Careful What You Wish For

This week we toast The Byrds, whose 12-string guitarist Roger McGuinn and bassist Chris Hillman are passing through Ponte Vedra on tour to mark the 50th anniversary of their Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. Although the seminal California rock collective is probably best known for their debut single—a jangly, chart-topping reading of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” that dropped in 1965 and paved the way for the Summer of Love—their 1968 album saw them in Nashville with new recruit Gram Parsons, laying the foundations of a new genre: country rock.

Read on and, in this very issue, Texas State University cultural historian Jason Mellard will tell you all about it. He’s something of an expert on the genre. His excellent 2017 book Progressive Country explores the intersection of country and rock in Austin during the 1970s. There was a (brief) moment, he argues in the book, when the country music tradition became contested territory. Appropriated by thoughtful dissidents like Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker, country’s ethos of rugged individualism proved compatible with the iconoclastic—sometimes even utopian—values of rock and roll. That moment, however, didn’t last long. Country rock would keep the sneer and swagger, but discard the optimism.

If we zoom out of Texas, we might say that noble experiment ended when country rock stopped looking to California and started looking to Georgia and Alabama. That’s when the open horizon of the country-and-western frontier gave way to the resentful nostalgia of Southern rock. The former was problematic enough, to be sure, but the latter got downright ugly. (See Hank Williams Jr.)

But what does any of this have to do with irony and hipsters? Well. When the primordial hipsters of the Beat Generation turned their backs on middle-class life and experimented with jazz and folk subcultures, they established irony as a viable existential gesture. It meant something. There were, of course, a whole lotta other politics that went into the sausage. But the defiant bucking of lifestyle expectations and the embrace of marginalized forms was at least an attempt to reconcile the 20th-century’s many contradictions.

The Byrds and their countercultural boon companions continued those experiments. McGuinn and co. respected roots music and took its progressive potential seriously. The hipster dream became the hippie dream. And, though that dream famously died at Altamont, generations of young people would carry the torch to the present day.

Eventually, however, it became more about style than substance. Fast-forward to 2018. Today’s hipster is a universally reviled creature, despised—even by fellow hipsters—for chasing lifestyle trends just for the sake of it.

And the lifestyle trend of the moment is “Americana.” From cute, vaguely rootsy acoustic music to huge, lumberjack beards, the hills have definitively colonized our cities. It’s hard not to hear in this an echo of the cosmopolitan hippies’ turn to country in the late ’60s. (Literally. There’s a fair amount of Gram Parsons worship, although the windswept AOR of Stevie Nicks seems to be the model par excellence.)

At best, it’s an empty irony. At worst, it provides fashionable cover for some highly unsavory ideas. Just as hippie country rock devolved into a worst-of-both-worlds hybrid with the likes of Hank Jr., hipster Americana has given us Vice Magazine and Proud Boys honcho Gavin McInnes, a smug (and successful) hate-peddler decked out in a sharp suit and ridiculous waxed beard.