Country music of the spheres

Astronauts John W. Young and Robert L. Crippen were awakened their first morning in space by a country western tune entitled "The Flight of the Shuttle Columbia." They found their reveille charming and appropriate, according to all reports -- certainly an improvement on the bugle or the alarm clock.

To each his own. Coming to consciousness in confined quarters to the twang of bluegrass voices and guitars is the stuff that Jack Thomas's nightmares are made of. Mr. Thomas, a witty and otherwise fearless man who is the television critic of the Boston Globe, turned his wincing attention to country western music on the occasion of a network special.He wrote at considerable length about his failure to be pleased, leaving little doubt that he believed country western to consist of definitively inane lyrics set to certifiably mediocre harmonies.

An angry picket line formed outside the Globe, carrying signs that indicated Mr. Thomas was not exactly a Good Buddy. Mr. Thomas declined all invitations to discuss the matter personally -- wisely so, judging from the militant faces and weightlifter's shoulders recorded by Globe photographers. On the other hand, he did not back off. He more or less repeated his j'accuse,m declaring -- perhaps with precognition of the Columbia shuttle -- that the only truly scary telephone threats were those promising to shut him up in a small room filled to the acoustical tiles with Nashville sound.

Then, with cotton in the ears and tongue in the cheek, Mr. Thomas observed that protesters in the '60s had marched for civil rights, in the '70s, against Vietnam; and now, in the '80s, the cause was country music.

Whether Mr. Thomas was being half-serious or not, he has a point. Causes seem to be getting more and more parochial and -- yes -- trivial. Banners, bumper stickers, and especially buttons grow bigger in size but smaller in message.

With the placards on the street outside of Mr. Thomas's office the world officially entered the age of "If you like country music, honk!"

The philosopher George Santayana worried about the philosopher Bertrand Russell because the latter could say of his most casual as well as his most fundamental convictions: "I would go to the stake for that!"

Santayana, who abhorred this kind of petty fanaticism, would worry about us.

We go to the stake for country music.

We go to the stake for the rights of roller skaters.

We go to the stake for the fiber diet.

We live or die by questions of "life style," and nobody is joking.

Like Jonathan Swift's caricatures of the Big Endians and the Little Endians, we are prepared to make war over which end of a boiled egg one cracks.

First-class passions deserve first-class issues. The first-class passion we put into second-class issues is getting to be embarrassing.

Should words like "crusade" really be applied to a bottle-deposit law or a dog-leash campaign -- or country music?

There is something forced about all this anger struggling to pronounce its name.

If Jack Thomas did not exist, would country music lovers have to invent him?

It is a sorry business when righteous indignation turns into a dilettante.

A final example:

In the hungry and abused world of Oxfam and Amnesty International, students in a certain high school adopt the rhetoric of the neglected and the oppressed in letters to their paper. What is the desperate cause?A smoking lounge and a parking lot, just a little more convenient for the students' cars.

All the splendidly fierce hearts, deserving a better assignment! On a cloudy day in Appalachia, you could write a nice soulful country ballad abou t that.

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