Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Montgomery Gentry -- "Hell Yeah" (2002/2003)

He works way too much for way too little
He drinks way too early 'til way too late
He hasn't had a raise since New Year's Day in '88
Gets trampled on by everyone 
'Cept when he comes in here
He's a product of the Haggard generation
He's got a redneck side when you get him agitated
He got the gold tooth look from a stiff right hook he's proud he took
For his right-wing stand on Vietnam
Says he lost his brother there
He yells out "Johnny Cash!"
And the band starts to play 
"Ring of Fire" as he walks up 
And stands there by the stage
And he says
"Hell yeah, turn it up, right on!"
That's right -- 2 or 3 lines is featuring a country-western song.  You got a problem with that?

(You're thinking to yourself that 2 or 3 lines has finally jumped the shark, aren't you?  I mean, we're jumping from pop bimbos like Ke$ha and Nicki Minaj to what's shaping up to be an ENDLESS history of rap music to a country-western song?  Folks, 2 or 3 lines jumped the shark a long, long time ago.  And I'm afraid it's going to get worse before it gets better.)

I shouldn't have waited this long to do a country song -- a lot of you probably thought that I didn't like country music, or that I see myself as too good for country music or something -- that my you-know-what don't stink.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Just like the guy described in the lines from "Hell Yeah" that are quoted above, I am 100% redneck by birth.  I have a perverse pride in being a redneck, and you'll never catch me denying that I am  one.

My wife does NONE of these things!
My ancestors are nearly all English, and when they fell on hard times in England, they came to Virginia sometime in the 1700s.  I don't know precisely why they came to Virginia, but I assume they were having trouble making a go of it in the old country -- would you really pack up and take a dangerous and uncomfortable sea voyage to settle your family in a wilderness if you were making beaucoup bucks in Ye Merry Olde?

After a couple of generations in Virginia, my ancestors moved to Kentucky and Tennessee -- presumably because things didn't work out according to plan in Virginia.  Later they moved to Missouri and Arkansas -- obviously life sucked pretty bad in Kentucky and Tennessee if they were that desperate.  

One of my great-great-grandfathers founded Ava, the county seat of Douglas County, Missouri -- where parts of the movie Winter's Bone were filmed.  If you've seen the movie, you'll know that Douglas County ain't exactly California.  I took my kids to see Winter's Bone so they could see how things might have turned out for us if those ancestors had ended up on the wrong side of the law.

Speaking of California, my forebears were apparently too clueless to keep going west to California 80 years ago when even John Steinbeck's Okies were able to figure out that was the smart move. 

Even they were smarter than my ancestors
 Nope, my folks stayed right where they were -- in places like Neosho, Missouri, and Goshen, Arkansas (near Fayetteville).  

Given all that, why don't I listen to country music?  I have listened to a fair amount of country-western at times.  I listened to it all the time when I was in law school in Boston -- all part of that perverseness I mentioned earlier.  (The Harvard University radio station had a weekly show that featured equal parts outlaw country and traditional/bluegrass music -- it was called "Hillbilly at Harvard," and it's slogan was "Country music for eastern New England.") 

My daughters -- who grew up in suburban Washington, DC, and went to a Catholic girls' high school, for cryin' out loud -- have been country music fans for years.  My sister and nearly all of my Arkansas cousins (of which there are several thousand, many of whom are married to each other, or at least very close friends) listen to it.  

But I haven't listened to country music regularly for a long time.  But occasionally I will stumble across a good country song that will stick in my brain. 

By "good country song," I mean one with a heapin' helpin' of ATTITUDE.  "Hell Yeah" certainly qualifies.  

(By the way, I assumed until I was writing this post that Montgomery Gentry was one guy.  But it turns out that the name refers to a country music duo with two singers -- Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry.  Live and learn . . .)

I've been writing a lot about hip-hop music recently.  One reason it appeals to me is that my wife thinks I am far too old and upper-middle-class to listen to it, and I'm contrary enough to listen to it for that reason alone.  Also, rap songs are so chock-full of words, and can be so clever or funny or outrageous that they appeal to me intellectually as well.  But rap songs usually don't tell a story and rarely have good characters.

"Hell Yeah" is a brilliant character sketch.  We meet two characters who are very different people, but who end up in the same place (a redneck bar), doing the same thing (yelling out song requests to the band).

