This is a work of fiction. I would not want to be a successful American singer songwriter right now, in this climate. Please forgive any resemblance to real people or real events, especially artists that I love and admire, as do y’all.
Henry Woods sat in a mood on the tour bus. He refused to go by Hank for obvious reasons, but folks did call him Woody sometimes, especially his friends. He remembers being back in his bedroom, back in the hollers of East Tennessee as a teen, learning to sing “This Land Is Your Land,” discovering all those extra verses about private property and stuff, wanting to write one like that one day, to be just as scandalous.
But his albums always displayed his full name Henry Walker Woods, because just like the vests and the boots and the faded sunsets or the blurry and stone-washed rural apocalypse vibe, next to an abandoned filling station, he always knew that he was selling a version of that rural misfit, a concept of the authentic, the brand and the vibe as much as his songs. He had yet to write one as cutting as his nickname’s namesake, but he did try. He did try to remember when he was punk rock once, but that was back at the end of the last century, back before these gritty concepts met a mellower palette and an acoustic guitar made him a star.
Ever since Americana Sunrise dropped in 2010, everything changed. People were hopeful back then. Okay, at least more hopeful than today. People wanted to hear songs about working class people getting sober and about the struggles to maintain analog humanity in a digital age. If those newly sober, newly hopeful songwriters also tackled human rights and toxic masculinity in subtle yet biting ways, all the better. The best American folk music always had that left-of-center side, and if it originated in the rural south, that was a whole thing that could sell records.
He didn’t want to do another show in Alabama, but here we were in Birmingham. He didn’t want to do another podcast, but the label kept calling, asking him to talk to Billy Jay Hester from Stone Water magazine, again. “We need you to say something,” Susan Sharp shouted over the cell. Woody snapped. “I don’t want to say anything. You know that my songs say enough.”
“But you are still on Twitter,” Susan bit back.
He turned it all around in his head. He thought. He mulled.
Her tone softened for a second. “Take as long as you need. I won’t hang up.”
He continued to talk to himself. I am sick of writing songs about police brutality that don’t offend the cops who come to my shows. I am sick of writing antiwar songs, if they are only ever from the perspective of the veteran with PTSD or the widow with a flag on the casket. I am sick of writing male feminist songs, ever since Stacy left me, he thought. I might have the best snarky activist stickers on my guitar case, but I am lonely and mad, and even after going back to 90 meetings in 90 days, online of course, because we are on the road, and I still want to throw back several shots of Jack.
As the streaming-service sensation who said it was okay to let people listen for free as long as they bought the all-cotton, fair-trade t-shirt for 50 bucks, Woody was sick to his heart of the dance and the duty of being the liberal American voice of Americana music. The benefit concerts were not working. The fiery Twitter game with cutting clapbacks was definitely not really working, except as emotional outlet, and might be making things worse.
Susan leveled with him. “You are already allowing Lavender Jones to open up shows in Oklahoma and Texas. Did you see what the Governors of Oklahoma and Texas are saying about people like Lavender? Did you see what Lavender said about leaving the country? They said they would never cancel this upcoming tour, but they don't want to raise their kid with queer parents in a place that passes laws like these. Can’t you just say something?”
Woody bit back, “I am not freaking Rage Against The Machine. My career arc is more like Bono or the Boss. I am not the boycott guy. Did you see what I tweeted back at that furious fan about Florida? I said it simple. I am not going to cancel shows because one stupid politician wants to cancel us. Just like I was a misfit in East Tennessee and needed Michael Stipe to feel human, the weirdo kids in Oklahoma and Texas and Florida need us.”
“But people are speaking up,” Susan insisted. “Other bands and artists, but their megaphone is not as big as yours.”
“Yes, yes, but some folks have a different way about it. I did see what that one band did, what are they called Hobo Wine? That is a great name, but no, we are not dressing up in dresses to protest the drag law. I am a heterosexual misfit from rural Tennessee whose look isn’t that different from these assholes who always cover my songs, like that bro-country singer from the poorly named band Jackson Whole. These people disgust me but I take the royalties. I already feel like a hypocrite. Anything I say or do now will seem so flipping extra, so performative.”
“Maybe you could retweet Lavender? Or I can call their people, maybe you could help them privately? I am not sure how, but we have to do something. What if the Proud Boys and their ilk come to the shows? Letting Lavender open is great as one kind of solidarity, but the community is hurting, and our entire operation is based in the place where some of the worst laws and worst politicians are. Maybe we are not Oklahoma or Texas or Mississippi or Florida, but in some people’s eyes, Tennessee is worse than them all.”
Woody got out his notebook and poured more seltzer water over ice.
“I know a song is not the answer, Susan, but it is the best we can do. Contact Lavender’s people about us doing a song together. That I can do. They and me can come up with the storyline that works.”
There was silence on the other end of the line. Susan was crying.
“Even when I am mad and up your ass sometimes, you always make me grateful to work for you.”