At home, where the buffalo roam

The Flint Hills speak to certain people.

These are not words I ever would have imagined writing, because the Flint Hills are hilarious. In case you don’t know, there is a swath of earth that stretches from central to northeast Kansas which is known as “The Flint Hills.” There are signs for it.

It is nothing, really, except unadulterated Kansas. In the spring it is green and soft. In the fall it is golden and crunchy. Tall yellow grass waves as you pass. You may see some cattle here and there, a windmill off in the distance, a rusty reminder that some day long ago some family settled up there. The houses are always long gone. But that’s it. You can’t call the Flint Hills “settled,” because there is nobody there, and hasn’t been for ages.  It doesn’t take much imagination to think about Native Americans who once lived out there, where the buffalo roam. The terrain is uninhabited, unfarmed and unvisited. We are all just passing through on the way to someplace else.

The funny thing about the Flint Hills is not the Flint Hill themselves, but that they are seen as an attraction. You are greeted by a limestone sign as you enter them, “Welcome to the Flint Hills.” You have arrived. You have arrived nowhere. Which is supposed to be the point, I think.

Brady grew up in Louisiana and Buffalo and went to college in Ann Arbor. He now works for the newspaper in Kansas City, and drives through the Flint Hills to Oklahoma at least twice a year. He marvels at them. He thinks there are tourism dollars to be made there. Brady, I remind you, is not a business man. He is a newspaper man, which is the opposite.

But Brady is a romantic, and the Flint Hills seduce him. They have that effect. My wife and I were driving back to Kansas from our home in Houston this last weekend. It was still light out when we passed through the Flint Hills, but the sun was tucking itself in. There are days in Kansas when the air is crisp and dry, but the sun is warm in a cloudless sky. It feels like walking in from a snowball fight and finding your mom baking something. The flannel sunlight lays on top of the dry cold, and if you have a sweater on, it is perfect. A lot of places aren’t quite like that. A lot of places sit near bodies of water, and the cold feels different there. It’s a little wet and a little heavy. I’m thinking of Chicago or Minneapolis. Even Houston gets that way when it’s cold, which isn’t often. The wind comes right off the Gulf of Mexico. In Kansas, it has dried out before it gets there. In Kansas, paradise comes in small packages.

It was one of those days we were driving through. We agreed that one day we’d like to move back to Kansas, back to Lawrence, specifically. We had our first date there. We got married there.

Life is good in Houston. There is no state income tax, jobs  a plenty, the winter is mild, real estate is affordable, and the Mexican food will sit you back in your chair. We like it here. We want to settle in. Our kids, should we eventually have some, might think of this as home.

But home whispers to you when you go near it, and we felt that. Yes, we thought, maybe some day we will come back. We’d like that.

That was Saturday afternoon. On Saturday night, I stood in downtown Lawrence, right outside the Red Lyon. The wind was up. The temperature was down. The door guy stood there smoking a cigarette, and I wondered if he was doing it to keep warm. I had on two shirts, but they didn’t stand a chance.

It stayed that way through the night and into Sunday morning, and when we were leaving, set out for an a.m. pass through the Flint Hills, we both agreed it was a good reminder that things are never quite as romantic as you remember them.

Andy Rooney was an influence (as trite as that sounds)

I don’t have a lot to say about Andy Rooney. This isn’t going to sound like one of those hilarious Tim Kurkjian monologues where he exhausts the catalog on somebody’s career and then tries to put them in their proper historical place.

But I did want to say this:

There are not many television personas or even “things in general” that had existed my entire life. That list is like four things long. It’s Andy Rooney, Big League Chew, Sesame Street and Monday Night Football. I cannot remember a time when he was not on TV (mostly because that time predates my lifetime). My family watched 60 Minutes quite a bit, and I was often watching because it came on right after the late football game. Even at 10 and 11 years old, I liked Andy. I liked how he would talk about societal minutia. I liked how he was always complaining about how the world was changing, and he was able to communicate that sentiment to someone to young to have ever experienced that sensation himself.

I had never thought about this before Andy died, but he has to have been part of the reason I ended up wanting to become whatever it is I have become. Andy Rooney, Rick Reilly and Bill Nye the Science Guy were my introduction to social commentary.

It is probably something other than a coincidence that the vast majority of the content of this blog is of no real societal import whatsoever.

Has Lady Gaga made a country song, and if so, what about that?

We can debate whether or not this latest Lady Gaga flashfire is a country song or not. In fact, I had just that debate with the wife on Friday night. She contended that Lady Gaga’s “You and I” was really more of a rock ballad than a country song, and unlike me she is from western Kansas, so she probably knows.

The producer on the track is a guy named Robert “Mutt” Lange, who in addition to being of mixed pedigree has also been a producer for both Def Leppard and Shania Twain. The song samples “We Will Rock You,” by Queen, which is perhaps the least country band of all time.

In any case, the song sounds country to me. Actually, the song sounds so country that I’m pretty sure Lady Gaga is making fun of people from the Midwest. I think the song is partially satirical. How else can you explain the following line:

Muscle cars drove a truck right through my heart.

I want to take a step back here and say that I am not offended by this song. I am not complaining about this song. This is not a 500-word eff you to Lady Gaga, whose work I have come to appreciate on some level. But there are two things about that line that stand out:

1) It is nonsensical. It has no literal or metaphorical meaning.

2) But it triggers two iconic heartland images: Muscle cars and trucks.

This alone doesn’t make it a country song, but that kind of imagery is almost always used when someone is trying to appeal to country people. The following two photos are stills from the video for Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA.” (which we have covered before):

Miley doesn't sing about muscle cars and trucks, she sings on top of them.

Miley doesn't sing about muscle cars and trucks, she sings on top of them.

This is the point where a fan of “real” country music will pipe in and remind me that neither Lady Gaga nor Miley Cyrus nor Billy Ray Cyrus nor Taylor Swift has ever made a real country music song. All of this I’m talking about is just crossover country at best or pop music with a country influence at worst. These are people who like artists like George Strait and Hank Williams (Sr.). They are probably right about this in the same way my friend Rob, a native New Yorker, is right when he says Chicago-style pizza isn’t really pizza, “it’s casserole.”

I would note that one of Williams’ most famous lines is “I got a hot rod Ford and a two-dollar bill,’ but to a purist there are some really important distinctions there. To most of us, though, country music is just music that sounds a little twangy and refers to things like daddies and trucks and the Tastee Freeze and lost love. So to most of us that’s exactly what Lady Gaga has done here. First of all, the setting for this little narrative is Nebraska, and the narrative itself is about this woman who is wearing lipstick and high heels and has come back in town after some time and will not be leaving without her lost lover, who owns a little bar somewhere in Nebraska. He has experienced a lot of lonely nights in this little bar and in a town we presume is not, you know, Omaha. But there is something about this place, and something about “you and I.” That this is a grammatical error does nothing to ruin the country feel.

She then belts this non sequitur:

There’s only three men I’ma serve my whole life, it’s my daddy and Nebraska and Jesus Christ.

I, of course, don’t know what was going through her head when she wrote this song. She says it is actually about one of her own relationships, but that’s only possible in a thematic sense. Lady Gaga was born and raised in New York City. The song, however, was recorded in Nebraska (for some reason). But whether she set out to make a pop country hit or set out to make a satirical pop country hit, she made a hit out of a song that feels pretty country.

And that forces us to ask a question: If Lady Gaga can make a successful country record, does that say more about Lady Gaga or country  music?