Super Bowl Slapdown: Outlaw Willie NelsonVs. Mad Nascar Keith

If you haven’t been following country-music culture, you won’t be aware that the other smackdown at the Super Bowl is not going to be about the Patriots and the Panthers, but about patriotism and peace, about Willie Nelson and Toby Keith-outlaw peacenik versus “The Angry American”-with a piquant Dixie Chicks subtext thrown in.

I think it was brilliant programming to invite Willie and Toby to sing during the Super Bowl pre-game show, and will be even more brilliant if they let Willie sing the peace ‘n’ love anthem he penned recently (“What Ever Happened to Peace on Earth?”), and then let Toby Keith cut loose with “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).”

I have a feeling the Super Bowl people may want to avoid that explicit a duel and will “encourage” the two of them instead to sing the upbeat duet they do on Toby Keith’s 2002 album, a song called “Beer for My Horses.” (Synergy for Super Bowl beer sponsors as well: a whole new equine market!)

But most of the country will know what songs they’re “virtually,” subtextually singing: the dueling anthems of the angry flag-waver and the peace ‘n’ love Cosmic Cowboy.

I’ve always thought of country-music songwriting as the most underrated genre of writing in America, a kind of long-running Super Bowl of Sadness where genius songwriters clash by night in their effort to produce the most heartbreaking-no, heart- shattering -songs the mind can imagine and the soul can handle. A kind of Manhattan Project where the mad scientists of song conspire to make you sadder than you could ever imagine being over things you’re already sad about-and about things you hadn’t even begun to be sad about yet. Sadder than life itself.

There are those who don’t think of country music as particularly political, but I think it is precisely that attunement to emotion that has made it, in the past couple of years, a prime stage for the clash of emotional responses to 9/11 and the war. Not surprisingly, pundits are saying the key swing vote in the coming election will not be the soccer mom, but “the NASCAR dad.” Toby Keith is the NASCAR dad. (O.K., the NASCAR dad with a Bad Attitude.) Nor is it surprising that the Presidential campaign may already have turned on the propriety of expressing unashamed emotion: something Howard Dean and country singers share.

Anyway, for those urbanites who don’t know about the Toby Keith angle to the Dixie Chicks controversy-don’t know Toby Keith at all the way they probably do Willie Nelson-here’s the deal: You know about Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines making anti-Bush comments (“We’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas”) in London around the time of the opening of the Iraq hostilities.

Toby Keith, by contrast, got to the top of the charts that same time last spring with a song that came to be known as “The Angry American.” It’s a song about a guy whose father lost an eye fighting in combat overseas and who feels deeply that “There’s a lot of men dead / So we can sleep at peace at night.” It’s a guy who’s still angry about 9/11. You gotta problem with that? It’s kind of interesting that this guy from far-off Oklahoma still cares about the 2,749 who died in downtown Manhattan.

But what made Toby Keith’s song controversial was the indecorous way he expressed his anger (mustn’t be indecorous, undignified, emotional-perish the thought, as the reaction to Howard Dean proved).

The one line that made Toby Keith particularly controversial in some quarters (and wildly popular in others) was the one at the close of “The Angry American,” about giving a “boot in your ass” to the Islamo-fascists who murdered 2,749 New Yorkers, among others. (“Islamo-fascists” is, needless to say, not the phrase Toby Keith uses; I think it was Merle Haggard who coined that one.)

Anyway, the controversial verse goes:

Oh, Justice will be served

And the battle will rage

This big dog will fight

When you rattle his cage

And you’ll be sorry that you messed

with the U.S. of A.

‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass

It’s the American way.

Hard to deny, whatever you think of the appropriateness of it: It is the American way.

That was in 2002. Then, after Natalie Maines made her comment last year, Toby Keith had some sarcastic things to say about it. It didn’t end there. Don’t mess with the Dixie Chicks; Ms. Maines may have made nice to Diane Sawyer, coming thisclose to apologizing, but the Chicks didn’t forgive Toby Keith. According to a report I saw on one of the country-music video channels, Ms. Maines affixed a four-letter logo to her tour T-shirt on the Chicks’ latest round of concerts. The logo: FUTK. Now I understand that they have officially denied this stands for “F*** You, Toby Keith,” but not too many people believe this.

