Willie Nelson’s 2012 album Heroes has a stark black-and-white photo of Nelson’s profile on the cover that immediately makes you feel the implicit suggestion that he’s a hero, that we the record-buying public should be thinking of him as a hero when we pick the album up. The connected notion that it conjures is the idea that living legends like Nelson are important to country music still, and that hero worship itself is a vital part of the genre. That last argument has staying power, judging by even a cursory look at the country-music landscape.
The first song on Heroes puts Nelson and Merle Haggard on “A Horse Called Music”, a vehicle for the image of country legend-dom if there ever was one. Later, Jamey Johnson, reverent follower in Nelson’s footsteps, shows up to sing on the title track, which lets him ask, “Where is our hero today?” The question brings to mind at once these ideas: Nelson was/is that hero, there are few singers as hero-like as him now, but maybe Johnson can fill that role.
On most of the album, Nelson sings with another young would-be-Willie: his son Lukas Nelson, who also co-wrote a lot of the songs. You’d think Lukas Nelson’s presence as a co-creator would deflect the focus away from Willie Nelson’s hero status, but he sounds so much like his dad that it only serves to remind us of it all the more. Towards the end there’s a song called “Come on Back Jesus” that continues this longing for some supposed ideal past, while tying it to two of country’s favorite fantasies: the supreme power of personal declarations of faith and the importance of vigilantes. “Come on back Jesus / and pick up John Wayne on the way”, the Nelsons sing.
The whole album seems to say we as country music fans should look back in time for heroes. So too did several of the 2012 country albums most likely to be praised by those who consider themselves fans of “real” country. Jamey Johnson’s Livin’ for a Song (named album of the year by realcountrymusicmatters.com) was explicitly about hero worship. A tribute to Hank Cochran, it furthered the thread of songwriter boosterism in Johnson’s music, while also letting him join together with a host of other country singers for a party in celebration of Nashville’s past. So many of the guests are aging legends themselves, making the hero worship within the album seem pointed in multiple directions. Nelson, Haggard, Ray Price, Kris Kristofferson, Bobby Bare – these people are on the album not just because they are fans of Cochran, but because they themselves are being held up as heroes in the same tradition.
The album that Rolling Stone magazine declared, in their year-end wrap-up, “may be the best traditionalist album of the year”, was Kellie Pickler’s 100 Proof. It opens with “Where’s Tammy Wynette?”, a heartbreak song where the jilted one is scanning the radio for Wynette’s help, listing off specific songs on the way. It’s a clever song, but also one that, when placed at the start of an album, makes a clear statement of identification with a legend from the past. It says ‘this is where I’m coming from this time.” In a way, it’s a move akin to Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”, even though he was making an overt “things dun changed” statement and she’s trying to work a veiled version of that statement into a classical theme, a sad breakup song. It’s a clever song, and executes an increasingly common move for artists who want listeners to classify them one way and not another. Name your idols, and maybe listeners will think of you together.
That word “traditionalist” (or “traditional”), when used by music critics, will often lead you to musicians who are evoking the past successes of the genre, either by name, by collaboration or by association, with music that alludes to or copies the past. All of the albums that critics/fans who fancy themselves “pure” country defenders have praised as the best of 2012 carry a heavy aura of the past about them, through song choice or lyrical allusions – James Hand’s Mighty Lonesome Man, Marty Stuart’s Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down, The Time Jumpers. The press releases for each carry talk of how authentic they are, like the music of the past. James Hand’s Facebook page: “He’s been called the REAL DEAL by Willie Nelson.” The message with each: the past was better than today, and here’s an album that will bring you back to it.
So I ask: How much can the genre of country music progress if it’s spending all of its time looking back? Or perhaps to some that looking-back is essential to the genre. Is country music necessarily always about tradition, about sentimental regard for those who came before? It couldn’t have always been that way, but perhaps we’ve reached a point where that’s the only definition that makes sense to some country music fans. Have we reached the point where to step at all away from head-down devotion to the past is to risk no longer being considered country at all?
The one backwards-looking 2012 album that steered away from the usual was Iris DeMent’s Sing the Delta. That’s because her looking back is personal recollection more than artistic maneuvering, even though her own nostalgia entwined with one related to music and culture. Her songs are about the way her heart was formed by the people, places and sounds that she grew up on, in the South. In looking back this way, we can understand what has happened to us and let it go. Thus, this kind of looking back ends up being a move forward.
The last track, “Out of the Fire”, is a piano ballad that, by its length and form, evades convention while poetically travelling through memories, dreams and stages of spiritual release. It’s the sort of song, and album, that show how you can look backwards and forwards at the same time, how maintaining a connection to past traditions doesn’t necessarily lead to a stubborn insistence that one concrete past route is the only way to be.