Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
About halfway through his act Wednesday at the Warner Theater, Jerry Jeff Walker slipped backstage for something or other and his pedal steel man filled in the time with a solo performance of "Dixie." He fudged the effect later by swinging into "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "America the Beautiful," but the audience reaction to the first part - clapping, rebel yells and a few people standing up as though they thought it was the national anthem - confirmed a growing suspicion of mine.
The suspicion is that the Mason-Dixon Line has now moved up to somewhere around Toronto (Jimmy Carter is a symptom, not a cause), and it ties in with another suspicion that was given weight by the Warner's opening act, James Talley. My second suspicion is that, musically at least, there isn't really any country anymore.
If we were going to be accurate about it (but, of course, we're not - at least the music business is not), we'd have to think up a new name for country music. Talley, a recognized, certified country singer, performed, for example. "Give Me That Old-Time Religion," which is as country a piece of music as you could ask for, and the overall impact was - what can you call it? - urban. Not urbane, though that quality creeps in sometimes around the edges of his artfully folksy lyrics, but tough, driving, hard-edged - the kind of music you expect from someone who lives within walking distance of a subway.
The same kind of dislocation can be heard in his "Blues Man," music in a style that may have its roots in Delta but developed a lot of its muscle in Chicago. The Web of electronic media (including records) and the network of good highways have wiped out the kind of cultural insulation that used to make real country music possible and meaningful. We are being homogenized musically, and the basic flavor of the resulting product seems to be Southern.
Walker is a good case in point. I suppose he has to open his act with "Mr. Bojangles," which is practically his middle name, but he sings it as though he would rather not. What he really wants to do, and does very well, comes on a few minutes later when he swings into "L.A. Freeway," hitting it hard from the beginning and building right to end. His most successful style is a sort of high-voltage redneck rock, and he bats it out with a power that makes it sound like the wave of the future.