Great feud, huh? As one of the earliest boosters of the Dixie Chicks in these pages, and as someone who treasures a copy of my column on them autographed by the Chicks themselves (via a photographer I knew who was shooting them), I can say I like their spirit and wish they hadn’t been forced to backtrack. I don’t think they ever need to be ashamed of being from Texas. But I admit I also like the spirit of Toby Keith’s song, so sue me.

I like the feud, and whoever’s producing the Super Bowl had a finely attuned antenna for the way country music has registered the emotional dimension of the political debate-certainly more than rock, let’s face it. (Unless you include the updated AC/DC classic, now called “For Those About to Iraq.”)

And it will be interesting to see-if Willie and Toby do a duet on “Beer for My Horses,” as they do on Toby’s album-if it plays as a reconciliation of the emotional divide within country music culture.

Not that “Beer for My Horses” is a Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?” kind of tune.

It’s about “justice” and “a hard line,” about “gun smoke” and victory against the “wicked,” victory chalked up by some cowboys.

The chorus goes like this:

We’ll raise up our glasses against

evil forces

Singing whiskey for my men, beer

for my horses.

Who knew horses even liked beer? One hopes your discerning horse won’t settle for that low-carb crap. (Great brand name for the beer-drinking horse market: “Dos Equines.”)

Anyway, it will be a moment of great cultural complexity, the Super Bowl Willie-and-Toby moment. The kind you frequently can find exemplified in country if you pay attention. I keep feeling like a lonely evangelist for country music-particularly mainstream country-in this city. I keep pointing out to friends that with Time Warner Cable, you can get access to five all-country stations: two mainstream and commercial country-video stations (channels 140 and 141) and three commercial-free all-audio country stations (channels 602, 603 and 604).

Hey, and if you think being an evangelist for country at all is lonely in this city, try being an evangelist for mainstream country. Country itself is no longer dismissed-there’s been a thriving alt-country scene downtown that looks down its nose at mainstream country. And a lot of the alt-country played on “Americana,” Time Warner’s channel 604, is superb. But I’d suggest that a lot of alt-country is what Alex Abramovich recently described in Slate as “curator” music. But mainstream country-not alt-country, not outlaw country, not Austin Cosmic Cowboy country (the kind of country I first tuned into) or the Gram Parsons, Steve Earle, John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris strain (a strain I’m crazy about)-but mainstream, rhinestone-cowboy, “hat-act,” Reba, Martina, Wynonna, Shania mainstream country is still unjustly sneered at.

It’s something I don’t understand, a sort of unsophisticated pose of sophistication that blinds (well, deafens) many from paying attention to just how friggin’ heartbreakingly great some mainstream country songwriting can be. It’s often great writing-and when it’s not great writing, it’s great emotion. It is our era’s Anatomy of Melancholy . Don’t get me started on my argument that country-music writing is doing things writers in other genres aspire to but rarely achieve. (By the way, one way you can tell that country-music culture values writing more than you might suspect: On the beginning and ending ID tags on videos, they always include the songwriters’ names. Writers have knowledgeable fans in country music.)

Anyway, here’s a remarkable thing I discovered when I spent one of these recent bitterly cold weekends inside my apartment, subjecting myself to the exquisite emotional manipulation that the country video channels offer. Get this: Zoloft is now advertising on one of the country channels. Is that great marketing or what? The most profoundly, single-mindedly sad, and sad-making, music paired with an anti-depressant. (The music alone probably makes a million new customers a year. Great country songs are what you might call pro -depressants.)

Here are a couple of other things I discovered: new contenders for my personal Sad Song Hall of Fame.

I think I became interested in a genealogy of supreme country-song sadness when, a long time ago, I interviewed Linda Ronstadt and she confirmed a rumor I’d heard: that a number of well-known actors preparing for scenes that called for crying and weeping would take a short cut around Method sense-memory methods to psyche themselves up-or down, rather-by listening repeatedly to Linda’s version of the all-time classic cry-like-a-rainstorm song: “Long Long Time.” Word among acting pros was that it was guaranteed to start tears flowing instantly. It’s not a pure country song; Ronstadt wasn’t a pure country artist, but she made use of some of the premier country-songwriting geniuses in her best work, including the great J.D. Souther.

