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Country Jams

It's 1:30 on a Sunday afternoon and I'm almost 200 miles from home, about 20 miles as the crow flies from the Mexican border in southern Arizona. I'm visiting my buddy Andy Hersey, a genuine Sonoran cowboy who gave up horseshoeing a few years back to pursue a career as a country-western singer-songwriter.

We're sipping Pacificos outside of the 1920s homestead house Andy lives in with his wife, Danielle, and two boys, Steven and Kyle. My border collie mix, Tucker, is chasing a chicken -- an animal he's never seen before -- toward Andy's barn and the pasture with heifers in it who belong to his neighbor, Doc Clyne, who is the father of the Peacemakers' front man Roger Clyne. This is an Arizona I've never seen before, just outside Sonoita's wine country: rolling hills that have just shaken off their summer greens, with winds that whip across the pastures of lovegrass, almost in the shadow of a butte they call Mount Bruce. I'm here not only to visit my friend, I'm on a cultural exchange mission, to hit Andy off with some of the indie rock I think he'll dig, and to be exposed to some of the country music Andy's got stashed away.

I'm not ordinarily one to get my honky-tonk on, but as I've written about and been involved with music for the bulk of my lifetime, I've learned that country, real country music, is just as raw, incisive and humanistic as the punk rock, indie rock, emo and hip-hop that I listen to. Indie kids these days pretty much give classic country artists like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Sr., Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson props across the board, but few will venture out to see an Arizonan country artist play a gig. Which is a goddamn shame. Country's street cred has been ruined by the glut of radio pop country like Toby Keith, Brooks & Dunn, Garth Brooks, and Tim McGraw.

Andy's brought us out some bacanora, a Mexican spirit similar to tequila, but with a character all its own. It's stilled down in Mexico and brought across the border by aficionados in plain water bottles. Illegal in the States until 1992, bacanora's both stronger and smoother than tequila, but with the same bouquet of agave. After we sip down the shots, Andy picks up his guitar and plays me a couple new tunes, songs that weren't on his 2002 album Companero Blanco. One, titled "Between God and Country," tells of a hand-forged iron cross enshrined by a weathered tin roof. Where I'm sitting outside, I can see the cross Andy sings of, beneath the tin roof of his barn. Andy's voice is a bit hoarse, as he's spent the past three days playing gigs in Flagstaff, Tempe and Tucson.

Out here, amidst the ranches outside the Patagonia range, country is the native tongue. Later on, Andy and I sit in his living room while we play each other songs on the CD player. I play him a few tracks off the Good Life's Album of the Year and my late friend Elliott Smith's posthumous album From a Basement to a Hill. He pulls out some Ramblin' Jack Elliott, playing a cover of Woody Guthrie's "More Pretty Girls Than One," recorded in 1955. It's traditional, folky country, scratchy and improvisational. Andy's gotta play some Kristofferson for me -- Kris is the ultimate in his book -- so he drops "Under the Gun," a tribute to Vietnam veterans.

He's also dropping some new-schoolers, like Todd Snider, whose album Near Truths and Hotel Rooms is a hilarious collection of stories and folksy songs played on his acoustic guitar and harmonica. On the track "Tension," Snider sings, "Violent problems need violent solutions, 'cause in America we like our bad guys dead," and rattles off one-liners like "People still do drugs -- I mean y'all do, I'm over it."

Another gem that Andy hits me off with is the Corb Lund Band's Five Dollar Bill. Lund is from the prairies of Alberta, Canada, and his songs reflect it as he sings about how the short native grasses don't give a damn about whatever problems you might think you have. Andy set up Lund with a show at the Yucca Tap Room in Tempe last year, and now I'm wishing I weren't so ignorant as to have missed it.

Besides rocking the country jams, I'm down in rancher country to catch a taste of real cowboy life, and Andy is happy to oblige. His buddy Rukin Jelks, who executive-produced Companero Blanco, needs help driving almost 200 head of cattle from one pasture to another on his Diamond C ranch up the road outside Elgin. I haven't ridden a horse since I was 14, and that was just for 15 minutes, but it sounds simple enough.

Hot damn, am I wrong.

As we're saddling up outside Rukin's barn, his sun-worn ranch foreman Joe asks if I'm an experienced rider. I answer in the negative, and his middle-aged son Corky says, "Good, a greenhorn, let's start the show."

Two hours into the ride across these rocky rolling hills, I'm in a little arroyo on Don Juan, the young Mexican gelding I'm riding. There's no way out of it but straight up the canyon wall, so I lean forward and give Don Juan a little heel to get him going. He obliges, but in the process begins whipping his head back and forth, smashing me in the nose and face with his head, which is three times the size of mine. I see stars. Check for blood. Touch my nose to see if it's broken. Other than an immense headache and a little swelling, I'm okay, and I soldier on for the remaining three hours of driving cows from one side of a mountain to the other.

So I'm not a cowboy, though Andy gives me that cowboy hat I borrowed as a badge of merit. But I leave the ranch lands of southern Arizona with a new appreciation for the cowboy lifestyle, and a renewed affection for country music. Especially in Arizona, where it's the sound of a lifestyle for cowboys like Andy, country is just as incisive and evocative as hip-hop from the streets, and any music fan who dismisses it is either ignorant or a fool.

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