Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Taylor Ole Opry, Southwest "Plain-Spokenness," and Getting to Be Yourself

Paul and I went to the Taylor Country and Western Show, part of the Trapper Days Memorial Day Weekend Celebration. It used to be called the Taylor Grand Ole Opry but they got in trouble for that this year. For me it was a kind of "slice of life" experience: fascinating in the way that watching a movie about Tibet can be. A look at a different way of life—a living piece of "history" in this case. We are definitely not in Oz anymore. Kansas might come close but only if the part of Kansas you visited was a Mormon pioneer town. It's intriguing, sort of sweet, but also a little discomforting at times.

Even if you watch a well-done documentary about, say, Tibet the filmmaker has a job to do which they always interpret through their own lens. They say the camera never lies but the filmmaker can and often does whether they intend to or not. As a reporter, a blog writer in this case, I'm always making an attempt to cast a light on some aspect of experience but I'm the one holding the lantern. If I focus only on the parts this community would want you to see you'd get a lovely picture. If I focus only on the parts that disturb me as an outsider you would miss the loveliness. If I haven't interviewed the people involved in creating the ugly parts (and I haven't) you won't be able to understand it from inside their point of view. Even if I let them speak you might not agree.

I've been mulling over what I want to say because my overall impression of this event and of this community is one of sweetness, especially now that things are green and the rural charm and beauty of the place is plain to see. There's a lot to love about country living, and a down-to-earth plain-spokenness is part of that. But there's a real down side to it as well.

Back to the Taylor Country Western Show. First, you have to understand that Taylor is VERY country, VERY Western and this is a celebration of what they love best. Dress for men at this event appeared to be cowboy hats—which are not taken off indoors—blue jeans, and checked or plaid shirts.

The event took place at the Taylor LDS Stake Center, supposedly in honor of a member of the LDS community who was killed in a car accident several years ago (although there's great disagreement about the truth of that). That's an aspect of small town living that's kind of interesting—there's always a story, lots of gossip to tell—but that's not what I want to focus on here.

Everyone was welcome to attend the show but it was clear from the inside jokes and anecdotes shared that it was assumed that most people in the room were LDS. No problem, really. We felt welcome enough but we aren't LDS and we aren't cowboy, farmers or even terribly used to being country. We can't help but look at this culture from an outsider's point of view. What we see is that it's a way of life with a lot of heart and tradition attached. Mormons care about their Heritage. I capitalize that on purpose because the Taylor Ole Opry was a celebration of Heritage with a big H.

There were a lot of senior citizens at this event and many, perhaps half, of the performers on stage were elderly, too. A few younger people shared some wonderful songs they had written and new country songs they love but the vast majority of the evening was devoted to the old timey stuff. Some of it was performed beautifully, some not so much. Virtuosity was not the point of this event. Community connection was.

That was the sweet part. The very sweet part. Even the young people catered to their elders through their selection of songs and there were a lot of dedications to parents, grandparents and those who had passed on.

The discomforting part? I really didn't want to have to talk about that. I wish I wasn't shown it. But the MC at this event made a great point out of not being politically correct. He said that he had been told that he should not say anything about Snowflake, the neighboring town Taylor has a conflict with, and that he should not cuss or say anything about Obama. He quipped that that meant he wouldn't be able to say anything at all. Okay, given the context, that was funny. But then he muttered into the mic "rat niggers" and everyone laughed at that, too.

Now, in retrospect I know this is one of the elders in the community. If we were to talk to one of his family members— we know a couple of them now—they'd probably just roll their eyes and say something to the effect of "Oh, that's just Grampa's way. You can't take it too seriously." And that's probably the truth.

Nowhere in the Mormon doctrine does it say that racism is acceptable. In fact, it's quite the opposite. But I have to admit to being a little sensitive on the subject. When we first arrived we heard comments about whether the inauguration dinner would be fried chicken and watermelon and then backhand snipes about Obama destroying the country before he had been a full week in office. That was kept to a minimum at this event but Republican conservatism mixed with more than a bit of racism is part of the language spoken in this town. We know that. We've heard it already.

There are stupid bigoted people everywhere and that doesn't mean this behavior is true of everyone in this area. We've heard the opposite, too. And to be honest, California's over-the-top political correctness and, in particular, Santa Cruz's knee-jerk "progressivism" isn't any less offensive to those of us who like to compose our own thoughts on a given subject than the knee-jerk conservativism we hear in this town. The plain spokenness can be incredibly refreshing. But, normally I wouldn't expect to see the role of MC handed over to someone who would make such a remark on stage. I get that he was making a point about political correctness. He even thanked the veterans who gave their lives so he could be politically incorrect in public. Freedom of speech, fair enough. But if someone stood at that mic and called the members of this community a Mormon slur equivalent to "rat niggers" (I don't know any) I don't think they'd accept that as acceptable use of our veteran-fought freedoms.

It's easy to be all about community when your community is predominantly the same color, religion, political persuasion, economic background and Heritage. And, coming from a Jewish background, I understand the desire to want to preserve one's culture and stay within the confines of your own safe homogenized little group. I feel the comfort that comes from that just living here. But I also know the flip side. You lose touch with your connection to the human race as a whole in all its wonderful and horrible shades of diversity. I admit it, the culture outside these sweet tight little enclaves, whether the enclave is Mormon, Jewish, Gay or Progressive, isn't always safe or pretty. Maybe we need these refuges. Maybe we deserve them for ourselves given the difficulties and demands of multi-culturalism.

But as Gavin Newsom was quoted as saying before the vote on Propositon 8 last election: "It's going to happen, whether you like it or not!" Jewish people are treated better when we're part of such a diverse mix that Christians and other groups wind up being our friends before they know our religion. Gays and lesbians have a much better time of it, too. It's hard to play the game of "otherness" once you've gotten to know each other. In this long transition time we're going through as a planet, places of commonality provide refuge for the weary. It's "home" only better because you can let your hair down whether your grandparents like that or not and be yourself! But wouldn't it be just as good if we could be who we really are whether we're in these enclaves or not?

1 comment:

Renee[Q][C] said...

Wow, what a great post. I'm not sure what I would have done if I was in that situation being an Obama supported for one and thinking that we all need a little political correctness two. It seems like you handled yourself very well!