I’m not a huge fan of Country music myself, although I did grow up on it. Whenever I drove with my dad anywhere in the hills of Central New York, we did so to the tunes of George Strait, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, and Alan Jackson. We’d turn on one of the many country stations in my rural home region, and go rolling through the hills in his truck, windows down, sun kissing our arms.
However, as I grew up, I started to become more attracted to Indie, Alternative, and Classic Rock. I fell in love with Vampire Weekend, the Black Keys, and Led Zeppelin. I started on a tailspin into every other genre. I fell for Green Day, which led to me falling for MCR, Fall Out Boy, Panic! At The Disco, and many other great punk bands. I fell for The Velvet Underground, which led me to the Ramones, David Bowie, and Iggy Pop. I fell for Stevie Wonder, which led me to the Isley Brothers, The Spinners, Aretha and Sam Cooke.
I found groups that I adored in every genre, but I always gravitated towards the same thing: blues, twang, and a southern drawl. Classic groups like Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Eagles, The Doobie Brothers or The Allman Brothers always tugged at my heartstrings. There’s that simple southern charm to their works. CCR’s “Down On The Corner” is one of the friendliest southern hospitality affirming songs of all time. The blues can express heartbreak unlike any other genre. These are the aspects that make coutry. A combination of folk, blues, and rock.
The country everyone thinks about, with the tractors, beer and “redneck party” bullshit, didn’t come into play until the late 90’s and really took off after 9/11. That certifiable crap is country pop. It’s the country version of some of the shit we hear on the radio (all eyes can temporarily shift towards OMI, Katy Perry, and a plethora of sellouts with a scornful glare.) The true spirit of Country can be found in oldies like Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, and Hank Williams and in new acts such as Chris Stapleton, Zac Brown Band, and Eric Church.
These are the songs that make your heart break. Brad Paisley and Allison Krauss’ classic ballad duet, “Whiskey Lullaby” tells the story of a couple unable to cope with their breakup, resulting in the man committing suicide and the woman following suit out of guilt. Songs like Zac Brown’s “Jump Right In” get the party going in that summer, southern feel, but without all the blunt references to beer, hot women, and being a redneck southerner. It talks about good times, friends and family, and letting your hair down and having fun in the water and sun. Alan Jackson’s “Remember When” beautifully paints the picture of a couple’s love, vows, and life together. Remembering every big moment in a sweet, connected, lyrical lullaby.
Country music gets a lot of flak. It’s considered a “lesser” genre by many. Most people won’t even give it a chance. When listing their favorite genres, most people will say “I listen to most things, except country.” The people who like it are the ones who grew up on it, who know it’s deeper, more emotional core. It is a genre of fun and heartbreak, parties and romance. But it is not all “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” Many of those “redneck songs” (at least in the beginning of the fad) were just fun, drinking songs, making fun of themselves, not taking themselves too seriously. This is another aspect of the spirit of country, there’s the heavy, heartbreak side, and the light, fun, drinking song side. However, beyond 9/11, in the mostly Republican, Uber-Nationalism world that Country Music lives in, the schism between the city life and the country life, Democrats and Republicans, hipsters and Rednecks. The Country identity began to shift. It went from the John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Johnny Cash cowboys and tough guys to the Larry The Cable Guys, Red Solo Cups, Redneck Yacht Clubs.
Record Labels noticed this shift and started churning out garbage about the redneck life. Songs suddenly went from being about southern values, the great outdoors, love, heartbreak family and living life to it’s fullest, and became all about beer, parties, summertime, and pretty women. It became about trucks, playing in the mud, and it became hyper-nationalistic. These songs created the idea that if someone doesn’t support every war effort, they’re un-American. It fed into the ideas of Conservatism and “Small Town Values” dominating the political scheme. It made every hard working, blue collar man, feel obligated to drive a truck, most likely diesel. It made the split between Country and City drastic. It caused isolationism within the genre and culture. It led to those who identify with it and those who do not to butt heads and never be able to agree on anything. One could argue that it led to the rise of the Tea Party, Donald Trump and the complete immobility of Congress.
But the music, the pure, raw emotion is still there. It’s not on the radio as much as the garbage, but it is there. Listen to Eric Church’s “Springsteen” and feel that rush of nostalgia for your younger years. Listen to Chris Stapleton’s album, Traveler, and hear his amazing bluesy voice emulate pain and heartbreak while his guitar wraps you in a wool blanket and hands you a glass of whiskey. Listen to Zac Brown Band jam to it’s arena rocking tunes on Uncaged and hear the ups and downs of this genre, reminding one of driving through the hills at sunset with the windows down and a beautiful girl in the passenger seat, hiking up gorges and seeing nature in its glory, and laughing at bonfires with friends, creating beautiful memories.
Country music, the country lifestyle, they are not what people think of. It’s not all beer and guns. It’s not all racism and discrimination. It’s not all hurr-n-durr-n-nascar-n-tabakker, it’s a beautiful embodiment of America’s social and political diversity. We all need to step outside our comfort zones and experience other genres and lifestyles. Else we’ll be confined to our own little bubbles, never making compromises and stuck in a world of stagnation.