Illustration by Mike Reddy
How to find our way back
By Gretchen Peters
There is a word in the Welsh language—hiraeth (heerath)—that has no direct English translation, yet the idea it contains is so ingrained in country music that it seems to be part of its DNA. It may well have come to the Americas on the boats with poor Scots, Irish, and Welsh from the British Isles, who brought their melodies and their fiddles and their dark ballads, and not much else, with them to the New World. Hiraeth is a kind of nostalgic homesickness for a home you can’t return to, or quite possibly one that never existed. It’s a deep yearning for a rootedness that’s irrevocably lost.
There is, arguably, no other genre of music that celebrates, idealizes, and mythologizes the idea of home as much as country music. Home, in a country song, is both a fantasy and a real place, seen through a misty lens and spoken of reverently. In many country songs, the narrator is an exile from their homeland by way of economics, progress, societal mores, or fateful circumstance. Home is almost always a kind of rural paradise, especially seen in hindsight, as in Mac Davis’s classic “Texas in My Rearview Mirror.” It’s equated with goodness, simplicity, honesty. The city is a place where people only go if they’re forced or lured. In most country songs, the Big City looks less like the land of opportunity and more like the backdrop for a cautionary tale.
Of course, the idea of home in country music is also firmly planted geographically in the South. Mostly, it’s not the South as it is, but the South as it never was—a place where a prodigal child is always welcomed back into the unconditional embrace of family and neighbors. This South isn’t dark and violent, but benign and bucolic. This South doesn’t talk about its haunted past, only a sepia-toned one. Loretta Lynn’s origin story, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” doesn’t shy away from describing the poverty of her childhood, but neither does it dwell on it:
In the summertime we didn’t have shoes to wear
But in the wintertime, we’d all get a brand new pair
From a mail order catalog, money made from sellin’ a hog
Daddy always managed to get the money somewhere
From a songwriter’s point of view, the exiled Southerner makes a useful and convenient narrator; isolated and markedly different from their new neighbors, they are the perfect observer of people and their inevitable faults and failures. The outcast, the wanderer. Almost always romanticized in country songs, they are the clear-eyed speaker, sometimes moral arbiter, a sort of omniscient storyteller who sees humanity from a bird’s-eye view. The narrative trope of the displaced farm boy surely gained traction from the twentieth-century migration of rural Southerners, both Black and white, who traveled to large Northern cities to find work when there was none at home. It’s not hard to see that the city was a place where hardship, temptation, sin, and, ultimately, ruin, are around every corner. “Streets of Baltimore,” by songwriting greats Harlan Howard and Tompall Glaser, begins with this simple scene:
I sold the farm to take my woman
Where she longed to be
We left our kin and all our friends
Back there in Tennessee
And ends with this one:
I did my best to bring her back
To what she used to be
But soon I learned she loved
Those bright lights more than me
Now, I’m going home on that same train
That brought me here before
While my baby walks
The streets of Baltimore
In the 1960s, the Vietnam War presented another lens through which country songwriters viewed their homeland. It’s easy to think that country music, long associated with “love it or leave it” conservatism, would have wholeheartedly embraced the war effort, but songs like Tom T. Hall’s “Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)” present a much more nuanced attitude toward the war. The song is sung from the point of view of a wounded veteran returning home without the use of his legs. The home and family he return to are well-meaning but ill-equipped to understand where he’s been and what he’s been through.
As a country music fan, and later as both a songwriter and a country music artist who was born and raised just a few miles from the quintessential Big City—New York—I felt conflicted about this romanticization of ruralness and home for a long time. On the one hand, the idea of actually belonging to a place was irresistible to me. Coming from the North (notably a place where people don’t automatically self-identify as Northerners), and from a far-flung family, the pull toward something permanent, sustaining, and self-defining was strong. I was in thrall to the idea of a home that would feel like Home. I knew hiraeth. On the other hand, I’ve lived in Nashville, often referred to as “the Buckle of the Bible Belt,” for thirty-five years now, and. . . .it’s complicated.
In some recent country songs, this equation of home with goodness has calcified into a sort of predictable nostalgia where the narrator’s small town looks the same as every small town in every TV advertisement (there is no decaying downtown or suburban meth lab, no stultifying poverty in sight) and the main activities revolve around pickup trucks, beer, and young, interchangeable women. I don’t know whose heart this kind of longing speaks to, but it’s not mine.
But the best country music acknowledges, even if only glancingly, both the longing for home and the knowledge that it has never been, and can never be, perfect. It recognizes the Saturday night/Sunday morning dichotomy that runs in the blood of every Southerner and rests comfortably, or at least tolerably so, in their soul. The best country songs acknowledge the perfectly imperfect memory of home and family, as the great songwriter Bob McDill did in his masterpiece “Good Ole Boys Like Me”:
Then daddy came in to kiss his little man
With gin on his breath and a Bible in his hand
He talked about honor and things I should know
Then he’d stagger a little as he went out the door
I can still hear the soft Southern winds in the live oak trees
And those Williams boys they still mean a lot to me—Hank and Tennessee
I guess we’re all gonna be what we’re gonna be
So what do you do with good ole boys like me
Here, for someone like me—a transplant to the South, a place I’ve lived twice as long as any other place but in which I will forever be an outsider—is the crux of the matter. Here is the contradiction, the complexity, the impossibility of reconciling the dysfunctional home with the idealized one. Here is the difficult reality of holding two conflicting truths in one’s heart. It’s the recognition that your parents are flawed, and so is the place that raised you. Home is a conundrum, a myth, a yearning for something that never was precisely as you remember it. Hiraeth. And yet we long for it. That is a longing that speaks directly to my heart.