I watched my old man’s face, hoping he wouldn’t notice my chubby fingers creeping toward the volume knob.
From the driver’s seat came a grunt that sounded like “No.” He hadn’t even taken his eyes off the road.
I backed off, realizing I wouldn’t win – this time, or maybe ever.
It was a game we played every time I rode shotgun in his old Ford Ranger – light green body with a forest green cap over the bed.
He listened to what he called his “hillbilly music” – cassettes by Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Tammy Wynette and other honky-tonk heroes, and I did my best to seize control of the stereo.
The picture is a little hazy – maybe it was all that secondhand smoke – but most of the details are still as clear and crisp as Loretta’s sweet voice.
I fought it for years, but now I realize my father handed down to me a love of country music.
A forced inheritance at first, but now it’s one I’m keeping in the family.
My father had bought the truck from an old high-school friend who owned a used car lot in our hometown of Vineland, N.J., a city that’s equal parts green farm fields and shadowy urban areas, halfway between Philadelphia and Atlantic City.
The Ford’s engine always seemed to be coughing, spitting or just plain dying. Frequent, wallet busting trips to the mechanic left my father, a hard-nosed police detective, cursing the buddy who’d given him such a great “as is” deal. The most dependable parts of this green lemon seemed to be the cassette player and the tinny speakers – there was never a time when my father, also named Tim, wasn’t listening to music in the truck.
To this day, my old man is a hillbilly at heart, even though South Jersey is flat as a prairie and the only real time he ever spent in the South was during basic training at an Air Force base in Texas.
I blamed Elvis for my father’s musical tastes.
My father swore he could listen to Presley’s music all day, and he often did. My parents bickered constantly, but there was one thing they could agree on: The King.
Whenever Elvis’ music was on the stereo, there was détente in our house.
He could soothe people, even from beyond the grave.
Elvis’ own hillbilly bent led my father to seek out the mainstream country music that was popular in the late 1970s, a few years before the genre gussied itself up, “Urban Cowboy” style.
I was nine or 10 years old, a chunky kid with straight blond hair hanging in my eyes, and a love of rock ’n’ roll inherited from my mother.
My father’s music seemed hokey to me, as old-fashioned and corny as the “Hee-Haw” episodes that seemed to be on whenever we visited my mother’s parents.
If I’d had veto power, the soundtrack for all those hours I rode in his truck would have been The Who, The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.
My younger brother, my cousin and I used to throw the Stones’ “Some Girls” LP on the stereo in my parents’ wood-paneled basement and play furious air guitar. We fought over which one of us was Keith Richards. No one wanted to be Mick. We were weird kids. And it was no coincidence that we’d always skip the one country song on the album, “Far Away Eyes.”
“My truck, my music.” Sounds like ad copy, but this was my old man’s standard reply when I complained.
And then he’d turn up Charley Pride’s hit, “Just Between You and Me” like it was the first time he’d ever heard it.
Trying to extract even a small victory, I’d reach for the knob on the air conditioner. The grumbling rose from the driver’s seat: “The air wastes gas. Roll down your window.”
Fine, but you don’t get much of a cross-breeze going 25 miles an hour.
As I sweated through my Fonzie T-shirt, I swore that when I was old enough, country music would be banned from any vehicle or domicile I was in.
It was bad enough I had to endure these hicks singing about broken hearts and busted dreams, but what made things even worse were the cheap Garcia-Vega cigars my father puffed on in the truck.
A quarter apiece, the stogies smelled like they cost even less. I couldn’t decide which was more foul – the sounds or the smoke.
Eventually, my father quit smoking, and I took up country music.
Some of those songs had insinuated themselves in my head, no matter how hard I’d tried to hate them. I knew every word to “I Will Always Love You” long before Whitney Houston had a monster hit with the song in 1992. My father played Dolly Parton’s original – and superior – version all the time. And to this day, “He’ll Have to Go” grabs me the second Jim Reeves croons that sad-but-hopeful opening line: “Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone ….”
When I was a senior in high school – taller and leaner now, but with my bangs still flopping in my eyes – my parents bought me my first stereo, at Macy’s. The speakers were so bulky they barely fit in the trunk of our ’76 Grand Prix – a slightly more reliable vehicle than the Ford Ranger.
I set up the equipment in my bedroom, underneath a poster of U2 in which Bono had a mullet as grand as his band’s sound.
Finally, my own stereo, to play whatever records I wanted, whenever I wanted (more about the “whenever” part in a minute.) I thought about having a sign made to hang alongside Bono’s mullet: NO COUNTRY ALLOWED.
