A Supernatural Country Song: Cowboys & Constant Sorrow
And that is sort of my problem. For some strange reason, not only do I watch a season of "Supernatural," my brain feels compelled to rewrite it into a series of notes, and turn it into a piece of music.
Take Season 6, for instance. To my ears, it played like a symphony. (You can check out my reasoning in A Supernatural Symphony, in the WFB archives.) I’m not suggesting it was an Opus worthy of Mozart. There were more than a few discordant notes. But there were several themes, and then variations on those themes. And it certainly built to a crescendo.
But Season 7 is definitely not a song to be performed by French horn and timpani. Instead, it is a tune to be played on fiddles, guitars and banjos. Season 7 is an old-fashioned bona fide country song, full of hurtin’ and pain.
From its earliest days, country music has centred on the trials and tribulations, tragedies of triumphs of ordinary folk. In fact, country music has its roots in folk music. Not the folk music popularized in the 1960’s but folk music in the truest sense. Music that came from real folks, that told the stories of average, usually working-class people. Think coal miners and their daughters.
True, Sam and Dean Winchester are anything but average. (Those lips! That hair!) It’s also true they’re professional at their job. But, they’re still working-class guys. In some ways they’re like craftsman, due to the artistry of their acquired skill set. They’re also like plumbers or electricians, because they had to apprentice (under the tutelage of their Dad). And perhaps most importantly, they’re always working for someone – an innocent civilian, Crowley, or God. I wonder how many times they’ve ached to say “Take this job, and shove it!”
Country music is uniquely New World, but it has its genesis in the Old World. The Scottish and Irish brought their jigs & reels, fiddles and accordions. The Spanish contributed the guitar, and the Italian the mandolin. The slaves stolen from West Africa held fast to their banjoes. And once in North America, all those different ethnicities, instruments and musical styles mingled, creating a new sound, eventually coming to be known as “country music”.
The Winchesters are also uniquely New World. They’re unapologetically American ("The French Mistake"… Dean hates hockey!!). The pie, the coffee, the Kansas license plates, and most certainly their give-em-hell attitude is proof of that. (Their CanadianWinchester cousin would give-em-heck instead. We’re always a little more reserved.) And the fact is, you just don’t see many denim & flannel ensembles on the streets of Europe. Sam and Dean are modern day cowboys, riding a black steel stallion. (May I just interject and say I’d like to be that cowboy’s sweetheart!) You can almost hear them warbling a horrendously off-key version of “Git along, little demon doggies”.
Traditionally, country music consists of ballads (Death’s Door) and dance tunes (Party On, Garth). The harmonies are simple, either sweet (The Girl with the Dungeons & Dragons Tattoo) or somber (Hello, Cruel World). The accompaniment isn’t fancy, but it is efficient, using mainly string instruments and the slight spice of a harmonica. (Think of a variety of old, still-running muscle cars and one awesome black Impala!)
Years ago, when I lived in a remote village in the Canadian Arctic, I used to listen to an amazing radio show on Sunday afternoons. It was broadcast from the Lac Le Biche area of northern Alberta. The host was a First Nations man who spun golden-oldie country LP’s from the 1920’s to the 1960’s at the latest. I couldn’t stand it at first, but I was a captive audience. No TV. No internet access. The CD player was broken. Way too cold to spend much time playing outside. And so I listened and learned.
What I learned was that those classic country songs did a wonderful job of telling the stories of people who were trying to overcome tremendous obstacles; people who were so lonesome they could cry, but they kept on going; and people who were living difficult lives of suffering and loss. Many of those songs make me think of Job from the Bible. And Job always makes me think of Sam and Dean Winchester.
Those sad country songs came to mind as the death toll mounted in Season 7. Of course, the deaths really began in Season 5 with Jo & Ellen, and then continued in Season 6 with the demise of Samuel and Rufus (Dear crusty, cantankerous, irascible earring-wearing Rufus… Gone too soon) But, I would argue that some of the most severe injuries to the mind, to the heart, and to the soul were saved for Season 7.
We saw (some of) Sam’s mental deterioration, as he fought to keep Lucifer at bay (Repo Man). We saw him trying to hold together the last shreds of his sanity, even the torn fragments of his soul (The Born-Again Identity). We saw Dean drop more than a tear or two in his beer in an attempt to find salvation at the bottom of a bottle (Defending Your Life, Shut Up Dr. Phil, The Slice Girls etc, etc, etc.) But, in his case the whiskey relly isn’t working. We also saw Dean fighting off his own mental demons to try and stand by his men (the stone number one speech in "Hello, Cruel World"… his almost-childlike hope & belief that Bobby would be saved in "Death’s Door").
