Thursday, December 20, 2018

Obituary of country songwriter Jerry Chesnut notes his "Blue-collar hits"

Here's the obituary in today's New York Times.  Of course, country music is often associated with working-class whites, as are the lyrics of the genre.  But it seems Jerry Chesnut, who died this week at 87, had real blue-collar credibility based on his roots in Kentucky's coal country. 

The obit reads: 
Mr. Chesnut, who grew up in rural eastern Kentucky, came by his working-class sensibilities honestly. 
It quotes Chesnut's 2009 interview: 
I was born and raised in the coal-mining camps and the railroad center where they all came together. 
To say the least, it was a very poor place to be from. When you’re from Harlan County, there’s no way to go but up.
Harlan County, among other distinctions, is one of the poorest places in Kentucky.  The poverty rate is 41.5%. It's iconic coal country and also the setting for parts of the series "Justified"; it's the home county of protagonist Raylan Givens. 

I only recognize a couple of the Chesnut songs listed in the obituary, so it's a little hard to say what made them oriented to the working class, except in a few instances specified in the obit:
Mr. Chesnut had a gift for illuminating the struggles of working people, like the beleaguered factory hand in “Oney,” a song, drawn from his experience with a tyrannical employer, that became a Top 10 country hit for Johnny Cash in 1972. 
“Looking at the World Through a Windshield,” a two-stepping country hit for the singer Del Reeves in 1968, portrays a solitary trucker speeding through the night, longing for home.
At least 30 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame have recorded Chesnut's work, as did Elvis Costello in a 1981 album, Almost Blue, in which he covered a number of "hard-core country" hits.  And this causes me to ponder the attraction of country music--including that oriented to the working class--by pop artists like Costello and his fans.  I suppose there is an element of voyeurism. 

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