Country is a musical genre that is popular to hate, although many country artists have enjoyed wild success. While choice songs such as Rascal Flatt’s “Life is a Highway,” the Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried,” and John Denver’s classic “Country Roads” are relatively popular, the average person will claim that country music is not their cup of (sweet) tea.
However, I would like to defend the entire genre of country music. Granted, there are plenty of songs that are ridiculous, disrespectful, unmusical, and just poorly written, but this isn’t reason enough to cast aside a whole genre of music. There are trash songs in any playlist. Music taste is, of course, subjective, but it seems to me that many people wrongfully rag on country music, in most cases not giving it a decent chance.
The tune of country music is generally easy-listening, relaxed, predictable, and not complex. The quieter songs are perfect for playing softly while the listener dozes, or reclines and enjoys a meal. The more upbeat tunes are meant to be played loudly while driving down a dirt road with the window down. Generally, even if the song is “busy” with noise, it’s not obnoxious or in-your-face.
The lyrics of country music tend to focus on home life, the singer’s experiences, and simple day-to-day things they enjoy; activities like drinking, driving, courting, playing music, and hanging out with friends. I find this to be a relief. The majority of pop songs nowadays are centered on love; either the singer wishes for love to be returned, or exults that love is dead. The songs tend to be vague, focused on a dance-able beat, surging and empowering. This is all right in its place, and almost everyone can sing along to them and personally connect to the song. Due to the vague lyrics, although I’ve never been in a relationship (much less had an annoying ex) I can join in on Charlie Puth’s “Attention,” and I will dance to that bassline like my life depends on it (thankfully, it doesn’t, or I’d perish).
Country music, however, is often annoyingly specific, sometimes calling people by name, specifying a particular beer or car or gun, and almost includes a shout-out to an exact American region. In a culture where super-fans obsess over finding out every detail about a celebrity’s life, you’d think more people would appreciate how easy country songs make it to stalk an artist.
However, the annoyingly-specific lyrics are what make me love country music. I like hearing a singer share personal experience to back up their claim that life is good (“Homegrown,” Zac Brown Band). I love when someone talks about why they love their wife, their dog, their car, their alcohol, their state, the road they live on (“Dirt Road Anthem,” Jason Aldean). When someone gushes about their love story and how great it is, I smile (“Good Girl,” Dustin Lynch). When a singer reminisces about good times with his family, I am filled with the urge to make memories so I can do the same (“Five More Minutes,” Scott McCreery). I want to feel happy about life the way the country singers do. I want to find the delight and pride they talk about in the little things, like rain coming when you need it, or the light in a sunrise, or your dog loping around, and the overarching religion of it all (“God’s Country,” Blake Shelton).
And when country songs get angsty, (as they do, sometimes. See Carrie Underwood, known for glorifying property damage), they rile me up. But something about the instruments used, the tune, the accent, leaves me satisfied at the end, in a way that other emotional songs don’t. “What Hurts the Most” (by Rascal Flatts) is more than sad; it’s raw. But it’s not kitsch. It’s straightforward without being insincere. “Mayday” (Cam) is tragic and dramatic, but the overall feel is still soft, especially compared to similar songs by hip-hop or pop artists. (I’m thinking of Adele’s “Someone Like You” and “Hello.” These songs, while emotional, aren’t especially “surging” in the music department, but they still make me feel drained and empty after)
I love the little details, all the wordplay (especially in Dustin Lynch songs. And Sam Hunt – “Me and her go way back like Cadillac seats.” I mean, come on, that’s poetry). It signals that the writer is paying attention: they know exactly what they’re feeling, and what they’re gonna do about it. It’s not vague (pop), and it’s not vulgar (rap). It’s just honest, but poetic.
These songs remind us that life is made up of little moments, most of which are forgotten. But maybe they shouldn’t be. Those moments, remembered, are what make humans different from animals, and what make humans different from each other. “Seems like there’s less sand in the hourglass,” Home Free sang (“When You Walk In”), but we can recover what we missed if we slow down. It doesn’t have to be a big parade every day (“Die a Happy Man,” Thomas Rhett), we just have to pay attention.
Country, like no other style of music, is filled with philosophies, homilies, and sweetness. Tim McGraw reminds us to stay “Humble and Kind” in a song that makes me tear up every time. With “In the Blood,” John Mayer is wondering how he can reconcile the traits he’s inherited with the man he wants to be. “Most People are Good” is a theory we all could stand to entertain more often (courtesy of Luke Bryan).
Even if the story is not mine to tell, I sing along when I recognize an emotion that is twin to my own. I’ve never actually “seen rain on the Mississippi delta,” but I don’t have to, because like Home Free, I realize the people I love are a better sight. My life looks nothing like Darius Rucker’s, but I didn’t need to metaphorically hitchhike for seventeen hours to realize I’d rather die free with my analogous sweetheart in Raleigh than allegorically play music up North. It’s about priorities and home. Thus, I will give such a rousing rendition of “Wagon Wheel” that one may wonder if I actually have smoked pot with a trucker. At the same time, I understand the man who leaves Colorado because of that pesky “gypsy soul.” (“Colder Weather,” Zac Brown Band again)
The point is that these detailed stories are personal, and although the details differ from my story, the emotion translates better as the country singer bares his/her soul through plain poetry. As a listener, I am connected to someone I didn’t realize I was similar to. This is simply not achievable when an artist uses music written by someone else, or sings from a distressingly-emotional place when they haven’t taken time to write clearly, or is afraid to tell their story in embarrassing detail. Instead the audience receives a bop that is too relatable to affect their life.
Mankind would benefit more from hearing stories from other men and women. Even the boring ones have their value, and hopefully we will be more appreciative of the quickly-passing moments. Another thing Blake Shelton seems to have gotten right is the fact that deep down, “we all got a hillbilly bone,” and let’s hope we haven’t broken it.
I would like to apologize to other country singers that I haven’t mentioned here, there are too many good ones to name.
Original text by Kimba Wisotsky. Photo from The Big Lead.