to country music’s origins. Hank Williams pioneered the honky-tonk drinking song as a way to incorporate his increasing drug dependency into his act. This was a way to prevent blowback from his rural Christian audience as his vices cost him his Opry slot. “See,” he told his audience, “this is part of the act. We’re all in on this together.”

Notably, though, Williams became a drunk and opiate addict because the rigors of the road exacerbated an old back injury. He only wanted to control the pain. At least he had the decency to act embarrassed when his habits got out of control: though deeply Christian, he recorded his Gospel songs under the pseudonym “Luke the Drifter” so his addictions wouldn’t color how audiences received his message.

Hank Williams
Compare that to the arc since. Despite 1970’s flirtations with outlaw music, when Jim Stafford got on stage drunk and Jessi Colter sidelined her career to save her husband Waylon Jennings from cocaine abuse, country has had difficulty acknowledging the split between its squeaky clean public image and its abusive culture. The industry has hidden Tanya Tucker, and her abuses, from public view, while Keith Whitley’s booze-soaked death took everyone by surprise.

The schadenfreude surrounding Mindy McCready and her years-long death spiral feels like something new in the country industry. After her early success, the industry shepherded her into a lifestyle in which her self-destruction was essentially assured, then turned her pain into a commodity. And this change, not her death itself, represents a dark turn from which country music may not recover.

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