[Theme music starts and fades under narration, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Sarah Mizes-Tan, Host: Hey “Mid Pacific” listeners! We have another special bonus episode we are excited to share with you. It’s an episode of another podcast we love, “Asian Americana,” about Asian American culture and history. This episode is called “Country Music for a Baan Nok Boy.”
Before we get into the episode, I wanted to introduce you to the host and producer Quincy Surasmith and hear a bit about the making of the show. Enjoy!
[Theme Music fades out, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Sarah: Hey, Quincy, thank you so much for joining us for a little special Mid Pacific preview of your upcoming episode. You want to go ahead and just explain what is “Asian Americana” for people who aren't familiar?
Quincy Surasmith: I think the tagline I use is slices of distinctly Asian American culture and history. And the slices thing was just like, No one episode is going to be the entirety of what that is, you know? But I was like, Well, we can just do little stories, little bits and pieces from all over the place, from different communities, from different histories. And yeah, just share those and sort of illustrate the long and complex tapestry of Asian American culture and history.
Sarah: Oh, awesome. And you know, I feel like your country music episode in particular really caught my ear. And that's what our listeners are going to be hearing in just a moment. You know, why is it that you kind of gravitated towards wanting to make that connection between Asian-American identity and country music?
Quincy Surasmith: Well, that's the thing, right? Like, I think it was something in my show, something I try to do with my show is that. I want to really paint a really nuanced and specific picture of Asian America. And that means that, yes, there are very strong cultures of Asian Americans who live in big cities with other Asian Americans, and they drink milk tea. And they, you know, like, I don't know, like to go to the same kinds of universities and hang out in certain neighborhoods or whatever. But a lot of what I'm trying to do with “Asian Americana” is like, that is valid. That's definitely some people's experience. But there's all these other experiences across the U.S. that are not that. And so if someone thinks, well, Asian Americans in country music, well, that doesn't that's not something a connection I would make. And I go, Yeah, well, that's why we want to explore it, right? Because that connection also exists. Asian Americans are nuanced and different based on what cultural background they have and where they grow up. This episode, specifically talking to a friend of mine, Timothy Singratsomboune, about his experience growing up in Ohio and having mixed ethnicity. So he has a background from Appalachia and also on his Lao side, he's Laotian. His dad also listened to the Lao version of country music and folk music, and there is a strong connection there. You know, and we use his story to illustrate the example that, like not all Asian Americans listen to the same music or have the same relationship with these things. And where you grow up and what your background is, is going to shape those things.
Sarah: Oh, totally. Yes. I think that was the part of this episode that I loved the most. Not to give too much away to folks who haven't heard it yet, but yeah, I just loved that there was that connection between Lao music and country music. That's like a connection that I think a lot of country music fans might not even think about. And maybe a lot of Lao folk music fans wouldn't think about either. Are there any, like particularly special moments that you want listeners to pay attention to when they hear this?
Quincy Surasmith: I think just kind of take it in and there's a couple points and and I don't know how much I want to spoil things, but one is that the show is scored by primarily Asian-American artists. so you'll hear a little bit of Asian-American country music that's current and modern. So enjoy those, enjoy those little tiny tidbits of that. And then also. Tim, at the end of the episode, really just asked people to think about where Asian-Americans live and they don't always live where you think they do. They are going to live in some places that are considered rural or in “flyover states,” and that doesn't make their communities any less valid in their experiences, any less valid. And I hope people take that part to heart. Like that's part of what the show's about, is that there are all these places and communities that live in these places that are real. They're real experiences, and we deserve to share their stories, too.
[Theme music starts and fades under, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Sarah: Oh, awesome. Well, thank you so much, Quincy. That's Quincy Surasmith. He's the host of “Asian Americana.” It's a podcast that we at “Mid Pacific” absolutely love. So go and give it a listen. Thank you.
That was Quincy Surasmith, host of Asian Americana. And now, here’s the full episode, “Country Music for a Baan Nok Boy.”
