I took that online New York Times dialect quiz a few months ago, and it placed me right in my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was “lawyer” that gave me away. Unlike most of the nation, I pronounce the word phonetically, as “law-yer.” “Law-yer” with “lightning bug” and “Coke” and a three-syllable “caramel” all washes into the Tennessee valley city.
But whenever I travel and it comes up that I’m from Tennessee, New Englanders (trust me, it’s usually New Englanders) say, “You don’t have an accent!” Sometimes, they follow it up with “Are you hiding it from us on purpose?” or, if they’re feeling extra generously exploitative, “Could you do one?” I’ve often wondered what they expect—a genteel drawl that washes up on the ear like the coast of Carolina? or my best Barney Fife? a reenactment of In the Heat of the Night?
Whenever I’ve been asked to do a southern accent for someone else’s entertainment, I think about my father-in-law who, when I first met him, I couldn’t understand, despite the fact that he lived in North Georgia, only thirty minutes from where I grew up. My future husband took me to the trailer one weekend where his dad sat on the couch shirtless while he crushed several Mountain Dews, swallowed a sleeve of chalky Goody’s Powder, and chain-smoked Kools. I sat in an easy chair, nodded when it seemed appropriate, and eyed the disassembled Chevelle on blocks in the front yard. It took me several visits before I began to understand him, before I realized that the motorcycle “had a bitch-seat for an old lady” and that, when a cat did figure-8s between my legs out in the driveway, I should “pat the pussy.”
Once, when a friend’s Massachusetts family asked me to do an accent, I thought of my father-in-law’s then—smoke-weary, consonant-choked. I said to them what he always says, said, “I heard that.” I hurrrdat.
I slept every night as a kid with the country music station on, but I never heard or dreamed of you, Merle. It was pop country, but it was the only country I knew. My father thought it was the only safe option, the only music that would instill in me the American love of nation, family, and god. Back then, however, I thought country music was southern music, and I took pride in it the way one takes pride in a scar. This hurts, it’s still tender, so let me look at it in the mirror. I started saying “ain’t” and “y’all” even though no one in my family linked the chains of their sentences with these contractions. My paternal grandmother’s family came from good Pennsylvania stock and, on my mother’s side, a few generations back, we were (gasp!) Canadians.
You were someone I heard in Waffle House early Sunday mornings and crackling over truck stop speakers on twelve-hour car rides to Panama City Beach. I knew your name, but I couldn’t say what you sang or anything about the Bakersfield Sound or Outlaw Country. The only member of the old guard I knew was Dolly, and that was just because we went to Pigeon Forge at Christmas to see the lights, buy taffy, and eat at the catch-your-own-trout restaurant. Even then she was all billboard boobs and spangly things and a butterfly standing in for the w in Dollywood. Sometimes my grandmother would play an Eddie Rabbitt cassette or a A Family Christmas on our way there. But now I believe that was only because they were only a couple bucks at the Golden Gallon.
I went up to Opryland when it was also an amusement park and, later, when it became a mall. Now it strikes me that that’s what’s become of country: a show turned amusement park turned mall.
I have a friend who grew up in Palo Alto but spent his summers in Mississippi with his grandparents. Whenever he’s in a business transaction, he lays on the drawl. “You get better deals that way,” he says, and he does. I’ve seen it in action.
Companies know this, too. My mother works in the customer care center of a Fortune 500 insurance company. Many corporations put their call centers in the South, she tells me, because the people sound “nicer,” more trustworthy, authentic. I hurrdat.
On your website, it says “Merle Haggard knows all about hard living, uncertain love and workers ground down by depressing jobs” and that you’re part of a “vanishing breed” of “true Outlaws.” I can’t help but wonder, Merle, how much of that is persona, spin. How long being in the country music business has kept you away from those jobs. Or is your job depressing? And where’d you get that accent, being from California? Does the Telecaster draw your voice into it like a droplet to a pool of water?
I’ve never heard you talk, but I’d like to. I’d like to hear you say something in your natural voice. I’d like to hear it and not know where you’re from, not know where you want people to think you’re from. You’re from Bakersfield, but your accent is from country.
I wanted to be a cattle rancher in Texas. If I just put on the accent, that drawl, I’d make it happen. I’d be the first woman my age to run a homestead all by myself. I’d have cowskin rugs on the floor and a horse I liked named with the dignity of a train like “Silver Star” that I’d cry over when it died. There would be outlaws down there in Texas, because it was out in the middle of nowhere. I’d shoot them in the gut, and they’d fall dead easy. The boy in my class I liked would also grow up to own a ranch that butted up next to mine, and we’d fall in love, chasing after a loose bull.