The Cowboy Way


There is something rather disquieting about walking into the first-floor gallery at the Forum for Contemporary Art to see Larry Krone’s exhibit To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before, but it’s difficult to say just what it is. On the surface, nothing seems too disturbing: A few festive-looking handmade cowboy outfits hang forlornly on dressmaker’s dummies. A cactus-wood lamp stands on a little shelf.

There is art on the walls, too, hundreds of little panes of glass, meticulously attached with metal pins. And each little pane frames a word from a song, formed in childlike cursive writing — in the artist’s hair.

It seems painfully appropriate for lyrics to songs like “Always on My Mind,” “I Told You So” and even “Margaritaville” to be written out in this way. These songs are, after all, about pain and love, about the heart- and gut-wrenching realization that you didn’t do what you should have done; that someone who says, “I told you so,” might be right; and that it just could be your own damn fault.

Krone delves head-first into this melancholy arena, and the result is totally absorbing, if slightly unnerving. It’s as if we have been given the chance to peek into very personal, even embarrassingly sentimental, corners of Krone’s private life. These look like the works of a penitent who has sewn his own hair shirt, in the form of mantras of self-flagellation: “I’m sorry,” “I keep pretending I don’t love you anymore,” “Leave me if you need to.”

Of course, the suggestions of pain and the self-flagellation idea might apply more perfectly had Krone collected his hair by yanking out individual strands, as I first assumed. He doesn’t; he gets the hair from the shower drain. But no matter. The individual hair-words still possess the quality of precious relics, with all the vulnerability and pain they suggest.

And there is something quite beautiful in the thought of Krone’s devotion, the hours of time spent spelling out songs that are so often dismissed as schlocky, sappy or just plain bad. Krone identifies the real value in these songs — the fact that they unabashedly reveal sentiments lots of us share but aren’t allowed to wear on our sleeves.

The cowboy outfits are likewise handmade in an awkward and sweetly childlike manner. Working from patterns for fancy cowboy shirts and cowgirl dresses, Krone brings together materials such as shiny lame and fringe, laying them over denim (not tough, thick denim, mind you, but that weird kind of denim that looks and feels more like polyester and was reserved for “dressing up” among the kids I grew up with in Arizona).

Lucky viewers got to see these outfits in action during the Nov. 28 performance of Love Can Build a Bridge, an extravaganza featuring Krone and friends singing a selection of country hits to the accompaniment of Krone’s ukelele. I had feared that the performance would come off as a mocking sendup of country giants like Dolly Parton and Randy Travis. And to be truthful, I think some of the usual black-clad art hipsters who attended were hoping for the chance to revel in more kitsch.

But to his credit, Krone didn’t allow Love Can Build a Bridge to turn into a kitsch-fest. Krone’s voice (and his command of the ukelele) possesses all of the innocence and vulnerability of his handiwork with hair, and his performance of songs such as Merle Haggard’s “Shopping for Dresses” and Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” was so spare and serious that you couldn’t help being drawn in.

Now that the gala performance is over, we are left with To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before, the exhibit, and that strangely painful and voyeuristic feeling that the art works produce. The “hair pieces,” the Western cactus lamp, the country songs and the cowboy outfits all look like byproducts of a long and arduous search for authenticity, in love, in emotion, in country music.

I may be completely wrong. They could just as easily be sophisticated attempts to mimic these effects, to dismantle the idea of authenticity itself and the role it plays in the country genre. But what a letdown that would be! It’s so much more fun to sing along with Larry and have a good cry.

Originally published by Riverfront Times Dec 16, 1998
©2003 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.

Copyright 1998 by Ivy Schroeder