[Theme music out, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Quincy Surasmith, Host: It's been a long time in the pandemic. As of this recording, we're approaching two years, a little less. If you go by when the restrictions and quarantines across the world started. During that time, I moved into my own place, and especially in the pre-vaccine period, I try to be really good about not being near other people. I'd only go out to get groceries about every two or three weeks and only saw people in person maybe once every couple of months at a distance. Before the pandemic, my calendar would always be filled up with plans to hang out with friends or attend community events. Now, I didn't even have roommates around. Left to my own devices and stuck at home. I had to find ways to occupy myself. I started cooking way more. I bought an expensive weight set so I could exercise without going to the gym. I added a new guitar to my collection, which reinvigorated my love of playing music as I began to learn to play new songs. But most of the time I reverted to the coping mechanisms of my teenage years. That is, I loiter on the Internet and talk with whichever friends were available on chat messaging apps. DMS, Zoom. If AIM was good enough for me at 14, then all these other tools are going to carry through my need to connect socially in my adulthood. But not everyone saw being isolated as an unwanted restriction.
[Soundbite from Timothy Singratsomboune: So during the pandemic, we were all encouraged to go out and be by ourselves, go out into less populated areas. And I think for a lot of people, like having to do solo activities or more quiet activities has been kind of a punishment. And in country music, there's a lot of themes about like being by yourself, on going out on your own when you put the soundtrack that kind of praises, you know, quiet activities, that praises, you know, less populated areas. I think it puts a more fun spin on it.]
Quincy Surasmith: That's Timothy Singratsomboune
[Timothy Singratsomboune: Yeah. I’m Timothy Singratsomboune. I’m a Lao American artist, storyteller from central Ohio. Right here in Columbus, Ohio. And I use he/him pronouns. And so for me, country music has been a nice decoration to activities I would do out in rural spaces or more like natural spaces. And so I was doing a lot of that, spending a lot of time on farms or out in nature away from people.]
[Country Music Lyrics: One stayed on the setting sun. Behind me. But I had the eyes to see.]
[Timothy Singratsomboune: But as I was growing up, I didn't have the highest esteem for U.S. country music. But just to have some fun and add some decoration to my time in rural America, I would just listen to some of the country music I grew up with. And so it's been really prominent in my mind lately.]
[Country Music Lyrics: To give me grace. To feel the empty space. Singing ohhhhhh ohhhhhh ohhhh]
Quincy Surasmith: Today, we explore Tim’s relationship with country music. What was the relevance of this music to his family? How did his own cultural tastes bring him away from and eventually back to the genre? And how does country music connect him to both Lao culture and the Lao communities he grew up around? I'm Quincy Surasmith and this is “Asian Americana.”
[Country Music Lyrics: We're still here. Going Strong. We're getting tired of proving we belong. We're still her. Goin' strong. We're getting tired of proving we belong.]
Quincy Surasmith: I did not listen to country music growing up. Actually, I didn't actively listen to music at all until I was a teenager. Even in high school, I was more drawn to new wave, early punk rock and alternative bands like They Might Be Giants. It wasn't until college that I started to really give country music a shot. My boss at my work study job had a lot of American roots music on our computer, which led me on a path to classic country. A longtime crush of mine bought me a Johnny Cash CD boxset, which I cherished. I even learned how to play some basic country lead guitar and sing Carter family harmonies. While I was still far from a big country fan, I really grew to appreciate it. Unlike me, Tim grew up with a lot of exposure to country music.
[Timothy Singratsomboune: So my mother, who is white, Appalachian, and she is a diehard Dwight Yoakam fan. And like Dwight Yoakam, her family lineage is rooted in eastern Kentucky in those Appalachian Mountains. And then so many of them move to Columbus, Ohio, because of economic opportunity. And so that's the Dwight Yoakam story. And so she's a diehard fan. But also artists like Schneider Twanging, Martina McBride. Garth Brooks I remember hearing lots of this music growing up. There's definitely like home videos of me as a kid singing like Martina McBride and Dwight Yoakam songs because my mom would play them. So I definitely knew them.]
Quincy Surasmith: Despite the existence of those videos, which I unsuccessfully begged him to share with me, it didn't mean he particularly loved this music growing up.
