As I write this, I’m listening to Alan Jackson and tapping my feet to the sound of the happy little fiddle that seems to just squeak “Hey, y’all!” in nearly every country song it’s featured in. It’s always been one of my favorite sounds, and is featured prominently in that lovely genre of music that seems to serve as the sonic punching-bag for the modern intellectual.
And if I think about it, country’s pretty easy to pick on. There are many things about it to dislike, even if it’s more based on our own perceptions about the music than the music or musicians itself. Sure, we can look at country music and see overtones of intolerance, ignorance, xenophobia, and bigotry. And yes, there are some artists who pander to the lowest-common-denominator of the underpaid and undereducated and feed into their hateful fears about the changing world around them.
But they are few and far between in the scope of country music.
I spent my childhood in North Carolina, right in the buckle of the Bible Belt, where we do indeed put a lot of sugar in our tea and gravy on our biscuits. The food is delicious in the south, and it’s true that the people are generally nicer. A lot of the stereotypes are well-founded. Hospitality goes beyond being a point of pride to being one of the most essential qualities we possess. If you can’t make your guests feel welcome and comfortable, well, you’re kind of a failure. And maybe that’s wrong, maybe holding so much stock in such antiquated practices is not the best thing for a culture or a people, but that’s the way southerners are.
And along with this love of being a good host, the tight-knit families, and the overwhelming sense of community (that can occasionally feel quite cloying, everyone knows everything) there was always a warm, familliar soundtrack of country music playing in the background. In trucks on old dirt roads, in boom boxes on docks, in the grocery store, even on the radio in the schoolyard–it was there. Country music fills the south like a particularly strong perfume in a small room. If you don’t like it, you’re gonna have a hard time getting along. And it’s true that if you tell people in the south that you don’t like country–you’re going to be met with a few raised eyebrows.
Of course, if it’s not your taste musically–by all means, don’t listen to it. I don’t listen to death metal, and it has nothing to do with my distaste for its message. (Cannibal Corpse’s ideology, for example, so closely aligns with my own it’s uncomfortable at times.) But to hate country music, and mock it, for the simplicity and backwards nature of its lyrics and fan base seems, beyond being somewhat cruel, completely wrong.
It is true that a lot of country music focuses on the simple pleasures in life–a nice cold beer, playing catch with your father, a long walk through the grass, the much-famed dog, truck, and woman Holy Trinity. And its easy to look at that simplicity and mistake it for ignorance. There is a degree of nostalgia to country music, and beyond that, a desire to cling to things that are quickly disappearing today. Every generation likes to extol the virtues of the proverbial Good Old Days, but even if we look at the simplest pleasures of country, it’s pretty easy to say that some losses are truly being mourned. The tenant of working hard and providing a good, if humble, life for your family–one of the most fundamental themes in country music–now seems like a pipe dream. Beyond the evaporating middle class and the sky-high divorce rate, pop culture itself objectifies fast living, easy money, and emotionless encounters. Country music is charming, if a bit naive, in its desire to preserve all that was hard-wrought but honest and valuable about their fathers’ generations.
And though the constant messages of earnest, traditional living can become a bit saccharine, it’s refreshing when compared against the top-40 radio hits that only think women are good in so much as they can shake their asses and that the only way to handle money is to get it fast and spent it on diamond-encrusted televisions. Even the love affair country music has with manual labor is charming, especially when living in a time of imaginary money and appallingly rich corporations. The work you can see under your fingernails at the end of the day is a work, by any standard, that’s still to be admired.
There are things to be made fun of amongst country music, sure, but that’s true of any genre. There are going to be many Toby Keiths for every Willie Nelson, and they may even do songs together! But to look at an entire musical culture and feel superior to its listeners, despite how brimming with talent and originality it is, only further separates the Two Americas that so many of us believe exists. There’s the smart coasts that vote blue, shop at Whole Foods, like to visit other countries, and say words like gentrification. Then there’s the middle-of-nowhere Red Staters that cling to their Bibles and guns and fear, listening to Brooks and Dunn as they rock back and forth in the corner.
As nice (and simple) as that perfect little divide is, and as helpful as it must be in the quest to feel superior to all of those horrible people who made Bush a two-termer, it’s just not true. Country music and the people who love it are as diverse and interesting as anyone who would sell their kidney to hang out with Fleet Foxes. Hating country is easy, but it certainly isn’t smart.