How Music Makes the Foreign Familiar

“We’re all cowboys here!” slurred the man in front of me, tipping a plastic cupful of beer in my direction. I smiled wanly and raised my own cup in acknowledgment, figuring he would rejoin the sea of dancers wriggling arrhythmically in front of me. Instead, the self-described ranch hand took a step closer.

Red in the face — either from drinking, dancing, or both — he looked me up and down with a critical eye. Silently I questioned my choice of attire. Before going out for the night, I remember deciding that corduroys and a green pullover would be innocuous enough in a foreign city, but somehow I had inadvertently managed to attract the attention of a plastered, yet still perceptive, local. Suddenly paranoid, I glanced around the crowded tent we shared.

A middle-aged woman in bright crimson cowboy boots trotted past. At the picnic table immediately to my right, an older bearded man took the occasional nip of whisky from a plastic shot glass. Clad in a black leather Harley Davidson vest, he wore his long gray hair in a ponytail underneath a mesh trucker hat. I watched as he absentmindedly tapped his cigarette ash into one of the many abandoned beers littering the table. Over at the bar, a man in a dark overcoat and a black felt Stetson leaned in on an elbow to order a drink. His upper lip bore evidence of slow progress towards a hirsute handlebar. On stage a quartet of musicians stomped through a heavily accented rendition of “The Gambler.”

benkeene_musicI was beginning to see why my outfit hadn’t quite served as the camouflage I’d intended it to be. Plainclothes disguises just don’t work at costume parties. Then I remembered my new friend. He hadn’t moved.

“You gonna stay here all night?”

“Uh, yeah… probably,” I answered. “I like country. Why?”

“Well, you know there’s other music here,” he slurred with apparent concern.

I did. In fact, a large part of my motivation for visiting Aarhus, Denmark‘s second-largest municipality, had been discovering that an annual, 10-day long arts celebration overlapped with my summer travel plans. The detail that had escaped me — or more accurately, the one I hadn’t even considered — was that the Aarhus Festival’s soundtrack might strum a chord familiar to a Virginian abroad.

And frankly, it was a little weird.

Walking around the stone streets and alleys earlier that evening, my ears caught the faint but recognizable sound of a shuffling rhythm from the other end of Åboulevarden, or River Boulevard, near the harbor. Following the tuneful tumult to its source, I found myself literally rubbing elbows with what might’ve been the Scandinavian branch of the Hank Williams Appreciation Society.

Behind my self-appointed chaperone the band shifted into the first few bars of “Folsom Prison Blues.”

“Johnny Cash!” I shouted over the noise, knocking my drink into his.

“Johnny Cash’s soooo good,” he replied, tilting his head back in pleasure. When he met my eyes again however, his expression was serious. “You should go.”

He hadn’t introduced himself, though, and I wasn’t any closer to figuring out what was worrying him about my presence. The Nordic interpretations of Nashville standards intrigued and, to a lesser degree, confused me – but I didn’t want to go. Not after I’d managed to dodge the venue’s cover charge.

“I might leave after they finish,” I lied. This seemed to satisfy him. Now, perhaps, I could return to being the inconspicuous American.

“Very nice to meetcha,” he replied with a smile before disappearing back into the mass of people pressed around us at the edge of the dance floor. In the next instant, my brain resumed its effort to overcome the effects of cultural vertigo.

Glancing above me, I didn’t see Dannebrog, the flag of Denmark, but rather semi-circular stars and stripes banners hanging from the ceiling at regular intervals. The beer on tap was Royal Classic, not Coors Lite. And yet the most disorienting thing was the lack of English I heard spoken around me. Then again, this was the Jutland Peninsula, not the Cumberland Plateau.

I had traveled to Aarhus with few expectations beyond enjoying a citywide party. Nevertheless, the musical dose of Americana was a complete surprise. It was as if somehow, here in northern Europe, I’d stumbled through a jackrabbit hole to the Grand Ole Opry.

Landing at a tiny airport the night before, my Danish points of reference had been few and embarrassingly far between: breakfast pastries, Legos, and an acclaimed author of children’s fairy tales being chief among them. Call me narrow-minded, but honky-tonk and herring never struck me as an obvious pair. Quickly reminding myself that music had been crossing borders even before the Beatles recorded “Sie liebt dich” in 1964, I wondered if I could possibly bridge what seemed like a Skagerrak-sized gap of cultural understanding with a mutual appreciation of redneck n’ roll?

Chick ‘N’ Roosters, as the performers had dubbed themselves, confidently kept the audience moving to their versions of “Love’s Gonna Live Here Again,” “Wide Open Spaces,” and a few Dolly Parton hits including “Applejack,” and “9 to 5.” After a short set break, they resumed with a relatively faithful rendition of Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz.”

As the drummer kept time on the bell of his ride cymbal and the lanky lead guitarist added nimble but mournful licks, I looked down to find my toe tapping in sync with the beat. Most people around me were singing along to the simple major key melodies, at times rivaling the PA with their collective drunken enthusiasm. Many of the songs were vaguely familiar, and I could’ve pretended that I knew every lyric by heart too, but I stopped myself. Maybe I didn’t quite belong there, but in a way, country roads had delivered me to a place that felt a little bit like home.

photo by kejoli

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