[Timothy Singratsomboune: I just didn't think it was for me. I didn't think that it spoke to me and I found it to be archaic and just just like a caricature of like, people.]
Quincy Surasmith: He had reservations about the sound.
[Timothy Singratsomboune: Even just, you know, really basic things, like not wanting to really be associated with that accent, which a lot of people in my family don't have like a very like Southern or Appalachian accent just because they've been in Ohio for so long.]
Quincy Surasmith: And the lyrics.
[Timothy Singratsomboune: A lot of the country music, a lot of it is essentially pop themes like Achy Breaky Heart. Like, I appreciate Shania Twain's music, but her lyrics are not fantastic.]
Quincy Surasmith: So he ended up leaning away from the genre.
[Timothy Singratsomboune: I didn't have a huge appreciation for country music when I was a kid who was making my own musical choices, you know, through high school. I really didn't even associate with it. It wasn't my type of thing.]
Quincy Surasmith: For Tim, his wary relationship to country music was also connected to his relationship with his family, both of which were complicated and tied to his ethnic background.
[Timothy Singratsomboune: For me, growing up essentially being mixed race, half white, half Lao. Like even with family, there's certain family, that I know that I'm not going to be safe around or welcome around. And I just know that that's the same with country music. I know that there's been a real big push lately to kind of rebrand country music as more open and more accepting in a lot of ways. I'm sure it is. You know, people like to reference Dolly Parton, who is very accepting and very inclusive, and I know that that does exist. But people forget that there also is like these darker dynamics. And so I still approach it with a lot of caution and I hope the amount of distance and that's kind of how I grew up looking at it.]
Quincy Surasmith: But as time went on, Tim started giving country music a second thought.
[Timothy Singratsomboune: And it was only as I got older with access to the Internet where I could really hone in on country music that I felt spoke to me and said things to me that I appreciated and had music and melodies that I liked.]
Quincy Surasmith: And finding the country music that did speak to him got him rethinking his ideas of what this music was about.
[Timothy Singratsomboune: Yeah, I think one of the big things that I just didn't buy was the country music was probably like the very surface level things that we judge art on.]
[Country Music Lyrics: There was a home. In the back of the canyon. But I didn't want tell you till I had to.]
[Timothy Singratsomboune: But like a lot of it, does touch on like working class struggles. A lot of it does touch on, you know, appreciating the great outdoors, the mountains, the deserts, driving down Route 66. I would hear a mix of different songs and different themes that were very complex, if you will. I can appreciate it for what it is.]
[Country Music Lyrics: Saved my life from the enemies fired, and your wounds would've bled until you died and I might make a piss-poor mother and wife.]
[Country Music Lyrics: But I know the need of a frontier life. I can settle for yours if you can settle for mine. I am on your side.]
Quincy Surasmith: Like we said earlier, this music helped him process being by himself during parts of this pandemic.
[Timothy Singratsomboune: I feel like country music is one of the few genres where, like solace and solitude is one of the themes. It just gave me a new appreciation for it. And like I said, a lot of it really crazy is like being by yourself and being alone. Whereas I feel like pop music is always about hanging out, having fun, going out, getting a date, or when you are alone. It's a sad song. It's a sad pop song.]
[Country Music Lyrics: And that cavern I've been hiding. I told you I would be ok.]
Quincy Surasmith: I asked him which country artists he likes now.
[Timothy Singratsomboune: So some of my personal favorites. I really like the Turks, formerly the Dixie Chicks. I feel like they have a lot of feminist lyrics and I like the themes. They talk about going out into the open and going out into the landscape, which is something I really appreciate more and more. They put a really positive spin on being by yourself, being out in nature, being out in the wilderness. I do. I really appreciate a lot of Martina McBride's songs. I do appreciate a lot of Dolly Parton's music. Dwight Yoakam Definitely. I feel like his music is very as corny as it sounds like music of the people. Like, it definitely doesn't sound very produced. I also really appreciate Bobbie Gentry, who's like really old school, very soul influence, very black urban music influence from like the sixties and seventies. She's a big storyteller and that's something I definitely appreciate in any music that I listen to is like painting a picture, telling a story.]