We were also witness to the three catastrophic events that will undoubtedly have ramifications for years to come. First, Bobby’s house – their home away from the Impala, their safe sanctuary – burns to the ground. True, Bobby apparently stashed copies of his priceless ancient books around the country, and the boys now seem to use Rufus’ old cabin as a go-to spot. But Bobby’s house signified shared history, permanence, and safety. Now it too is ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.
After the fire, there was the death, resurrection-as-ghost, and death again of Bobby. This death, like that of Big Daddy John Winchester, caused an earthquake of emotions and tsunami of tears (many unshed) in the boys’ world.
When Dean went to Hell, he did it to save Sam. After Dean’s death, Sam had a mission – avenge his brother’s death and try to bring him back. Importantly, Bobby was always there, had Sam chosen to turn to him. When Sam went to Hell, he did it to save the world. After Sam’s death, Dean had a mission – try to live a normal life like he’d promised his brother, and try to bring him back. Importantly, Bobby was always there, had Dean chosen to turn to him.
But Bobby’s death was not due to some noble sacrifice. He died because of a bullet in his brain. The cops would have called it murder, plain and simple. There was nothing supernatural about it, except that the shooter was a Leviathan. It was all sadly ordinary. So, the boys had to mourn not only the loss of their closest friend, confidante, and wise elder, but they had to grieve the fact he didn’t go out in a blaze of heroic glory. He just died, and not even in his sleep.
After all that, at the end of the season in what should be a moment of victory, the death of Dick Roman, the boys instead lose it all. Dean is sent to Purgatory, which according to lore has a one-way door. IN, not OUT. He is alive, but completely lost to this realm, and to Sam. Dean’s sorrows have multiplied again. Meanwhile, Sam is left in this world, utterly alone. No Bobby. No Rufus. No Ellen. No Chuck. No Kevin, the advanced placement prophet. Just Sam and his sorrows.
Perhaps it’s no wonder that I suddenly found this classic of country music so appropriate for Season 7:
I am a man of constant sorrow
I've seen trouble all my day
I bid farewell to old Kentucky
The place where I was born and raised
For six long years I've been in trouble
No pleasures here on earth I found
For in this world I'm bound to ramble
I have no friends to help me now
(He has no friends to help him now)
You can bury me in some deep valley
For many years where I may lay
Then you may learn to love another
While I am sleeping in my grave
When I think of the country songs I enjoy and appreciate, or at least find oddly appealing, I realize many were written before the emergence (and dominance?) of Big Hair, over-sized Stetsons and the Nashville Sound Machine. They carried the ring of truth. They made you feel something (even if that something was a desire to turn off the radio!). Nowadays, there are still many wonderful country songs, but the stories they tell tend to be overshadowed by the stereotypes of an artificial twang in the vocals, and an omnipresent steel guitar.You could liken Season 7 to a classic old country song that got a modern Nashville makeover. They were some amazing stories being told, some glorious emotional moments, and a lot of entertainment value. But the decision to use auto-tune (FBI agents… again) took away some of the song’s authenticity. Auto-tune makes everything sound the same, that “procedural” feel as Alice has described it. And now in a digital world, everything is neat and tidy. We don’t get the scratches and hiss on the LP that added character to those old country songs. In "Supernatural," the scratches are those deep, meaningful scenes between Sam and Dean. They needed to stare at each other just a second longer. Before multi-track mixing, the songs went together a little differently. The instruments would stop, just for a second, so the singer could hit his emotional high (or low) note. Then the action of the banjos and the guitars would pick up again. But importantly, each had their own moment.
In Season 7, both Sam and Dean seemed to be about to fall to pieces, to be a little bit crazy. But, it all became too clean. And that ain’t classic country.
But it’s important to realize old-time country isn’t all gloom and doom. It’s also for good times, and to help you get back in the saddle again, when life has bounced you out. So, I take great enjoyment and more than a little inspiration from this joke about country music.
What happens when you play a country song backwards?.... You get your dog back. You get your truck back. You get your wife back,
Maybe this season, along with the Winchesters coming back, we’ll get a little more of the brothers back. Maybe TPTB will remember that sometimes you say the most when you say nothing at all. And maybe, just maybe, when Sam & Dean are back in Baby’s arms and on the road again, or even just out walking after midnight, maybe some of the hope will come back, too.
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