I'm going to call the first character "Joe."  We learn in the first verse that he has a deadend job and a drinking problem.  Although the song doesn't tell us this explicitly, I don't think Joe went to college.  And I'm betting his wife kicked him out about 20 years ago, and he's been living in a one-bedroom apartment or a trailer park ever since.

Joe grew up on Merle Haggard, and supported the war in Vietnam not for political reasons, but because his brother fought and died there.  So be careful what you say about Vietnam around him.  You may be 20 years younger and 50 pounds heavier, but Joe's is going to come after you if you say the wrong thing, sucker.

Once Joe's had a couple of beers more than are good for him, the bar band starts playing "Ring of Fire," and that's all he needs to go a little crazy.  (Say what you will about Joe, but he has good taste in music.)

Why "Ring of Fire"?  Because that's what Joe was listening to with his brother back before Vietnam.  It's a great song -- but more importantly, it's a song that evokes a particular time and place for Joe.

Now let's meet the other character in "Hell Yeah" -- I'm going to call her Amy.
She's got MBA and a plush corner office
She's got a don't-mess-with-me attitude
She'll close the deal, she don't reveal that she can feel
The loneliness, the emptiness 
'Cept when she comes in here
She's a product of the Me Generation
She's got a rock 'n' roll side when you get her agitated
She's got the tattoo there on her derriere from a spring-break dare
In Panama where love was all 
She thought she'd ever need
She yells out to the band, 
"Know any Bruce Springsteen?"
Then she jumps up on the bar
And she starts to scream
She says,
"Hell yeah, turn it up, right on!"

(Note: as any redneck would know, "Panama" does not refer to the country where the Panama Canal is, but to Panama City, Florida, a popular spring-break destination for drunken college kids that sits smack-dab in the middle of the stretch of Gulf Coast beaches known as the "Redneck Riviera.")

Spring break at Panama City Beach, Florida
Amy is a somewhat more problematic character than Joe.  You might say Joe is a bit of a cliche, but Joe's a somewhat more convincing character than Amy is.  

If Montgomery Gentry had asked me, I would have told them to make Amy a little less successful in business.  I'd give her a business degree from some no-name state college, not an MBA.  And I wouldn't give her a "plush corner office" -- I'd make her a salesperson, working mostly on commission, cold-calling strangers in the hope of landing some new business.

But the rest of the portrait of Amy is dead on.  She's a generation younger than Joe is -- maybe 35 years old, while he is 55 or so -- but they aren't so different.  She's working too hard to have much of a personal life -- or maybe the only guys she meets are jerks and losers -- so she ends up having one too many drinks at some random dive on her way home from work.  (The bar where she and Joe are drinking is Joe's regular place, I think, but not hers.)  

And why does she want to hear "The Boss"?  Same reason Joe gets excited when "Ring of Fire" is performed.  Springsteen evokes a special time and place for her -- namely, a bar in Panama City when she had just turned 21 and was about to get a tattoo on her derriere.  (In a way, she's sorry to have the tattoo today -- but she's not sorry she got it.  I bet that she and her friends had a helluva lot of fun that night.)

There's no indication in the song that Joe and Amy have any kind of contact.  They don't have a drink together, or go back to Joe's trailer park, or fall in love and get married -- not a chance.  They are just two solitary people, drinking to forget their troubles, until the music suddenly strikes a spark and they are up on their feet, singing along, and shouting out a request when that song is over.

This song gets you going and puts you in a great mood, even though it is about two fundamentally unhappy characters.  It captures that moment when you have had a little too much to drink, but not a lot too much. 

A couple of more drinks and your mood will turn from euphoric to desperate or angry, and you'll start to feel sorry for yourself as you realize it's well after midnight and your alarm is going to wake you up at 6 am in the morning.

But right now -- at this exact moment -- you're energetic and excited . . . the band has just begun to play a song you love, and you're going to sing along to it at the top of your lungs.  For the next three minutes, everything will be just fine.

Tomorrow's another story, of course -- but for now, to quote Matthew 6:34, "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."

Here's the official music video for "Hell Yeah," which has a much more light-hearted spirit than the gloomy spin I put on it:

Here's a link you can use to buy the song on iTunes:

Hell Yeah - My Town

Here's a link you can use to buy it from Amazon:

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