When I decided to set Thank God for Mississippi in Tennessee, it seemed as natural as breathing to include a passion for the greats of country music in my eponymous character’s repertoire of traits. She loves Dolly Parton and gets affronted when the main male character says something she perceives to be a slight to the Queen of Country Music. She has sung June Carter Cash songs at the annual town fair for years. She has a T-shirt that says: “DOLLY AND LORETTA AND PATSY,” (which is how, the main male character says, he located her at the town fair). You get the picture.
I’ve only just begun to realize the impact country music has had on my life. It’s strange to have grown up in Tennessee, not too far distant from Nashville, and not realize how immersed you are in country music. My childhood home is roughly 65 miles from Nashville, but you could pick up about five of the Nashville country stations and the local ones as well. Dolly Parton, the fairy godmother of Tennessee, is something more than a legend at this point, and we’re basically bottle-fed on her songs. So obviously, there is a natural connection with country music in the area I grew up—and in the area where Thank God for Mississippi is set.
If someone asks me if I’m a country fan, I usually say, “I’m not too fond of the new stuff.” Country music has been on a path for the last decade or so that a relative not-so-lovingly calls “Bro-Country” (upon research, this is what it’s actually called). It’s a little less family-oriented, a little more partying…and not our cup of tea.
But, as a country lyric might say, me and country music go way back. My first memory of the genre was probably Brooks and Dunn. I was four when “My Maria” hit number-one in 1996; needless to say, the duo was all the rage. Alan Jackson was literally the soundtrack of my childhood, as there was a greatest hits CD in the player of my mom’s car that was not to be removed. I also remember being very little and (now humorously) dramatically weeping in the back of my grandpa’s Blazer because it was always left on a country station, and “country music is so sad, Pa!”
There was a ten-year age gap between my two sets of grandparents, but both of my grandpas took country music seriously, albeit in different ways. My older “Papa,” when asked what his favorite music was once in my hearing range, answered succinctly, “Country!” shortly to be followed with, very seriously, “It’s the only music there is.” Think Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline… He is still with us, and when recently I was looking for a magazine to relieve his boredom, I unhesitatingly picked up a feature story on Willie Nelson.
For my younger “Pa,” loving the genre meant embracing every new step the genre made. I spent many priceless hours with him when he would come in from the fields watching CMT and GAC. He loved watching the music videos and had an eye for which of the newcomers would hit it big. He would say, “Sissy, he’s going to make it. He’s got a good sound, and the looks, too!”
The summer before eighth grade, I became ill with double pneumonia that turned into a daunting visit to Vanderbilt Hospital and ended with breathing treatments five times a day for the entire summer. While my siblings were outside swimming, I was in the house taking treatments. In between, I watched GAC and CMT non-stop. I still remember the songs of that summer. “Georgia Rain,” by Trisha Yearwood, “Making Memories of Us,” by Keith Urban, “Mississippi Girl,” by Faith Hill, “Anything But Mine,” by Kenny Chesney, “Lot of Leaving Left to Do,” by Dierks Bentley…
The good country music that was fresh but respectful of the traditions of the genre held out roughly until I was out of high school. Then, as the genre went down a new path, I drifted away from it because I had many other music interests. However, I was lucky enough (thanks to my sister-in-law’s mom’s knack for winning tickets!) to go to the Grand Ole Opry twice during college, where we saw Josh Turner and Kenny Rogers. Little Jimmy Dickens came out both nights to tell jokes and MC. I still remember Josh Turner’s deep voice filling the room. While my dad, a truck driver, was on the road, he was able to pick up the Nashville stations and listen to the Opry broadcast with us. Those were great experiences, and great memories.
But mostly, I took a hiatus from listening to country music…until I started writing Thank God for Mississippi. Since it is a book drawn from an authentic experience, it wasn’t so much a choice as a necessity to include country music as the backdrop for the fictional Hammondville, Tennessee. I was gradually compiling a soundtrack that I would listen to as I was writing, and I had already determined that John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads was going to be a meaningful song in the creative process.
At work one day, I heard what I thought was that song playing on my friend Amy’s radio. I called out to tell her I liked the nostalgic song, and she said, “Have you ever seen the video?” I didn’t know what she meant, initially, until I listened closer and realized it was instead Forever Country, compiled in celebration of the 50th Annual CMA Awards with three songs cleverly put together in a mashup by Joseph Kahn: Take Me Home, Country Roads, On the Road Again, and I Will Always Love You. Even more remarkable was that they had pulled in thirty country artists, most of them legends, to each sing a single line that would flow right into the next singer’s lyrics.
I was aware of the compilation when it had come out but hadn’t thought much about it. So Amy pulled the video up on the computer, mentioning that while country music wasn’t her favorite genre, it gave her nostalgia. And I have to say, along about the time Alan Jackson came on the screen, I was feeling the same way. Or maybe it was Charlie Pride. If it was no one else, it was Dolly Parton at the end, like an angel, singing the final lyric and nodding at us.
I think it was somewhere around this time that I realized, whatever my disdain for the modern stuff, country music is, and will always be, an integral part of my life. These are the songs, every one of which holds a memory of dear ones, that make up the fabric of our lives. And really, that is a wonderful cultural inheritance. Maybe Mississippi was me all along?