He's Gone Country

The Nightfly: Why do you drink? Why do you roll smoke?

Over the last month Sam Houston Race Park has been searching for Houston's best country singer. While it was puzzling to me that a horse track would be in the business of scouting out Space City's most golden-tinged twang, I decided to do the contest a friggin' service and enter. Country needs me, I thought to myself. Or at least this contest probably did. After all, how many times would the judges want to watch young, sexy girls in tight Rocky Mountain jeans belt out Reba McEntire's "Fancy"? Don't answer that.

At first I thought my entry would be something of a joke. I figured that, if nothing else, I could entertain a few of the hardened gamblers with a funny outfit and my floppy Charlie Daniels-esque titties. And then I started to think: Maybe taking the piss would be the wrong way to go about this. Screw the parody. I decided I wanted to win this damn thing, the whole kit and caboodle. The grand prize was $2,500, and if I showed up as a mere jester in boots I would be sniffed out faster than a truffle in a pigpen. $2,500! Do you know how many trips to Golden Corral that could fund?

First things first: a song that wouldn't shine a floodlight on the fact that I've never really spent any time inside the dusty roads of country's backwoods loop.

For help on this I consulted our own music editor, John Nova Lomax. On the erroneous assumption that I was still in subversive mode, he suggested I sing Kenny Chesney's "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem," the thought being that infiltrating the company as a like-minded puppet was the easiest way to bring it to its egg-sucking knees. I was not familiar with the song, but was game. That is, until I heard it. Soon after that assault on my drums and lobes, I starting rifling through the attic of country's golden age. It came down to two options: the George Jones sleeper "Wine (You've Used Me Long Enough)" for the genius title, and the Hank Jr. track "If Heaven Ain't a Lot Like Dixie" for its stellar lyrics: "If it [heaven] ain't got a Grand Ole Opry, like they do in Tennessee / Then you can send me to hell or New York City 'cause it'd be about the same to me."

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In the end, the choice was made for me when I couldn't find a karaoke version of "Wine" on Soul Seek. Hank Jr. it would be. Meanwhile, the search for a country diamond got me waxing philosophical. What happened to country music, anyway? This shit used to be cool, didn't it? Where are the randy derelicts? Where are the hard-nosed rough-and-tumble rabble-rousers with a taste for whiskey on their tongues and smoke in their lungs? Country used to be sung by big men with barrel chests, their callused hands stirring poverty, alcoholism and machismo into the soup of their souls.

Now those old guys were rock stars. George Jones could have outsnorted the entire Crüe at their dirtiest. Tales of teeth-spitting scraps involving Merle Haggard make 50 Cent look like a sissy, and any one of the three Hanks could probably drink a height-of-addiction Hetfield under his diamond-encrusted barstool. Country's earliest stars weren't only country; they were hot, molten, sticky rock -- rock so potent, in fact, it could kick KISS in their codpiece-protected ballsacks any day of the week.

Today, you can find Tim McGraw doing a PSA about how important it is to read to your kids. It's a different era. Check that. It's a horrible era. Current country crooners have more in common with Clay Aiken than with Johnny Cash. Nashville's music labels, much like their brethren on the coasts, are run by accountants -- terrible talent scouts with business degrees for ears and eyes that focus only on the bottom line. So now you get your mullet-sporting McGraws run through the Nashville makeover gauntlet and hung out to dry in form-fitting, acid-washed designer jeans. Anything unique or rough-edged about them is plucked like feathers from a slaughtered turkey. Your Chesneys are handed committee-penned, market-tested songs about the heartland, put on Atkins, assigned a personal trainer and handed clothes so faaaabulous the metrosexual downtown-dance-club set wouldn't wear them for fear they'd look too gay.

There are exceptions, of course. Hard-drinkin' onetime barmaid Gretchen Wilson is a throwback to that sorely missed time. George Strait has managed a steady and long career while staying remarkably true to himself, as has Billy Joe Shaver. But acts not scoured by crossover Brillo are harder to find than an Osbourne without a drug problem.

That was why I wanted to come to the rescue. I wasn't going to hedge bets or mix intentions. If the $2,500 check was to be made out in my name, it would be because I'd bowled the judges over with something real.

For my game-day outfit I decked myself out in Cash-black pants and shirt. I was lent a straw hat with a Texas flag in flames painted around its wide lid and 100-gallon crown. (Allegedly this hat once rested on the braided locks of the Red Headed Stranger.) And then, the pice de rsistance: my own pair of aviators that ol' Bocephus himself would envy.

And I took a look in the mirror and knew I didn't have a shot, simply because I. Looked. Too. Damn. Fine.

And another thing: I can't really sing this stuff. I tried working on mimicking Jr.'s distinctive enunciation and cadence -- he doesn't say Dixie, for example, but DICK-say -- and after a bit of practice I was able to set up base camp on Respectable Mountain just this side of the Abyss of Complete and Total Humiliation.

And then my time came and I belted it out. I'd performed in front of crowds before -- but never this sober...in a room so well lit...with midgets on horses in the background. It was a tad daunting. And the room spotted me as a fraud. Immediately. The place was full of 19-year-old girls who've had karaoke machines of their own since they were four, and as soon as I hit my first note, I could see them turning to each other and giggling. "It's the hat," I thought to myself as I struggled to remember the lyrics. I looked like a broke-ass Bocephus up there. Kid Pebble, if you will. And so I started playing it for yuks. I busted out some cheesy dance moves, rested my hat on the mane of a purty li'l filly in the front row. I had come full circle -- there would be no $2,500 check in my near future.

You've no doubt heard that if a human touches a baby bird its mother will reject it upon its return to the nest. Me singing in a country competition -- yeah, it was kind of like that. I didn't bother waking up for the 7:20 Monday-morning announcement of the winners on 93Q Country, because I know my quixotic effort to save country fell way short. Country music! I wanted to revive your once magnificent, daring body with mouth-to-mouth! Next time, I'll do you the courtesy of brushing my teeth first.

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