This past week April and I traveled to the University of Oxford so that I could conduct research for my PhD thesis. Regent’s Park College, a Permanent Private Hall at the University of Oxford, houses the Angus Library and Archive, an institution that possesses over 70,000 items related to Baptist history. I spent four days at the Angus reading manuscripts related to John Gill and Andrew Fuller; April spent her time working for her job from her Macbook at various coffee shops. We had a fun trip down to Oxford and back, and I am grateful April’s employers granted her time away from her office so that she could travel with me. I haven’t updated this blog in some time, and I thought it would be fun to share some pictures from our trip and tell a few anecdotes. I’ll discuss here Oxford, Count Dracula, and Dwight Yoakam. Hang in there with me.
The town and the university are everything people boast that they are—and more. Though I spent the bulk of my time researching, I was able to attend Evensong services at both the chapel at New College and the cathedral at Christ Church. Both buildings were stunning. They services were quite moving, too. I was also able to snap a few pictures of various buildings as I walked to and from the Angus every day. A particular highlight for me was the opportunity to eat in The Eagle and Child, the pub in which C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the other Inklings met to discuss literature. Here are some pictures from Oxford that I find particularly interesting.
April has been reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula for a book club that meets here in St Andrews. Stoker apparently received inspiration for parts of his novel from the English town of Whitby. On our trip back to St Andrews we spent an afternoon in Whitby, mainly so that April could see the “home” of Dracula. We were both amazed at the beauty of the place. It is a seaside down with a gorgeous harbor that is surprisingly active. While we were the there the sun began to set, and it filled the entire town with a magical yellow glow. Here are a few pictures though they will not do the place justice.
We made our trip from Whitby to St Andrews at night, and we needed something to occupy our time and keep us awake. For some reason I began to reminisce about country music from the 1990s. I do not like today’s country—to be honest, I find it annoying—but I feel differently about the country music of the ’90s. I am certain that nostalgia is partly to blame, but I really think the country from that time was astonishingly good; in many ways I think it marks a golden era for the genre.
Country singers from the ’90s filled my childhood. I heard them during my ride to school, we discussed them in my classes at school, and I even saw a few of them in concert. During my youth, country music was probably the most powerful cultural force in the Deep South—outside of Southern Baptist churches, of course. April and I started to play old country songs from our childhood through Apple Music while we were traveling home, and it was so much fun to hear Mark Chesnutt, Travis Tritt, Tracy Lawrence, and Alan Jackson for the first time in probably twenty years.
As we listed out the names of various country stars from our childhood one name inevitably came up, the name of Dwight Yoakam. I stated to April that as a child I hated the music of Yoakam; I thought his voice was too strong and his songs were too confusing. I further explained, though, that as I grew older I developed a deep appreciation for the man and his work. I have become convinced that Yoakam is one of the most significant singers—not just country singers—of recent memory. April said she too remembered hating the music of Yoakam as a child, and she begrudgingly let me play a few of his tunes.
Then it happened. She had a revelation, a revelation that I hope many will have. She looked at me and said, “You know, he really is quite interesting.” Indeed he is. Johnny Cash, by any measure the greatest country singer of all time, once proclaimed Yoakam one of his favorites. So have a host of other musicians, including many singers in the punk rock genre. Yoakam’s story deserves to be told.
Yoakam tried to enter the country scene when it was at a low point (much like today). At a time when record companies were interested in producing “urban cowboy music” (what is that, anyway?), Yoakam rode into Nashville packing what he described as hillbilly music. This music had attitude. It was rebellious. It featured loud guitars and spoke of fast cars, reckless living, love, grief, and loss. It was a return to the great country music of old. It was an assault on the way the country music establishment was crafting its tunes. Nashville hated it.
Yoakam left Nashville as something of a reject and toured California, playing with several punk rock bands. Interestingly, his music soon found a following among the punk rock crowd. He crafted a country album—he actually financed it himself!—based on the encouragement he received from the punk scene. It was this album that opened the door for his eventual success in the country market.
I can only liken his reception into the country music of the 1980s and 1990s to something of an ad fontes. Garth Brooks, clearly the most powerful figure of 1990s country, played James Taylor-eqsue tunes designed for the radio. Yoakam steadfastly stuck to his hillbilly music. The music of Brooks, as much as I like it, did represent something of a transplant; it was the ingrafting of the 1970s singer/songwriter style into the country genre. Yoakam’s music, by contrast, desired to resurrect the ghost of Hank Williams. It was the more authentic.
I say all of this because good music is important to me. Country music is (still) important to me. Honestly, I am surprised by how important it is to me given the fact that I so rarely listen to it now. I suppose Southern roots are hard to shake. In the end I hope that many people will grow in their appreciation of Yoakam—and Cash!—so that country music will return to songs about love, loss, God, the devil, death, and darkness (and not sexy tractors or hedonistic moonshine parties, whatever those things are). So, fire up Yoakam on your next road trip as we did. You might be surprised.