Growing up in Wayne County I heard my share of country, but usually not by my own choice. Whenever my dad would work on the farm he would leave the windows rolled down on his truck and let Z93 play while he piled brush or some other farm related activity (I was probably supposed to be helping, but was entirely consumed by breaking sticks on trees or throwing rocks in cow piles. You know, important stuff like that). I would, of course, hear songs on the radio. At this point in life, I still hadn't developed any sort of preference in music so I didn't mind it. Only when I was older, in those glorious teenage years, did I start to develop a distaste for the genre. If I heard country on, I would change the station and usually make some sort of unnecessary remark about how it was depressing, sad, or something equally inarticulate. In retrospect, most of my disdain for country was based on image. I did not want to be 'country' in any way. I was fighting back against where I was from without actually trying to understand it. I just knew that I was not going to be some backwards, redneck, cousin-loving hillbilly. In order to prevent that from happening I had to strip country from my musical diet. One twangy chorus or a little too much fiddle and I'd be getting hot and bothered at the family reunion and putting gun racks in my Mazda.
Then I went to college. My accent was there then and it's here now. Thus, as soon as I spoke everyone thought I was the hillbilly I had tried so hard not to become. After moving to Lexington, I quickly realized that I was far more country than I had ever thought. I will always love Monticello, but having the opportunity to move away was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. It took leaving for me to realize that Wayne County was home and always will be, no matter where I may end up someday. But only when I could contrast myself and my upbringing with that of others did I begin to understand who I was. That is why I plan to go to law school out of state. New experiences allow us to put the old ones in perspective. [Insert forest and trees cliché here].
What does this Hallmark movie, coming-of-age crap have to do with country music? Everything, of course. As I would drive home I found myself more and more often switching over to the country stations. Slowly but surely, I became a fan.
But my love of country comes with many caveats. I do not like much new country music. Much of what comes out now falls into one of three undesirable camps:
1.) Country that sounds like a boy band or pop music in general (only with creepy middle-aged dudes that look like accountants with highlights. Looking at you, Rascal Flatts).
2.) Country music that brags about being a "redneck." (Looking at you, Gretchen Wilson). Country music has always sang about rural people and the working class, but it spoke to hard work, dignity, family, and love. It did not seek to fulfill and perpetuate stereotypes, created in large part by urbanites and the media, that portray rural people as backwards and without tact or class. By tapping into these fictitious images, this type of country music is doing little to show the true character of the people it purportedly represents.
3.) Overly sexualized country. I am not saying country hasn't always had sexual themes (to quote the great Jimmy Cooper "Conway Twitty makes me feel like I need a shower"), but Twitty wasn't singing about a Honky Tonk Badonkadonk either; he was more poetic about it. Maybe what Twitty sang was the Honky Tonk Badonkadonk of his time or maybe I'm just an old, curmudgeonly man before my time (that is most likely).
As an example of country's decline I offer you two songs from the same group, Brooks and Dunn.
There is a drastic, terrible shift that happened somewhere in between. Kind of like what happened between Home Alone 2 and 3. Only that involved a changing of lead actors. And in my case the band members stayed the same. So it's a terrible analogy. But you get the picture: something bad happened. Like when Britney Spears shaved her head. Yes. Just like that.
Country music isn't for everyone. But before some of you dismiss it as obnoxious, depressing, or the like I would keep this in mind: what I consider to be real country music is cathartic. Music is a way to express or release emotion. Some can create it. Others, like myself, can only listen. Whether you're belting out Taking Back Sunday on your way to class or singing some REO Speedwagon on the way home from work (or in my case crooning along to Neon Moon) you're using music as an outlet to express something maybe you couldn't otherwise. Even if the lyrics are not your own, they mean something to you. You take those words and assign them a meaning greater than whatever their standard definition may be. The song becomes yours. They may be a person or an event from your past or that new guy or girl that you just met today. And that is the beauty of art in all of its various forms. Yes it can be pleasing aesthetically, but what really makes it wonderful is the way it allows for expression by creator and patron alike. That's what makes it truly beautiful.
To me, that is the difference between 'good' and 'bad' country music. If you see a girl at the market and the first thing you want to do is check her for ticks I would suggest a different girl and probably a new grocery (looking at you Brad Paisley. What the hell happened to Whiskey Lullaby? Another terrible shift. I digress).
The good stuff is about something. It moves beyond the material and the superficial to tap into something just a tad deeper.
Whatever your musical persuasion, I hope it can do the same for you.