Quincy Surasmith: But there was another aspect of himself Tim thought about while exploring country music and its spirit.
[Timothy Singratsomboune: You asked me a little bit about like what made me like, appreciate country music more now, and I think very strangely queerness plays into that. So I've been able to reapproach country music by leaning into my own queer identity, and I think that's helped me look at this music in a different type of way. I think for a lot of LGBTQ youth, especially like younger gay men, like the perception is that you want to live in the city, you want to live in the biggest city, you have to live in L.A. or New York or Miami, and you have to listen to a certain type of music.]
[Timothy Singratsomboune: And then I think queerness and that it challenges even the normal behaviors in non-heterosexual communities. Right. Let's break out of that. And so for me, even though I always felt pressure to like, want to live in New York and want to live in Los Angeles using queerness as like a rubric to like kind of define myself, I've realized that I actually do kind of enjoy like small towns, like more natural settings, more rural settings, like a quieter pace of life. That lazy Lao nap for 3 hours in the middle of the day type of life. And so I think that's helped me reengage with country music because I feel like it doesn't actually have to be counter to my identity.]
[Country Music Lyrics: This is a gay Asian country love song. Oh Rascal Flatts, Britney Spears Tai Orathai my booty clap like an Asian gong. Gong, gong, gong. Make this booty clap. This is a gay Asian country love song. I'll be your muscle shirt, rally ride all night long. We're living gay and Asian like we're going to die young.]
Quincy Surasmith: It wasn't just American country music that connected Tim to this rural lifestyle. There's this Lao musical genre, their own style of what could also be considered country music. Mor lam.
[Timothy Singratsomboune: My dad was always playing it in the car. It was Mor lam or John Cougar Mellencamp. [laughs] Those are the only two music he ever played in the car. So I was always around it. I always really, really loved Mor lam. But I think as a kid in America, and I think for a lot of Americans, you ask your parents, Oh, what is this? Or Who is this thing? And they're just like, Oh, just a singer from Laos, Just a singer from Thailand. So they don't really give you a lot of details, but I always loved listening to it.]
Quincy Surasmith: I also love this kind of music. I didn't get into it until I was grown up. But the rhythms and themes of Mor lam from Laos and Thailand's northeast Isan region, as well as Luktoong music, meaning ‘child of the fields’ from the central Thai countryside, became favorites of mine, too. Tim shared with me one of his favorite artists.
[Timothy Singratsomboune: But with Mor lam. I love Thai Orathai. My dad always played her music. Always, always. It was that one song. It's “Wan Thii Bo Mii Ai.” Like ‘a day without my man.’]
[Thai Orathai singing]
[Timothy Singratsomboune: I think on the surface it's like a love song. But when you watch the music video, it's her like against the backdrop of these big city buildings obviously meant to be Bangkok. And there's just like winds blowing, blowing in like a breeze from the country. And it's like definitely speaking to some people who had to leave their home in the countryside and come work in the big city. So even though it's a love song for me, I'm feeling like it's also a metaphor. Like it's not just that your lover has left or that you're separated from your lover, it's that you're separated from your loved ones and your hometown. And you can hear it because it's so sad, but it's so good.]
[Thai Orathai singing]
Quincy Surasmith: Tim explained more about the themes of rural life and humility that he enjoys in this kind of Southeast Asian country music.
[Timothy Singratsomboune: Lao Music, Isan music. You know, countryside music from Southeast Asia can be very self-deprecating in a funny way. And I feel like Lao culture and a lot of Lao art forms aren't scared to make fun of Lao people. Lao people are always joking with each other, calling each other like “Baan Nok.” It's like “bumpkin” and it's very self-deprecating. There's a lot of humor in it. And I feel like that even like in the Lao pop music that's starting to really blossom right now is still very self-deprecating in a really funny way. And so for a lot of Lao people, there's a lot of pride and definitely joy when it comes to talking about being from a small town, sitting on, you know, a mat by the river and drinking a beer all day and taking a nap while you go fishing and things like that. There's just a lot of joy and still a lot of connection to that.]
