Country sounds in the nation's capital

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Among the biggest recent changes in the nation's capital is the surge of country music on the air. Country sounds abound, especially on the radio, and Washington's own Roy Clark makes frequent appearances in his hometown. All sorts of country people visit the White House where the nation's first cowboy resides. As a historian, I find the country music revival fascinating because it coincides so much with the conservative political philosophy of the Reagan administration. But it has its own special branding mark: It does not give vent to such conservative concerns as school prayer, balanced budgets, or abortion, nor does it appear to be flag-waving or hostile toward liberals. In place of the individualism of so many other popular songs, family themes are conspicuous. There are songs, for example, about the home fires that are kept burning by a wife who serves as a loving respite from a world with its dark clouds and rain. There are workingmen ballads that complain of the difficulty of making ends meet, of problems with the IRS, of payments on the installment plan.

Nostalgic songs take issue with the high-rolling world of affluence, such as the one about the battered yellow car -- you know, the one with the window missing from the passenger side but with all those memories of the past. Or there's the one about the one-bedroom apartment (not a ``pad'') in which the man and wife are forced to sleep on the floor. The bottom line in these songs is simplicity and country, with preferences for the world of a hog-caller instead of a bank teller.

Not surprisingly, through all the trials and nostalgia, good things do emerge. There is the bond of love between two people and a respect for the ``little things,'' ranging from outstretched arms or a brand new pair of shoes to the fast-approaching payday. The railroads coming through a small town are still a theme (of course, they're running behind schedule). They appear to provide some steady employment and sounds that stir only momentarily the tranquillity of the down-home environment.

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To be sure, there are cowboys in country songs today -- the ones who glitter with rhinestone costumes are suspect. And the real litmus test of a cowboy is action. You simply have to see him ride, no matter the big Stetson hat and store-bought boots.

All this is good for America, and especially for Washington. It shows the amazingly wide boundaries of a democratic nation, one large enough to encompass the lofty vision of the Camelot days of the 1960s and the nitty-gritty of country-folk today.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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