Play the low-down campus cowboy blues for me

Country music is ethnography with a banjo, and Tara Brabazon discovers that it is as relevant to university life and Friday-night Eastbourne as it is to Appalachia

August 7, 2008

I live just off the main street of Eastbourne. At one end of the road are lawyers. At the other end are bookies and a pub. In the church of life, this seems a good balance. But it is instructive to compare the crisp civility of university meetings against the shrill but slurred vowel movements outside my window after the pub closes on Friday night.

I am fascinated by the use of the word “colleague” in British academic discourse. When we cannot think of a word to describe the unpunctual, beer-breathing, student-allergic, pitbull scholar down the corridor who has neither read a book nor written an article since Mao finished the Long March, he becomes “a colleague”.

On the other extreme of civility, the bloke who – in one night – drinks the lager rations set aside for Kent in the month of September expresses his rage at a girlfriend for supposedly looking at a barman while he was pouring a mineral water. She is no colleague or even a partner. She becomes a “ly-hi-ing b-ha-ich. I’m fi-hin-isshed with ya. Yar sha-ham-ed me for the last t-hi-me.” The only problem is that – and the cycle repeats every Friday night – when the drunken drooler tries to dump his missus, he suddenly remembers that she owns both the car and keys and – unless he apologises – the b-ha-ich is very happy to finish with him in the middle of an Eastbourne street with a Greek chorus of nanas watching from their windows. He then starts sobbing – well slobbering – an apology, generally involving “I r-hee-leee l-ho-ve ya. R-hee-leee. D-hon’t l-hea-ve m-he.” He is repulsive but certainly saying what he means, or at least deploying the full spectrum of available post-keg consonants.

Such are the extremes of life, moving between work and leisure, civilised “colleagues” and lager boys. But learning to orient ourselves in the new academic discourse is challenging. Between progression targets and international representatives, recruitment drives and marketing strategies, there is not much discussion of curriculum these days. Validation events, exam boards and staff development reviews disconnect the language of education from the lived experience of teaching and learning.

Working in the UK has many benefits. One of these advantages is that I finally have a context in which to understand country music. I always thought the genre was excessive, ridiculous and bizarre in its handling of love, sex, revenge, sequins and trucking. Then I heard the Muppet Show outside my window on Friday nights and realised country music is a sonic documentary.

I grew up with country music. My mother, Doris, played the pedal steel. My grandmother Kath worked the mouth organ and accordion. Neither of them called their genre of passion country music. It was cowboy music. But growing up, I thought all women looked like Dolly Parton and all men resembled Kenny Rogers. These days, even Kenny Rogers doesn’t resemble Kenny Rogers. After 39 years of listening to this music, my family has worn me down. If we live long enough, even cowboy music starts to make sense.

Country music is ethnography with a banjo. Men are lyin’, cheatin’ dawgs. Women are always one man away from happiness. Kenny Rogers’s The Gambler is like a secular hymn to explain the mysteries of the universe beyond Stephen Hawking’s grasp. I hear the lyrics spilling from my mouth during academic misconduct meetings when a student is desperately trying to prove that they did not – absolutely, definitely, no way – rip off half of a paper from Wikipedia, even though we have highlighted the offending passages and they match the submitted “research essay” word for word. Looking sternly at the poor bunny in the headlights, I confirm that “this is the Kenny Rogers moment of your life, young man. You gotta know when to hold em. Know when to fold em. Know when to walk away. Know when to run.”

But instead of only hearing a British version of Kenny culture in Friday-night Eastbourne, country music may solve our current crisis in university discourse, reinjecting energy, passion, life, directness and big hair into departmental synergies, strategic partnerships and community outreach. As we are about to move into holiday mode, it is time for singing, dancing and rambling through the frontiers of compliant strangeness in our workplace.

Did I shave my legs for this? - Deana Carter

This song is best deployed during awaydays that create space for committed sighing, whining and complaining about the photocopier, students, stationery, students’ mobile phone ringtones and the state of capitalism, all interspersed with weak coffee, small muffins, limp sandwiches and role playing to facilitate conflict resolution. It is particularly appropriate for those remarkably dysfunctional awaydays where academics have to be pacified in the car park by anger management consultants who – while ducking punches - are brought in to resolve “issues” with “colleagues”.

