I hear America twanging

For some travelers, ''seeing America'' is an essentially urban experience. It consists of a series of airport-to-airport hops. It is embellished by short excursions to the nation's natural and unnatural attractions. But it is effectively insulated from a deep sense of place by hotel-chain rooms full of network television and polite FM-radio music.

The more patient take to the Interstate highways, zipping across farms and through forests at pleasantly unbroken speeds. They see more of America, to be sure. But unless they are careful, they also imbibe the unspoken premise of the superhighway: that the nation is really a collection of cities (defined as points at which the highways cross) separated by tiresome stretches of countryside that somehow got in the way.

I've recently had occasion to spend a lot of time off the Interstates. I've been driving for hours on country roads past northern Maine potato fields and Kentucky bluegrass and California orange groves. I've gone out not only to see America but to hear it -- to listen to its accents, its philosophies, its machinery, even its birds.

I've had the car radio on a lot of the time -- hunting down the provincial radio stations, learning the local news, hearing the local ads. I've also listened to the music. And I've found that most of the nation (measured in square miles, at least) is not into disco, or hard rock, or easy listening, or even the so-called ''top ten.'' Most of America is awash with country-and-western music.

Like many a social phenomenon, country-and-western music is both instantly recognizable and wholly resistant to definition. Soak up enough of it, however, and certain traits begin to leech to the surface. The music is full of guitars, simple chord progressions, steady rhythms, and unsurprising melodies. Long on vocal harmony and refrains, it is short of subtlety and syncopation. It has, in fact, a debilitating sameness: If it had to stand on musical merit alone, most of it would rise little higher than nursery song.

But the music itself is merely a kind of wrapper for the words. And it is in the lyrics that the true character of the genre shines. Here all the artifice of contemporary poetry is put aside: Here are no odd metaphors, no convoluted structures, no verbal pyrotechnics. This is straight, down-home, rhyming verse. It usually tells a story (or at least suggests enough narrative to draw you into its drama) about one of several stock subjects:

* The hero (whose name may well be preceded by the word ''Big''), who saves his buddies when the mine shaft collapses or who busts bullies in the local bar.

* The heroine (Miss Emily, Miss Jane, and so forth), whose purity puts her forever beyond the reach of her muddy-booted suitor, though she herself may have a secret past.

* The dog (or horse, or trailer truck) who gives all for his master.

* And, of course, love -- which, in the Tennessee-based dialect that most country singers affect, is called ''Luuhv!''

It is this sense of love, in fact, that most characterizes the narratives. Sometimes they focus on the singers' love for grandma and grandpa, or their little daughters, or their farms. But most of the time the attention is on a relationship between man and woman. That's not unusual: That's what most popular-song lyrics are about. But the dominant theme in country music seems not to be a love lost, destroyed, perverted, or cheapened: It is frequently a deep sense of affection.

At times, of course, that affection is all drizzled over with sadness, of either the your-cheating-on-me or the I-love-you-but-I've-got-to-hit-the-road sort. But surprisingly often (considering the present moral tenor of the airwaves) the love is between husband and wife. Frequently, too, it is full of appreciation and respect. ''Ah may do awl kaands of things in public,'' says the singer, ''an' ah may be a fooh-wul, but yore my woe-man and ah luuhvm yew!'' The dialect makes city sophisticates squirm. But the values are pretty solid. Strong on forgiveness, full of family values, and shot through with a kind of jukebox religion, this is Middle America speaking.

So what is Middle America trying to say?

Maybe America the Beautiful is really America the cornball, drifting idly on a sea of sentiment and chiming with old and hackneyed tunes. Maybe much of the country (as the mayor of a city in Kansas was reported to have said not so long ago) is ''thirty years behind the times and proud of it.''

On the other hand, though, this may be a sign of a rooted stability which all the windy howls of fashionable novelty have not been able to blow over. Maybe, in fact, this is the bedrock of a nation, the common denominator of a citizenry that still admires traditional mores and standards.

Whichever it is, the issue is very much in the air these days. For by all accounts -- my own included, as I've stuck a finger to the political winds in various parts of the country -- America is a place of conservative leanings. Maybe it's always been that way. Maybe the news- and opinion-makers, who tend to locate in this thin and peculiar Eastern strip of the country that runs from Boston to Washington, have simply not paid attention to something that has always been there. Or maybe the nation really is, as the headline-writers would have it, swinging to the right.

I don't know. I lean toward the former interpretation, partly because country-and-western music -- which may be a pretty good benchmark of conservative political feelings -- has such a long and continuous history. But I think there is another and even more interesting topic here: the whole question of a people's relation to that which is new. Is the popularity of country-and-western music a sign that America, for all its artistry and innovation, is essentially uninterested in newness and content to repeat old formulas? Or is it a sign that there are things in our past -- like affection and motherhood and so forth -- that are finally more important than that which is merely new?

I can't answer that, either. But it's the same question that arises in public debates about the direction of the nation under its latest president. Are we galloping headlong into the past, longing for the days when steamers and cablegrams, instead of jets and satellites, made international isolationism much easier? Are we trying to relive the economic conditions of a lost era when prosperity seemed as natural as new leaves in spring?

Or are we rinsing away the sillinesses of spendthrift years, rediscovering the virtues of living within our means, redefining our purity, and reclaiming our innocence?

In other words, are we (to put it metaphorically, as a songwriter might) falling into step behind the Ayatollah, or behind the Prodigal Son?

The problem with country music, of course, is that it can't really address itself to these issues. It simply spins out its tunes, fills in the stories, and makes no further comment.

Or so we think. But perhaps the comment operates not on the level of rational discourse, but underneath, down in the level of feelings and symbolism and (however much one hesitates to use the word here) poetry. Maybe we are responding to modernity very much as, in a trucking song from a few years back, the singer responded to temptation: by heading for home and family.''Ah back it on uhp,'' he said, ''turn it aroun', an taike it on home.'' There are a lot of Americans out there in radioland, I think, who like that idea.

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