A guy can't really ever become a dude until he's suffered from his first broken heart. There's nothing quite as humbling as getting your guts surgically removed by an indifferent female and left like road kill by the side of some country road.
Yet, when life decides to perform open heart surgery, there is no better anesthetic than an "I'm so Lonesome I Could Cry" Hank Williams song. We seem to find solace in country music -- the ballads and their lyrical, maudlin bellyaching. It's just nice knowing that some poor idiot has passed through this place before us. The music helps us get outside ourselves and discover our capacity to cope and eventually rejoin the long gray line of "dudes."
I still recall the dull ache of a certain July 4th weekend when my budding college romance was gutted by 2,000 miles of summer.
My dream job had landed me in Missoula, Mont., as a day hand working at a dude ranch while my love interest had parachuted into a Wall Street investment bank internship. As I lived out the first few weeks of my Norman McLean fly fishing fantasy, she was slowly being seduced by the Big Apple and her 35-year-old boss.
It was clear after a succession of emotionless and increasingly distant phone calls that she had lost interest -- finding someone older, wiser and with an expense account.
I remained sullen for days, wallowing in self-pity. I was even more annoyed that my martyred behavior was going completely unnoticed by my bunkhouse mates -- a silent sinew of cowboys who rarely spoke or paid much mind to me unless I asked them a direct question.
Always keeping their own counsel and not wanting to meddle in anyone's affairs, these emotional tree stumps saw nothing abnormal in the fact that I had been dumped -- or as they liked to call it, "bucked off a filly."
The cowboys finally tired of my melancholy and set about "fixing me" -- admitting me to their midnight fraternity which convened each evening over beer and music to share emotional war stories and malign the opposite sex.
We were an odd remuda of misfits that had at one time or another been a passenger on love's ship of fools. I had been stung hard and my friends were concerned about the possibility of a rebound relationship.
While I had managed to offend most of the cabin girls at the ranch with my college boy arrogance, the town of Missoula still abounded with willing small-town girls and the occasional divorcee with two young kids that worked as the check-out girl at the local Super Save.
I was told to abstain from "wimun" for 30 days and report each night for therapy. The diagnosis, prognosis and treatment always concluded with the prescription: "Take a few beers and call me in the morning." Physical therapy required me to join five rail thin dudes in filthy jeans and cowboy boots as we crammed into the cab of a rusted Ford pickup.
We would drive along the ancient Blackfoot river at dusk -- 7 dusty miles to a dimly lit roadside bar where we would listen to music, drink and shoot pool.
The jukebox played only country and western music. In Montana, The Doors were things you walked through. The Boss was someone you worked for and the Grateful Dead were war heroes. Music and life lessons were taught each night by professors Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, John Anderson, Ronnie Millsap and Tanya Tucker.
The lyrics seemed written just for me, and each night a different surgeon would seek to suture my eviscerated self-esteem.
Each ballad sought to assure its listener that life was not over but, in fact, on the cusp of being lived more deeply. I was neither the first nor the last person to ever allow a female get the best of him.
The wranglers with whom I shared the bunkhouse fell in and out of love at the drop of a 10-gallon hat. A guest/ranch hand affair had a shorter life expectancy than a lightening bug in a room full of flypaper. Each week was a soap opera with an all too predictable script. Introduce one new single female guest. Stir in the ingredients of 10 wranglers. Watch as a doomed relationship heats up between successful wrangler A and a clearly out-of-his-league female guest B. Their romance percolates like cowboy coffee over a morning campfire and heats up at BBQs by the river and under the spell of crimson sunsets.
There was something in that fresh Montana air. Perhaps it was the glimpse of a less complicated life or the sudden absence of confusing urban materialism that stirred some latent homesteading gene in these city girls -- driving them into the arms of these weathered, sinewy, reliable, monosyllabic cowboys who worked like ants -- lifting 10 times their weight, stringing a mile of barbed wire, and still having the stamina to dance all night to the Cotton-Eyed Joe. Tragically, the perfume of moonlit nights and high alpine sage faded into the musky reality of earthy communication, limited professional prospects and a parochial inability to know the exact location of Atlanta, Ga. The red hot romantic fire would quickly smolder. All the while, a distant transistor radio would sit illuminated in the bunk house window playing classic country music that hung like smoke of a distant forest fire.
In the summer of 1981, country music became forever burned into my musical liturgy. I instantly identified with the tortured baritone of Keith Whitley, a gifted rising country star who chose fame over family and drank himself to death. His penchant for self destruction battles with his self awareness and self effacing humor in each song.
In "It Ain't Nothin," Whitley is "lower than well digger's shoes, knee-deep in a mess of blues." In his haunting signature song, "I'm No Stranger To The Rain," Keith seemed to understand that he could never escape his own demons. "I'm no stranger to the rain. I'm a friend of thunder. Lord, is it any wonder lightning strikes me? I've fought with the devil, got down on his level, but I never gave in so he gave up on me ..."
I never forgot those feelings or the promise that I would recover to love again. There was integrity in the music and century-old, oak understanding in the lyrics. Above all, this music was all American. The songs were anthems to our way of life and dedicated to everyday men and women enduring hard knocks and taking risks. Whether the singer got his or her black eye from a lost job, broken marriage or lost opportunity, every song seemed to revolve around having the courage to carry on. The songs also remind you to celebrate the little treasures of life -- butterfly kisses at night with a young daughter or remembering to live your life like you were dying.
Country is not about serving yourself first, it's about putting service ahead of yourself -- to your country, family and those less fortunate. They are ballads of the broken and the brave. They preach personal responsibility and perseverance.
Country captures what it is like for those who live within the noble lines of life. It's music that fills a void in many of us. It teaches the value of family, and the simple pleasures that arise out of hard work and sacrificing for something that is worth the wait.
It serenades those who live, love and labor -- and celebrates our authenticity and nationalism while lamenting our broken dreams, imperfection and disappointment. It's all part of our personal life lessons as a people and as a country.
In the end, Americans are as durable as denim. When we get bogged down by our own divisiveness and self pity, we occasionally need to be kicked in the ass -- perhaps in a song. The lyrics are sharp and to the point -- tomorrow's another day and nothing happens until someone starts doing something. And don't forget to give it everything you got. After all, that's what it means to be "country strong."