A pack of Marlboros and a pile of quarters

If there’s any irony in my life, it’s that while I’m not what anyone could consider a serious drinker (or even a frivolous one), I love bars. Of course there are bars … and there are bars.

I like small, quiet, simple ones — what in my callow youth I called “old man bars” (“old men” then being anyone over 35).

To me, alcohol was a prop — I was a genius sipper who could get better mileage out of my beer than a car. I was there for the company, if there was any. If not, I could sip, take in the scene, and — especially in the Glory Days — play the jukebox. At three plays for two bits, for a couple of frogskins I could hear a bunch of my rave-fave songs, as well as everyone else’s. It added up to a very cheap and entertaining night on the town.

Of course the tunes on the jukebox depended on the clientele’s tastes. So what bar I went to depended on what music I wanted to listen to. One of my favorite genres was C and W, so I haunted country bars, sometimes way out in the boonies. And in almost every one of those bars was “That Guy.”

He was middle-aged and sat, hunched over and morose, at the end of the bar, staring into his bottle of Bud as if it was showing a movie of the step-by-step ruination of his life. Now and again he’d shake his head mutter something like, “I can’t believe she done that to me.” Or, “Friggin’ boss. I was only late a couple, maybe three or six times.” Or, “How’s I s’posed to know the cops’d have a checkpoint there?” You get the idea, I’m sure.

Probably none of his misery was caused by his ex, the boss or the cops. In fact, almost all of it could’ve been avoided if he’d made smarter life choices. But he won’t give that a nanosecond’s thought, for fear his one-man pity party would come to a crashing end.

So the pity party grinds on, and it does so with musical accompaniment. If you sat on the stool beside him (which if you had a lick of sense, you’d never do), next to his pack of Marlboros, you’d see a pile of change. Or more exactly, you’d see a pile of quarters. Yep, indeed. While God may or may not have made honky tonk angels, for sure He made country music as a broken heart’s best friend.

Let me clarify: When I refer to country music, I’m talking old school, classic country. I know nothing about contemporary country music, not due to any ax grinding on my behalf, but because I’m hopelessly old school myself. Plus I’ve got enough CDs of their stuff to keep me occupied till either the cows or the Grim Reaper comes home.

And here’s the thing about that music: It was the only genre that “celebrated” true heartache in all its myriad forms. The old lady split? The factory closed? The truck repossessed? Hound died? Liver gone sideways? Don’t matter what it was, or why, podner, C&W got it covered.

No competition rock music offered no help to the melancholic. It was geared to the Clearasil set — happy hokum for a generation that was young, dumb and lookin’ for some. Mostly crushes, cars and kookiness. Yeah, there were songs about break-ups, even death, but they were a lot more on the ridiculous side than the serious one.

Take “Last Kiss.” A couple’s car gets stuck on the tracks — no doubt having been parked there for some serious window-steaming, but that’s not mentioned, natch. So, predictably, the train suddenly does some steaming of its own, flying down the racks, right at them! They get out of the car, run to safety. Then, suddenly, she realizes she left his ring in the car (a symbol of love undying back in them days, lest you not know) and bolts back to retrieve it, with the inevitable and predictable result. Heartbreaking? No. A cautionary tale for only the hopelessly stupid? Yes.

(Ironically, an excellent dirge for high school heartbreak, maybe the best, is the C&W classic “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation.”) Rhythm and blues also avoided heart-wrenching of any sort. Instead, it was sweet sweet love, Baby, Baby, Baby. This was especially true once the girl groups dominated the scene (their hegemony at last busted in ’64 by the Lads from Liverpool). The only R and B artist I know who scored in country music was that giant, Ray Charles. A few of his classics that hit both charts were “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Georgia on my Mind,” “Crying Time,” and of course, “You Don’t Know Me.”

Then there was blues music. Blues was inherently sad, even depressing.But there was one one huge difference between it and country. The blues’ peeps expected the misery. Everything went wrong in their lives, from jails to jiltings, but it was just bizness as yoo-jul. The country peeps, on the other, hand, were all looking forward and upward, and had their days in the sun. They loved, they laughed, they married, bought houses, had families and even sobriety — at least for a while. Then it was a carpet-bombing of psyche and soul, as all the dreams crashed and burned, culminating with that poor slob at the end of the bar, mumbling to himself and playing tune after tune after tune.

The names and the games

So who were the musicians of misty misery who reduced hard men to weepy wimphood and seemingly-happy housewives to industrial-strength sobbing sessions? They are divided into two broad categories.

At the top rank, and in a class of their own, is The Trinity of Tearshedding — Hank, Patsy and Willie.

After that, in no special order, is a mob of Masters of Melancholy — and one that’s hardly complete. Among those luminaries are Loretta, Kitty and Dolly, George, Faron, Waylon, Merle, Conway, Charley and Charlie, Marty, Eddy, and Tammy.

Now you might ask, why didn’t I list only these artists’ first names?

Good question.

I see it as a game of sorts. For all the C&W fans about my age, I thought it’d be fun to see how many last names you already know.

As for peeps who don’t know old time C&W and its luminaries? I thought they might like to see if they can find out the stars’ names. Yeah, I know it’s a bit of work, but I guarantee if you find those folks and listen to their music, you will not be disappointed.

But just to get you started, here’s a sampler: “Crazy,” “The Good Times,” “If We Make It Through December,” “God Didn’t Make Honky Tonk Angels,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Where Do I Put Her Memory,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

Oh yeah, before you begin, be sure to grab a clean bandana.


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