Asking people what kind of music they like can be a loaded question. People want to seem open-minded, yet cool, which for some reason tends to inspire this insipid response: “I like pretty much everything. Except country.”
(The hipster variation on this, of course, is to claim that you actually do like country, that is, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and Patsy Cline, ie anything other than what actual modern country fans actually listen to.)
I call bullshit. Country music is awesome, and those who write it off are allowing blue state elitism to get the last laugh. If you've never given it a chance — a serious chance — you're missing out on a soundtrack to the rowdiest good times and greatest heartbreaks of your life.
Growing up a city kid, it was Alanis Morissette and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony that spun in my Discman, not Garth Brooks. After college I moved to Chicago, a city where Irish pubs bump “Jesse's Girl,” “Livin' on a Prayer” and anything by the Black-Eyed Peas at pretty much all times.
Or so I thought, until one hot summer night, when some friends and I visited one of our stand-bys on a Sunday for the first time. It was nearly empty, and the bartender was dishing out free shots. The music was country, and not just the classic kind, but twangy radio hits that, to my surprise, seemed to go quite well with my shorts, flip-flops, and tipsy mind state. “Looks like we got ourselves some new Hillbilly Sunday regulars,” said the bartender.
Turned out he was right. We kept coming back, at first, I admit, for the tiny bar tabs. But after a while I began to recognize some of the tunes played, and it occurred to me that they went better with my PBR than any Shins song I'd ever heard. Before I knew it I was obsessed.
Country music fits a certain mood–the “let's circle up some lawn chairs and give up caring what happens to the rest of the day” kind. There's an easiness to it, but that doesn't make it simplistic. Despite the sometimes funny themes, the genre features serious singer-songwriter chops, with tracks about turning 21 in prison and the reason God made Oklahoma. Then there's the one in which Brad Paisley leaves his wife for fishing, and another in which Toby Keith and Willie Nelson buy whiskey for their men and beer for their horses. There's even one about a boy who climbs a water tower and paints a 10-foot heart in John Deere green paint because it's his girl Charlene's favorite color. That's sweet. That's hilarious. That's a good time.
Contrary to popular belief, country music isn't just for truckers and backwoods barflies. It's for the trucker and backwoods barfly in all of us. When you're on a quiet road with the windows down or just relaxing in the backyard, nothing else sounds as good. And when your heart's broken — you have my word — there's a country song to help you cry it out.
It's not clear why country has developed such a bad reputation among the liberal arts crowd. Sure, there's a lot of God and America stuff, but is that any more noxious than the boning-in-the-club mentality of pop and hip-hop? If you take your blinders off, you'll see there's real care in the songs on country radio, real craft, and often, very real soul.
But that isn't even the point. The point is you can love Alan Jackson, Dierks Bentley, Weezer, Ludacris, Sleigh Bells and Sam Cooke, like I do, and none needs to cancel the others out. That's the beauty of music, isn't it? You don't have to choose. You can have it all.