Jack Solomon

"Empire of Dirt": The Tangled Roots of Popular Music

Blog Post created by Jack Solomon Expert on Apr 11, 2019

 

Every now and then, while driving to work, I've turned on the radio and have come in on the middle of a hauntingly beautiful, if rather grim, acoustic song sung by a gravely-voiced singer who seems to be singing about heroin addiction, or something of the sort. Knowing nothing about the song I've kind of assumed that it was about the nation's opioid epidemic and left it at that. But one phrase from the song really got my attention, and I finally entered the words into a search engine a few days ago to see what I could find out about it.

 

Okay, you know where I'm going now. I've used it in the title for this blog. The song is "Hurt," as recorded by Johnny Cash in 2002. But I was quite surprised to learn that it was written a decade earlier by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, whose own recording of it in 1994 is on a different sonic plane entirely, and even more nightmarish than Cash's dark retrospective. Wow, country meets industrial pop.

 

There's nothing new, of course, in an artist from one musical genre covering a song from another. After all, that's one way that music evolves: through a continuous mixing and fusing of different styles into new forms. And it isn't that Johnny Cash hadn't done this sort of thing before this is the country icon who teamed up with Bob Dylan back in the days when Merle Haggard was still "proud to be an Okie from Muskogee," and country music fans tended to be openly hostile to just about everything that folk and folk rock stood for.

 

Whether he put it in such terms to himself or not, Cash's collaborations with Dylan tapped into a common system of tangled roots from which country music and folk/folk rock emerged: the lives of the poor, the downtrodden, and the oppressed. Within this tradition lies the outlaw, a defiant (and often idealized) figure who breaks the rules in despite of society's laws. And so Johnny Cash went to Folsom Prison in 1968, thereby jump-starting his flagging career, and (along with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and David Allan Coe), establishing outlaw country as a thriving musical sub-genre.

 

It's important to note that country music isn't the only popular musical form with an outlaw tradition these days. Rap, particularly in its Gangsta' incarnation, has its own outlaws, and its own taproot into the lives of the people. "Country rap," a rather uneasy and tentative fusion of country and hip hop, has even emerged to explore the possibilities of this common ground.

 

Given the highly fraught state of social relations in America today, I don't really expect that country rap will make much of a difference politically, but to get to where we want to go, it is always useful to know where we came from.  

 

Photo CreditPixabay Image 687631 by Ana_J, used under the Pixabay License.

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