If you admit to liking country music you’ll get those looks. It’s like people are discovering an unknown but strange side of your personality. This is the same look you’d get for joining the Rand Paul presidential campaign or going on a reality show. But that’s a better reaction than you’d get from roots aficionados. They’ll say they too like country music — but only the non-commercial, authentic stuff. Hardly anyone will admit to being a fan of big hat and big hair country music — the kind portrayed on the TV show Nashville.
Country has always had a disreputable, low-rent reputation; the cliché is that country fans are rural, gap-toothed hicks with gun racks on their pick-up trucks. Even my friends from the South are defensive about it, making sure I know that “not everyone in the South listens to country music.” But half the time these critics don’t really know what it is they don’t like. They’re reacting to the corny “Hee Haw” stereotype of the 60’s and 70’s, without appreciating that the country genre crosses many types of music. This ignorance is especially high in the New York metro area, where they are no country radio stations and few honky-tonk clubs.
Part of the problem is that there’s no real agreement on what constitutes “real” country, and in some cases artists who call themselves “country” don’t seem that different from mainstream pop (I’m talking to you Taylor Swift.) For me, country music should have a particular sound – something with a steel guitar, fiddle or twanging vocalist. But even more important is the song itself. Country music is always about something; it’s a short story in rhyme. In fact, what I like about country music is exactly what brands it as an unsophisticated, simplistic art form: the songs can be happy, angry, melancholy, fun, sarcastic, or patriotic, but you don’t have to work hard to understand their point.
In this respect, country is the opposite of rock, where the lyrics are the least important part of the song. Half the time you can’t understand the words because they are slurred or overwhelmed by the music, and then, even when you can hear them, the meaning is opaque. Even my beloved Beatles wrote elliptically, in confusing symbols and images. Who exactly was Lucy in the sky with diamonds? I am the eggman AND the walrus? Huh? You would never sit around a dorm room spinning theories on the deeper meaning of a country song. Country music is too down-to-earth and unpretentious for that.
But what I like best about country music is that it addresses the full range of cares and concerns that occur in a human life. Rock and pop are almost always about love – new love, old love, failed love. Country music certainly covers this area (especially the realm of someone’s cheatin’ heart), but it also understands that a meaningful life is about more than the state of your romantic attachments.
Some of the staples of country music include:
1. Accepting fate. Country music is very clear that people are not really in charge of their own destinies. As Darius Rucker and Kenny Chesney point out respectively in “This,” and “There goes my Life” (see videos below) you don’t have to achieve your dreams to have a happy life. In fact, sometimes not reaching your dreams is the best thing.
2. Female empowerment and a celebration of women. Women give as good as they get in country music. No one pushes them around. There are countless country songs about women getting by on their own, like George Strait’s “She Let Herself Go,” or songs about women acting an awful lot like men, as in Terri Clark’s hilarious “Girls Lie Too” . But my favorite song celebrating women is Martina McBride’s “This One’s For Girls.”
3. Patriotism. More than anything else, the overt my-country-right-or-wrong patriotism of country music sticks in the craw of those who like complexity in their music. There’s nothing subtle about Toby Keith’s controversial “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue” which warns terrorists that the Uncle Sam is “going to put a boot in your ass.” Myself, I find this un-PC approach as exhilarating today as it was right after September 11. Same with Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning.”
4 Religion. Of all the major country themes, I enjoy the God songs the least. They tend to be overly sentimental, mawkish or downright theologically suspect. However, “I Saw God Today,” by George Strait is so simple and direct that it makes a better case for God’s existence than many sermons.
5 Drinking songs. Country music has a love/hate relationship with the bottle. Mostly love, as in Toby Keith’s “I Love this Bar and Alan Jackson’s “It’s Five O’clock Somewhere” ). But sometimes there are cautionary tales, as in Brad Paisley’s “Alcohol”
6 Family: There are country songs about every family relationship you can think of, including sisters, brothers, grandparents and of course parents. These tend to be tearjerkers, as in Bucky Covington’s “A Father’s Love,” Sometimes they are more rueful. What parent, for example, hasn’t felt like Martina McBride in “Teenage Daughters”
7 The heroism of everyday life. Country music shows that every life has value, not just the most celebrated ones. Jamie O’Neal makes this explicit in “Somebody’s Hero” as do Brooks and Dun in “Red Dirt Road.”
8 Dreams of Escape: Country music gives voice to the frustrations that people have in their daily lives, as in Sugarland’s “Something more” or their fantasies of escape, as in Kenny Cheney’s “No Shoes No Shirt No Problem” and Blake Shelton’s “Some Beach”.
9 Small towns: Country music’s core audience is rural America and the genre is always ready to pay back some love and celebrate small town values – to a certain extent. In Miranda Lambert’s “Famous in a Small Town” , you never get lonely, but you also have no privacy. In Rodney Atkins’ “These Are My People” life a small town isn’t perfect, but it’s “real.”
10 Humor: What a lot of people don’t appreciate is how funny country music is. Half of country songs takes life very seriously, but the rest seems to imply that life is essentially a cosmic joke and that you’re better off playing it for laughs. The humor can be dry or it can be played for pure slapstick. Two of my favorite humorous numbers are “What was I thinking?” by Dirks Bentley , and “Online” by Brad Paisley
When our family goes on vacation, the first thing we do is find the local country music station – because there always is a local country music station outside New York City. This makes the trip seem more strange and exotic. We are reminded that not every country song a classic. There’s a lot of country schlock and there are plenty of country artists I don’t really like (e.g., Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood). And I really wouldn’t want an exclusive diet of country music. But I actually feel sorry for people who have never dipped into country music. There’s no quicker way to get an emotional rush. These simple songs of nostalgia, longing, regret, acceptance, and hope can bring a tear or a smile in three minutes or less. It’s nice to feel alive again.