[Timothy Singratsomboune: So I feel like US country music and I'm sure any music of people in rural areas is very similar, like kind of making fun of yourself as a way to also make fun of city people in a more implicit way. So I really appreciate that they never take themselves too seriously unless it's a super sad song, which they also love.]
Quincy Surasmith: This music also deals with the hardship that comes with the joys and slow pace of countryside life.
[Timothy Singratsomboune: Another big connection is just like, you know, like the connection to poverty, which I feel like goes hand-in-hand with being a bumpkin, a connection to being displaced again. Country music has a lot of songs that value being alone and striking out on your own. There's also a lot of songs about things like being forced out of your home for whatever reason, infidelity, violence, poverty, better opportunity. And that's music to a tee.]
Quincy Surasmith: That reminded me of a song I first heard in my early twenties called “Tai Dam Lam Phan.” It's a song from the early 1970s about how the Tai Dam Lam people in Southeast Asia were displaced during war and for decades are forced to keep walking and moving on far from their homes.
Quincy Surasmith: But I asked him if you ever thought about the same song.
[Timothy Singratsomboune: Yeah, definitely like that sadness, right. Because it even translates right to like the title lament, Right? That sadness is the big part.]
Quincy Surasmith: Tim also explores these musical themes of living away from urban centers as it relates to the Lao American community in the piece he wrote for our Asian-American Design. Here's an excerpt.
[Timothy Singratsomboune: These songs and stories make me reflect on the uniqueness of the Lao community in the US, despite the perception that all Asian Americans live in coastal metropolises. The truth is different for our refugee communities. In the seventies and eighties, Lao refugees were escaping decades of civil war, exacerbated by US imperialism. They had little money or education to bring with them, so they were resettled to whatever locations had cheap housing and blue collar jobs. This means that many of our people were settled into the flyover states where country music is prominent.]
[Country Music Lyrics: Everyone's packing up their cars and headed down the highway. 95 miles never took so long. Didn't have much time. Pick the two favorite things you can carry. Pray you don't run out of gas before the wind gets strong. Who knows if there will be a place to come home to.]
Quincy Surasmith: I asked him more about those Lao-American communities.
[Timothy Singratsomboune: So one of my big passions and one of my big projects in life is just to like, really explore, like just the ways that Lao Americans are unique. Even though there's like, a lot of overlap, of course, with other Asian American groups. But for Lao people, there's a long history, even before colonization, of, you know, just being out in these rural, mountainous landscapes without, you know, big port cities like our Asian neighbors. So for our culture, like the rural life is very ancient. But in the American context, you know, a lot of current dynamics were really reinforced by the wars of the forties, sixties and seventies that really devastated Southeast Asia. And so like I mentioned, a lot of Lao people came to the United States as refugees and refugees just got settled to wherever they could fit in. And a lot of times that would be based around the work that they would do. And so because of the war and because a lot of refugees, you know, didn't have education, they didn't have a lot of skills that would maybe work in a larger urban coastal economy. A lot of farming communities received Southeast Asian refugees, especially a lot of Lao refugees. And my dad, actually, when he first came United States, he lived on a cabbage farm just outside of Rochester, New York. So New York is a coastal state, but upstate New York pretty like bumpkin-y. And because they were just being resettled to whatever community would take them, a lot of food end up in places like Arkansas, across Texas, Oklahoma.]
Quincy Surasmith: Communities like this were far from the kind of centers and resources available in bigger cities along the East and West coasts.
[Timothy Singratsomboune: I don't think I've ever really seen that acknowledged in media or even in community advocacy. I don't know a lot of Asian-American groups that go into rural areas. And then in the media, I think it's become slightly more prominent now. We have films like Minari, right, which takes place, I think, in Arkansas, actually. And there's so many Lao people and Southeast Asians, you know, in the South, I think people are a little bit more familiar with Vietnamese around the Gulf Coast, around New Orleans and Houston and things. But Lao people, there's huge communities in Louisiana, but not even in New Orleans, in the urban centers out west on the Cajun prairies, where you found a lot of people in Louisiana. And I just think there's a story to tell, whether we want to tell that to, you know, the wider world, to wider Asian America, or just to acknowledge within ourselves. Right. Because we can also just there are within our own community as well. I even want to push other Lao Americans to go and look for Lao Americans in these areas where we're told that there aren't Asian people, where there is no Asian American culture. Because in New Iberia, Louisiana, and in Fort Smith, Arkansas, if I were to name these places, you would probably say, oh, it's probably not worth your time to, you know, go looking for Asian people. But there's actually huge, huge Lao American communities there. And so I think in sharing, you know, this part of our history, it helps ensure that nobody gets left out.]