All my exes live in Texas - George Strait

Ever been to one of those conferences where just about every participant claims to have slept with another delegate? There are two professors I know who at the mention of any female academic over the age of 50 will go into great detail about their prior shared sexual history. They will remember the year, city and conference title in which the dalliance took place. One of them unfortunately ventures into some detail about the sexual ability of the – now quite senior – women involved. After he described a distinguished feminist academic as a “passionless woman with large pores on her nose,” I started to avoid the guy at every possible opportunity.

Well-behaved women rarely make history – Kacey Jones

Kacey Jones does for country music what Adolf Hitler did for well-cut uniforms with shiny buttons. This great song explains in some detail why women who wear underwear are overdressed. It is the appropriate soundtrack for research ethics committees. After reading the agenda for these meetings, I wonder if – abiding by such guidelines – Richard Hoggart would have ever written The Uses of Literacy or Paul Willis researched Learning to Labour. Certainly most participant-observation scholarship on dancing, drugs, crime or social exclusion – and basically the entire Chicago School – would never pass through these processes. As Kacey tells us, “We can give up sex and booze, we can mind our p’s and q’s, but well-behaved women rarely make history.” The best research always makes a bit of trouble. So does country music.

You’re gonna change (or I’m gonna leave) - Hank Williams

There are certain parts of university buildings I creep through in fear. But it is not a dread of terrorism or even a feral fire alarm that agitates and palpitates. It is the dread of office managers. They make matron seem like a Teletubby on valium. Stationery requests become a life-changing trauma and the complexity of posting a package is operatic in the scale of difficulty. There is no space for discussion, debate or questioning. Office managers run universities. She who manages the staple gun rules the world.

I don’t know whether to kill myself or go bowling - Thom Sharp

Every year it happens. A pile of essays is given to us by efficient office staff. They make us sign that we have received them. They are – obviously – due back in five days because the exam board has been brought forward a week so that administrators have more time to administer, rather than markers mark. Looking at 100 hours of work in a pile on the way home creates hallucinations and gothic weeping among the strongest of us. It is then that Thom Sharp’s “I don’t know whether to kill myself or go bowling” calms and soothes. It puts marking back into perspective.

How can I miss you if you won’t go away? – Dan Hicks

There are certainly people – unfortunately they are invariably women – who when they terminate or suspend employment from a university need to inform an entire county of their movements. When they resign, retire or take maternity leave, it is important that everyone is informed of their empowered decision to create a work and life balance. Such an announcement is not made once. Instead, there must be a pre-announcement announcement, then a gathering of money for a present, then gathering more money for a present because not enough people have responded to the first announcement, the booking of a lunch, a reminder about the lunch, a reminder on the morning of the lunch, a notice saying that there is food left from the lunch in the staffroom, and then an email from the pregnant and/or retiring woman thanking staff for the lunch and gift. I would miss them more if there were fewer emails reminding me they are leaving, particularly since I have absolutely no idea who they are. It is like Dame Nellie Melba, but without the voice.

Here’s a quarter (call someone who cares) - Travis Tritt

I wish people well in their marriages and civil partnerships. But is it necessary to send the entire university community an email with the details on the Monday morning after – I am sure – a charming and moving Saturday service? The excuse for the email is to inform staff and students – most whom could not distinguish the emailer from an inmate of the Big Brother house – that they are now married/in a civil partnership and wish to be addressed by another name, often involving a hyphen. In some contexts, the desire to use another name would be a signal to lift medication and call in specialist medical attention.

Drop kick me, Jesus (through the goal posts of life) - Bobby Bare

When the Prozac, wine, cheesecake, yoga and even the repeated listening to Rick Wakeman’s Six Wives of Henry the Eighth has not decoded the mysteries of the recent QAA epistle, there is one song that can provide salvation. While country music features songs of deep spirituality and also high humour (think Johnny Cash’s “Why me Lord?” against “A boy named Sue”) it takes a great songwriter to combine spirituality, sport and comedy in the same song. It was immortalized on record by Bobby Bare, but songwriting credit for one of the finest hymns to the bad day goes to Paul Craft, who proudly told the world that “I’ve got the will Lord, if you’ve got the toe.”

Maintaining that meditative mantra, when bizarre university processes test us beyond the brittle civilities of colleagues negotiating differences in a spirit of open and generous dialogue, there may be a resonance of fury, pain, confusion and resolution in country music. Just occasionally, we gain a spark of insight or a coolant for rage when we hear a lick of banjo, a slide of guitar and the capacity to ponder life’s complexities through “Bubba shot the jukebox” or “Every man I love is either married, gay or dead.” Hank and Johnny, Kenny and Dolly remind us that laughing at the powerful is the greatest gift to gurgle from our vocal chords.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.

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