I'm a member of a country club

Country music is what I love

I drive an old Ford pickup truck

I do my drinkin' from a Dixie cup

. . . I'm a member of a country club.

From "Country Club,"

1988 Triumvirate Music Inc.

IT WILL COME as news to no one that the country club these days is enormous. It is, after all, a good deal more than music -- it touches upon one's view of life itself. Membership is not exclusive; contrary to stereotype, the country club accepts people of all ages, races and walks of life. And if its national headquarters is Nashville, a good case could be made that Washington over the years has become its most important regional outpost. These days, club membership even extends to the Oval Office {see Page D4}.

What especially fascinates me is that membership in the country club is sought so eagerly. The most surprising people pick guitars, wear cowboy boots, listen to WMZQ radio and go out two-stepping on weekends. And many of these people appear to be happiest if they wholly disguise their middle-class origins; perhaps they are drawn to the idea that by going country, they have escaped the terrors of modern urban life.

"If you look under the corporate tables, you'll see more cowboy boots than you can imagine," says Dennis Corbett, owner of Boot Hill Western Store in Fairfax. Corbett says he has sold Western apparel in this area for 10 years to "senators, congressmen, doctors, lawyers and engineers." But not yet to presidents, although George Bush is merely the latest in a long line of White House fans. One may question their sincerity (Richard Nixon cum yo-yo at the Grand Ole Opry comes to mind), but the music rarely stopped.

Still, it's easy to tell the lifetime members from the new recruits and even easier to pick out the closet cowboys, who, in the words of a man I danced with, "live country one night a week." True members have an almost religious fervor for the music and the dancing. Jake Willingham, a retired courier for NBC who lives in Reston, once told me that we are "disciples of the two-step," our only commandment being "thou shalt not disco." To which I answered, "By their boots shall ye know them."

For me, joining the country club is like coming full circle. In a place like Washington, I have always sensed a distinct envy of the life the area city folk imagine being lived by members of the country club. Some people, in short, not only join, they try to cross over, for reasons I will get to later. They try to become -- there is no better way to put this -- white trash. Let me digress.

I can use that language because I come from a long line of white trash. My family holds a charter membership in the country club and I (born the eighth in a family of 10 children, just a couple of months before Hank Williams died) have more than paid my dues to belong.

I was to be named after my father and his boss. If a boy, I would have been Hugh Victor (even though my dad already had a son named Hugh -- he just liked the name). Then I was to be Hughleen Victoria. My mother, who had changed her name from Florence ("Every cow in the county was named Flo or Flossie," she said) to Susan, successfully persuaded my dad to name me Eileen Victoria instead. I have a shirttail aunt called Bo Peep, a brother named Gilford and, according to family legend, I am a seventh cousin of Frank and Jesse James twice removed. My father, Hugh Albert Sisk, was born in Indian Territory in a rented house that once belonged to legendary outlaw Belle Starr in Briartown, Okla., near the Arkansas border.

Family legend also has it that my grandfather, William Columbus Sisk, better known as W.C. -- even to his family -- at times drove the getaway wagon for Belle Starr. He passed down the pearl-handled pistol she gave him to my oldest brother, Ray, who hocked it in Las Vegas in the late '50s for a couple hundred bucks.

We were poor. We ate poke salad, fried green tomatoes and okra. I ate pinto beans every day of my life, sometimes at breakfast. There were two kinds of salad dressing: mayonnaise or a mixture of ketchup and mayonnaise, my father's favorite. The only cheese I ever knew existed was Velveeta.

We had fences made of chicken wire, a nonworking truck and piles of "stuff" in the back yard. "Stuff" can be defined only as a collection of things or parts, working or nonworking, that somehow got where it is but nobody knows when or how. And you couldn't throw any of it out because you never knew when you might need it.

A lot of people, I realize, never had these advantages, and I am also starting to realize that many wish they did. I have more than a little suspicion that a sort of White Trash Envy has played its part in making country so big, especially in a place like Washington, a place where demographers find patterns of burgeoning affluence, gray-flannel conservatism and rampant careerism.

If it seems odd to think of Washington in that way -- as a Nashville on the Potomac -- consider the evidence:

WMZQ radio, which has both AM and FM stations, is rated nationally as the top large-market station by the Country Music Association (which tomorrow hands out its awards in an event nationally televised by CBS). Locally the station places in the Arbitron top three consistently, and this spring it was rated No. 1 overall and in morning and afternoon drive times. WMZQ also caters to a broader range of listeners, ages 25 to 54, than any other station in the area.