Quincy Surasmith: I asked him to read one more passage from his piece in our Asian-Americana Zine.
[Timothy Singratsomboune: This makes me think back to my own father. I remember riding in a pickup truck with him in some Champasak Province when he told me the story of his short life with my mother's paternal family and the rural hollers of Eastern Kentucky in the early eighties. My parents left Ohio to look for a better opportunity in Rhode Island, living in a two bedroom Providence apartment with two other Lao refugee families. That didn't work out, so they hopped on a Greyhound bus headed for Ashland, Kentucky. My maternal grandfather got my dad a job driving massive coal trucks up the new vertical sides of mountains. But my dad wouldn't live this Kentucky life for more than a few weeks. My parents knew that reading and writing wasn't going to help them. And Martin County, Kentucky. So they hit Route 23 back to Columbus. Now, that's a country song, if there ever was one.]
[Country Music Lyrics: She was leaving Iowa. Daddy said she was wasting time chasing rainbows and dreams. She was never gonna. He had his own plans for life. Said this road won't take you for no bother coming back when they don't make you a star. That Tennessee river echoes the endless blue sky, and those dogwoods in spring make you ready to leave Everything behind. But that music highway. That leads yuo to the center of the state. If he could speak, it'd tell dou how many hearts it's seen break.]
[Country Music Lyrics: Hearts that said they'd show that old rhyming stage. But it ain't never seen. You just wait. I'm gonna be the next big thing.]
Quincy Surasmith: Sometimes you hear your stories in these songs, whether or not they were originally written for you. Sometimes you have to write your own songs and tell your own stories, hoping that they reach whoever needs to hear them. Either way, let's keep writing. Let's keep listening. And let's keep sharing. Thank you to Tim for talking with me in this episode. You can learn more about his work at singhasonh.com. Or on Patreon, Twitter and Instagram at singson. Thanks also to Tim for writing for the “Asian Americana Zine.” You'll have to join our Patreon if you want to read Tim's whole piece as well as the rest of the zine.
[Country Music Lyrics: We are the children of the... ]
Quincy Surasmith: “Asian Americana” is hosted and produced by me, Quincy Surasmith. Our opening song is “We Belong” by Magnetic North in Taiyo Na, featuring Kris Ashima. The song you're hearing with these credits is “We Are the Children” by Kris Ashima, Nobuko Miyamoto and Charlie Chen. The music you heard during this episode included “The Road” by The Idle Hours, featuring B.J. Cole. “I'm On Your Side” by Good Luck Ola. “Gay Asian Country Love Song” by Nathan Ramos-Park. “Tai Dam Lam Phan” by Ko Viseth. We ended with “Who Knows” and “Next Big Thing” by Betty Soo. That's Betty S-O-O. You can find links to all these artists on our website. You can visit our site, an Asian-Americana.con. Find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at Asian_Americana. If you like the show these rating reviews on Apple Podcasts, if you really like the show, you can donate by becoming a monthly supporter on Patreon. There you can get our fifth anniversary zine T-shirts and stickers. Just click the support button on our website. “Asian American” is a proud founding member of Potluck, a collective of podcasts featuring voices and stories from the Asian-American community. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for more stories of “Asian Americana.”
[Country Music Lyrics: Nextdoor neighbor secretly rooting for the other side…]
[Theme music begins, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Sarah: I’m Sarah Mizes Tan. Thanks for listening to this bonus episode. Don’t forget to follow Mid Pacific to make sure you don’t miss any episodes. Thanks for listening.
[Theme music up and out, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]