Back then, the main supplier for my music fix was a grocery store. I worked after school as a bagger at the local ShopRite, which had a small display aisle of LPs, located, God knows why, near the meat counter. The LPs were leftovers; I never figured out if the pork loin was, too.
I’d spend a good chunk of my meager paycheck on albums by The Stones, Dire Straits, The Cars and AC/DC. Then I’d lie on the floor in my room and spin those records through the night, until the banging started. My father was on the other side of the wall, a critic expressing himself with his fist.
It was a game of attrition: I’d lower the volume a few notches; he’d stop pounding on the wall. I’d crank the volume back up when I thought he’d given up. But, then the banging started again. Eventually I invested in a set of headphones that cost me a week’s paycheck. A small price to pay to save the plaster on our walls.
On to college, and my tastes shifted again.
R.E.M and the Replacements might have been winking a little when they did it, but even they embraced country music, which seemed as incongruous for college-rock bands in the mid-’80s as wearing a plaid tie with a checkered suit (although that’s how the Replacements normally dressed.).
Were these bands – whose every move I followed well before the Internet made it possible to find out at any given moment what color socks they were wearing – saying it was okay to like country even if you loved punk rock? Maybe honky-tonk had seeped into their heads the same way it had wormed itself into mine, from hearing those old records played over and over again.
I started to think I should give country a chance, maybe sit down and have a drink or two with it, listen to what it had to say.
It took a little while longer for that meeting to happen, and it finally took place thanks to Steve Earle.
In 1995, Earle, recently released from jail on drug charges but now sober and on the comeback trail, was playing the Philadelphia Folk Festival. A local paper ran a feature in advance of his appearance. I had no idea who this tough-looking guy with the long hair and beard was, but the article mentioned that in the mid ’80s, he’d played shows with the Replacements.
That was all I needed to know. I hustled to my favorite music store and bought a copy of Earle’s new, acoustic album, “Train A’ Comin’.” I figured I’d just ignore the “country” parts.
Earle’s attitude, which was just as punk as anything I listened to, grabbed me immediately. A true music fan, he wasn’t afraid to let other genres seep into his own music. On “Train A’ Comin’” there’s a song by the Beatles and reggae, and they seemed to get along together pretty well.
What did this album teach me? Not to be a musical segregationist, because a good song is good song, whether it’s a country weeper or a sparkling, three-minute pop tune.
So maybe this country stuff wasn’t rotgut after all. Around this time, Johnny Cash had a career resurgence with a series of albums that introduced – or in my case, reintroduced – his music to a lot of people who didn’t know him from Johnny Paycheck.
Hearing Cash’s music with different, older ears led me back to his earlier albums, like “At Folsom Prison.”
Like Earle’s music, Cash’ deep, ominous baritone straddled the divide I’d created in my mind between punk and country.
Was it possible my old man had much better taste in music than I’d ever thought?
After digging a little deeper, I decided Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings were really rock ’n’ rollers in black cowboy hats.
This revelation was the end – or maybe it was the beginning – of a circuitous route, one started by my father. In that damned green truck, with the sour-smelling cigars.
“Daddy, play that ‘workin’ man’ song again.”
I almost had to ask my 7-year-old to repeat himself. On a road trip, we had been listening to Merle Haggard. When the song “Workin’ Man Blues” finished, Ryan, his blonde hair hanging in his eyes like mine used to, demanded an encore.
I’m not sure what made the song stick in his brain. It’s catchy for sure, and throughout the song, there’s repeated sound of a triangle, meant to replicate the clang of a laborer’s hammer.
It’s easy to connect with a song about blue-collar life when you’re an adult, but what does a kid know about drinking beer in taverns to wash away the memory of another hard shift at the factory?
Whatever it was, the song spoke to him in the same way Elvis’ music spoke to my father, and Steve Earle’s music spoke to me.
In the case of my father and I, Elvis and Earle’s songs spoke for us, with a confidence we couldn’t always muster on our own. After listening to Earle sing, “I wanna know what’s over that rainbow ….” for the thousandth time, I had to find out if there really was a world outside the place I grew up.
I’m still trying to figure that out. And now I have Waylon, Merle, Steve, and a bunch of their rowdy friends along for the ride.
Tim Zatzariny Jr., a lifelong resident of South Jersey, is a regional editor for Patch.com. He also teaches writing at his alma mater, Rowan University. His short story, "Nails," appears in the The Best of Philadelphia Stories: Volume 2. His fiction has also appeared in Thieves Jargon. Tim is at work on his first novel, set in his hometown of Vineland, N.J.