Virginia is filled with top, rising and legendary stars, many with gospel roots. For example, the Academy of Country Music's top female vocalist, Mary Chapin Carpenter, is from Alexandria. The Nashville Network's entertainer of the year and top male vocalist, Ricky Van Shelton, comes from Gritt. Another Virginian, "Hee Haw" and "Grand Ole Opry" stalwart Roy Clark, got his start in Washington on Connie B. Gay's "Town and Country Time." And Gay managed country legend Patsy Cline from Winchester. Emmylou Harris lived in Woodbridge for a time; Juice Newton is from Virginia Beach. Farther south in Staunton, Va., what I call "Statlerville," there are the Statler Brothers as well as newcomers Whiskey Creek. (Gay, who died last year, was the first president and a founder of the Country Music Association. In 1954, he boasted that Washington was second only to Nashville as the top market for "hillbilly music.")

Hank Williams's lost daughter, country music singer Jett Williams, lives in a houseboat on the Potomac.

The Bull Run Jamboree, an outdoor, all-day country music bash in Manassas, drew 10,000 fans July 15 despite rain-soaked grounds. And 15,000 fans showed up at Wild World in Prince George's County at WMZQ's annual birthday party June 24 to hear country music, according to Susan Fiora, the station's marketing director.

The Birchmere, an Alexandria club that seats 300, is a legend in its own time for drawing big name country acts such as Buck Owens and Rodney Crowell, as well as big names we take for granted locally such as the Seldom Scene and Country Gentlemen.

The Washington area is almost certainly the nation's capital for country dancing. While most cities have one -- if any -- dance association, the D.C. area has at least five of which I am aware. The most noted choreographer in country dance, Barry Durand, is part owner of the Country Junction in Rockville. "Imagine, rednecks on Rockville Pike," he says. Durand received an Emmy nomination last year for producing the "Goin' Country" television show.

Country Plus, a free monthly tabloid newspaper published in Alexandria that covers "timeless entertainment," gives us what we can't find in the mainstream press: stories about local bands, interviews with country stars, advance notice of who is coming to the area, album reviews, dance tips, event listings, gossip and more. About 15,000 copies are printed monthly, but pass-along readership is estimated to be 35,000, according to David F. Schroeder, associate editor. David's wife, Sherry, started the publication because she was frustrated by hearing about concerts after the fact.

None of this, I realize, explains why people in the Washington area are so attracted to country music, or why the practitioners of the music are drawn here. It doesn't explain the popularity of the "If it isn't country, it isn't music" sign that local country dance disc jockey Bill Cole gives to his friends to put in their car windows.

Part of the mutual attraction, no doubt, is present because the area is south of the Mason-Dixon line. If we are South, according to this reasoning, we surely must be country. That is part of it, but not all of it -- because we do not always act like country. Where there is country, there is a respect for traditional values and family -- that's the stuff country songs are made of. Country folk work hard and know how to leave work at work; when they go home, they are really home.

All that seems entirely contrary to the Washington way of life. At least it seems that way to me.

When I moved to Maryland from Nevada about 11 years ago, I cried for two weeks. Pallid subway rats in gray suits had replaced the suntanned faces that would smile and say "howdy" for no reason. It was truly culture shock. What I saw then were people who put work before anything else in their lives. For those who have joined the country club, though, this is slowly changing.

When I moved a little south, to Virginia, I found something of a respite from the Maryland melting pot and the D.C. rat race: a place to go home to. Within a 10-mile radius of my house, there are at least seven country clubs to which I can go. In this land of pickup trucks and 4-by-4s, there are many suburban cowboys who work in the bureaucracy by day and dance in cowboy bars by night. The music and the clubs give people the chance to experience another way of life, to be something they have always dreamed of being. There is an added benefit to this: Dancing is a great way to relieve the stress of the high-anxiety jobs and commutes common to this area.

Keith Whited, a Mount Vernon area realtor, is one of these people. He wears button-down shirts and khaki pants by day and a Charlie One Horse hat and boots by night. Whited is in the country club primarily because it gives him a chance to reflect on his roots: He grew up on a mountain in Pennsylvania and "country music was about all you could get up there."

The transient nature of this area, with its military installations and ever-changing government, also has a lot to do with why people here like country music -- and the life. The music is not only indigenous to America, it gives a sense of constancy, something that is the same no matter where you hang your cowboy hat or turn on your radio. Many people who were either born into the club or have had a lifelong passion for America's music are transferred to Washington.

You may wonder, still, if any of this is for real. Michael Barone, in his recent book "Our Country: The Shaping of America From Roosevelt to Reagan," argues that the politics of the nation is less divided along economic lines than many think. "Over the long run," he writes, "it is plain that politics more often divides us on cultural lines -- along lines of region, race, ethnicity, religion or personal values." What members of the country club are doing, I suspect, is finding a way to close those divisions, even if it's only temporary. They do so with a two-step, a Jerry Jeff train song, a Hank Williams pain song and all the rest.

For them (for us), at least for a three-minute song or a night on the town, country is not just about countin' flowers on the wall or cheatin' hearts, but about legends, happiness, love, faithfulness, family, values -- and it stays there. As singer Johnny Cash once said, "It will never make a comeback because it will never be gone."

Eileen Tetreault is a Washington Post editor.