Just the fact that a song had that power was amazing to me. I mean, as a writer I was in awe of the way music could empower words, work on some levels, physical and metaphysical, that words couldn’t reach.

Then, of course, maybe second in succession in the modern Sad Song Hall of Fame would have to be Emmylou Harris and Bill Danoff’s “Boulder to Birmingham.” Don’t even talk to me about it: It’s a song that begins with a “don’t talk to me” line, in fact. It opens as a woman boards a flight to the desert. It has been suggested by many that what follows is an elliptical description of the burning of the body of Gram Parsons, the legendary country cross-over artist who would become a posthumous alt-country god, after his O.D. in the Joshua Tree Inn.

And even though she ultimately describes watching the body burn , her voice bears witness to the ashen sorrow from the opening verse: “I don’t want to hear a love song/ I got on this airplane just to fly …. ” She had me from the word “fly.” Like I said, don’t talk to me about it.

And then there’s Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flyin’ Too Close to the Ground,” another one I can’t talk about. (But you can look up my November 1991 Vanity Fair piece on Willie to learn the secret behind “Angel.”) Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”-can’t talk about that one, either, anymore. Somebody on one of the country channels did say something interesting in regard to the difference between rock and country: rock is, for the most part, about Saturday night (of course, I’m not saying there are no classic sad songs in rock-”Memory Motel” anyone?) And if rock is about Saturday night, country is about Sunday morning coming down. Coming down in every respect.

Someday I’ll go into more inductees into my personal Sad Song Hall of Fame, the ones I can still talk about. But, as I said, I just want to call attention to a couple of new contenders:

Take “Songs About Rain,” sung by Gary Allan. The title gives you the picture: The lovelorn guy who’s singing it can’t escape, either on the jukebox or the radio, one great “rain” song after another. He gives us a tear-stained litany of rain songs: “Rainy Night in Georgia,” “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain” (Willie’s masterpiece, written by Fred Rose), “Early Morning Rain” (the folkie weeper by Gordon Lightfoot made popular by Ian and Sylvia), Elvis’ “Kentucky Rain.” I’m sure there are a lot more he could have included (Tom Petty’s “Louisiana Rain” is my top candidate, even ahead of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”).

The other thing I like about this song is that I’ve always been fond of meta-songs, jukebox- and radio-related songs … songs about hearing songs. I even have a weakness for “Please Mr. Please” (Don’t Play B-17) by Olivia Newton-John.

But the real winner and immediate candidate for Sad Song Hall of Fame was a new Rodney Crowell song, off his new album: the one called “Adam’s Song,” the one with the line about the “lifelong broken heart.” It seems to be a song to a lost child or a child bewildered by divorce, but it could be any kind of love song about irredeemable loss. Here’s one chorus:

Taking each new day to give,

What we need to do our part

To keep learning how to live

With a lifelong broken heart.

Wow. That’s what those of us who love country in the city feel we share with those who love country in the country: a lifelong broken heart.

Some Observer readers may be familiar with the other reason for my interest in Rodney Crowell: In addition to being one of the great singer-songwriters in country, in America, for the last two decades (“After All This Time” may be the “Long Long Time” of the 80′s and “Till I Gain Control Again” is an unsurpassed masterpiece), Crowell was also married to another of my singer-songwriter idols, Rosanne Cash. (Faithful readers will remember my tongue-in-cheek column some years ago in which I proposed marriage to her, and her gracious response-which I felt kept the door open-in a letter The Observer published a week later.) There’s a chapter on their scene in Nashville in Peter Doggett’s excellent, overlooked book, Are You Ready for the Country: Elvis, Dylan, Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock.

And so when I ran out to pick up Rodney Crowell’s new album ( Fate’s Right Hand ), I found myself mesmerized by the beautiful sadness of that “lifelong broken heart” song.

Anyway, watch the country video stations, get the Rodney Crowell album. (He’s a contender-with Rosanne-in the Super Bowl of Sadness.) If you’re lucky and you apply yourself, you too can feel as sad as I do.