Sign up for newsletter
 

In the nick of time

Country Musings by Robert Loy, August 2002

I think I may have figured out what's wrong with country music today. It has to do with nicknames.

Wait a minute. Hear me out.

Back in the good old days everybody - and I do mean everybody - had a nickname. Some were simple descriptions of physical appearance: "Little" Jimmy Dickens was short in stature. William Orville "Lefty" Frizzell was indeed a southpaw. Willie "The Red Headed Stranger" Nelson has red hair, and he is kind of strange. And others said something about your roots. Loretta Lynn was a coal miner's daughter. Eddy "The Tennessee Plowboy" Arnold grew up in a sharecropper family in the little town of Henderson, Tenn.

But most were more imaginative. Hank Williams was the "Hillbilly Shakespeare"; Whitey Ford was the "Duke of Paducah," and Lewis Marshall Jones has been called "Grandpa" ever since he was 22 since it was said his voice sounded old and crotchety.

Some of them quite frankly are hard to figure out. I've read a lot about Ray Price, but I've never figured out just what the heck a "Cherokee Cowboy" is. I don't think Faron "The Singing Sheriff" was ever in law enforcement. Jerry Lee "The Killer" Lewis has never actually been convicted of killing anybody, though he has had two wives die under mysterious circumstances - one the day after she threatened to leave him.

Some people have several nicknames. Jimmie Rodgers had at least three - "The Singing Brakeman," "The Blue Yodeler" and "The Father of Country Music." And sometimes when you have more than one the wrong one sticks. I've always preferred Merle Haggard's sobriquet "Poet of the Common Man" though "The Hag" is by far the more common one.

Off the top of my head I can think of only a handful of fairly recent nicknamed singers: Tanya "The Texas Tornado" Tucker, Don "The Gentle Giant" Gibson and Vern Gosdin who will always be "The Voice." But of the ones that are played on the radio today, I feel safe in saying there's nary a nickname. Even Garth Brooks who has more money than God and sells more discs than Wham-O does not have a nickname.

And I think it's because a nickname is something you can't buy. People give it to you, and they give it to you because they like you, because they consider you to be a friend close enough to kid around with.

Remember a while back when Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw got in trouble for allegedly stealing a police horse and assaulting a deputy? If this had happened in the old days, they'd probably be known forever after as Kenny "The Horse-Rustler" Chesney and Tim "The Cop-Knocker" McGraw. But no, they're till just Kenny and Tim - or more likely Mister Chesney and Mister McGraw.

I guess we don't look at country artists like we used to, like they're members of our extended family. Now they're just celebrities who happen to sing. We may look up to them, envy their glamorous lives and even enjoy their music, but we don't think of them as one of us the way I think people did about Sonny "The Southern Gentleman" James or "Whispering" Bill Anderson.