In Defense Of Country Music

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. TC mark

image – Alex Ford

Chelsea Fagan

Chelsea Fagan founded the blog The Financial Diet. She is on Twitter.

Trace the scars life has left you. It will remind you that at one point, you fought for something. You believed.

“You are the only person who gets to decide if you are happy or not—do not put your happiness into the hands of other people. Do not make it contingent on their acceptance of you or their feelings for you. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if someone dislikes you or if someone doesn’t want to be with you. All that matters is that you are happy with the person you are becoming. All that matters is that you like yourself, that you are proud of what you are putting out into the world. You are in charge of your joy, of your worth. You get to be your own validation. Please don’t ever forget that.” — Bianca Sparacino

Excerpted from The Strength In Our Scars by Bianca Sparacino.

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  • Sollux

    Thank you for this. I grew up constantly pissing on country to show how clever I was, but now that I’m surrounded by that attitude (oh, Amherst MA) I realize how ignorant and obnoxious it really is.

    • Sarah

      Yesss I grew up listening to country music and getting mildly pissed on for it in CNY and now I’m in Amherst too and it does come off as straight ignorance. Then there are the lax bros who listen to Chicken Fried “ironically” and that’s even worse, god.

      • Sollux

        Oh man, are you a five college student by any chance? I’m a Hampshire girl. You can imagine how much shit I take.

      • Sarah

        Yup, sophomore at Amherst. We probably both take about the same amount of shit for this haha. Amherst and Hampshire definitely both have their own kind of super pretentiousness.

      • Guesty

        I went to Hampshire and it was hard  BUT THEY COULD NEVER CRUSH THE COUNTRY IN MY SOUL

  • schnickelfritz

    Country music represents a side of humanity that many who mock have yet to experience. Some of my fondest memories during college were of times spent in rural Tennessee. We spent our days riding horses through the back country trails and streams while sipping on brews (and maybe taking a hit or two of some mj), only to come back to a nice supper of good southern food, more beer (of course), and friendly chatter while sitting on the back porch–with the sounds of a country radio on in the kitchen, the crickets and frogs chirping wildly, and the stars above you.  It’s extremely peaceful to get away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the world. The music makes sense once you’ve lived it. 

    • Megan

      mj

      • Schnickelfritz

        Some dank ass weed. Better?

    • DOUCHEGIRL

      Very true. Your experience reminded me of those times I went to Springhill, FL. Not exactly rural Tennessee but close. 

      At times it felt like I was actually living a country song and I loved it. 

  • freddy

    I love country music. Not so much the kind of country this article is describing, though. Give me Hank III any day.

    • Sarah

      Hank III? I’ll take Hank I over Hank III pretty much every time haha.

      • freddy

        Sure, the originals the best, but III’s the way to go nowadays. Skipping II is fine with me.

      • freddy

        Sure, the originals the best, but III’s the way to go nowadays. Skipping II is fine with me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/CaseyJonesATX Casey Jones

    Chelsea, read  Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity by Richard Peterson

  • Guest

    dude, steve fucking earle. that’s all.

    • http://www.facebook.com/CaseyJonesATX Casey Jones

      And Justin!

  • http://twitter.com/HipsterFriend HipsterFriend

    Came expecting some sort of valid defense for modern country’s musical and lyrical atrocities. All I really got was “well it’s better than top 40.”

    “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.”

    And for every “Get Low,” there’s a “Honky-Tonk Badonkadonk.”

    Mainstream country hasn’t been good since outlaws went mainstream (Willie, Waylon, etc). I love Ryan Adams, the Jayhawks, Conor Oberst (who’s catalog extends past country-esque sounds, but includes them), and I just saw Willie Nelson live last week. That said, modern mainstream country is plagued by the same problems as modern top 40, but adds to them generic fiddle/steel lines; really annoying, overplayed accents; and backwards, philistine mentalities about people who aren’t white American Christians.

    Golf Wang.

    • Angela

      Toby Keith cannot come up with a song if it does not include the word “America”.  And Brad Paisley is just ridiculous, I cannot believe someone can make a living singing the shit he sings.  And a part of me dies when I hear Honky Tonk Badonkadonk….really “slap your grandma”?

  • Chrissy Wilson

    Love this! I get sick of people always saying “I like every kind of music…except country.” Really?  Euro-beats, punk, classical, gangsta rap, Christian rock, and chanting monks are all rotating on your iPod, but you have beef with Johnny Cash?

    • A.

      That’s the worst response. When someone tells me that, I always ask them if they listen to African Mambo… cause, you know, that’s encompassed in “everything”

    • Guesty

      I’m going to start saying that I like everything except gregorian chants

  • http://www.friends-are-electric.com JamesP

    Saying you hate country music as a whole is probably too much of a generalization, but thats likely true of any term as broad and general as country.  But I must admit that any time I’ve been subjected to country radio the experience cannot end quickly enough.

  • justafriend

    don’t really like country music, but i agree with this.

    you know, i feel like i have a pretty good idea of what the tc regular writers would be like in person (i get the hipstery williamsburg too cool for school vibe from most) but i honestly have no clue what chelsea fagan islike in real life…your articles paint a pretty interesting picture. keep it up bro

  • http://www.nosexcity.com NoSexCity

    Honestly, I was expecting there to be a country mixtape at the end. Disappointed!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matisse-Jenkins/742298725 Matisse Jenkins

    Country life, ohhhh yes.

    Yeeep, I’m from Sebright. I know the birthday of every single person who lives in my town.

  • Guesty

    I WAS A HIGHWAYMAN
    ON THE COACH ROADS I DID RIDE!
    MY SWORD AND PISTOL BY MY SIDE

  • http://michaelynch.com Michael Lynch

    I loved this piece. Great job. It was well written, meaningful and convincing.

    I grew up in Toronto, ON where country music is hard to come by but I love it. So many people don’t give it a chance. As you explained, country music puts emphasis on simple pleasures in it’s lyrics, which is something us city kids can relate to as well.

    In terms of the instrumentation, country music has always put an emphasis on musicianship (the ability to play with others – think jazz), technical skill (have you heard someone shred a banjo or fiddle?), and most of all songwriting (the sum of harmony, arrangements, structure, phrasing, tonal quality etc.). I find a lot of that to be lost in contemporary music, whether it be rock or pop (if there is such a distinction).

    All said and done, seeing an acoustic band, whether it be country or not, who obviously rehearsed their parts for months and who can actually sing in harmony together, will always be more impressive than a DJ in front of a computer using a mouse, a collection of choreographed dancers, or someone screaming their lungs out.

    My favorite style of country music is from the late 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s (The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Poco, The Desert Rose Band, The Flying Burrito Bros etc.).

  • http://dirtyyoungmen.wordpress.com Maxwell Chance

    It still sucks. 

  • http://dirtyyoungmen.wordpress.com Maxwell Chance

    It still sucks. 

  • Guest

    This was terribly unconvincing and came off as more of a defense of the south than of country music.

  • Debra Hofland

    Here’s a “thoughtful” song by Charlie Allen that deserves a listen:  

    It’s called “Grandpa’s Recipe”    http://www.charlieallenmusic.com/index.htm

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