Whenever someone tells me they don’t like country music, I respond (with a nod of the cap to Blake Shelton), “We all got a hillbilly bone down deep inside. No matter where you from, you just can’t hide.”
I once tried to hide. Growing up, I sulked every time my sisters tuned the radio to New Country 93.7, conspiring ways to get them to turn it off. I tried complaining, I tried covering my ears, I tried mocking them and mocking the singers’ ridiculous accents. I tried all those natural behaviors we have when confronted with a culture we don’t understand.
I didn’t want to admit it, but I started to enjoy “Something Like That” by Tim McGraw. It was the most vivid a song had ever been for me; I could picture a whole movie of it in my head, where I played the barbecue-stained lead role, standing in line to buy a bracelet at the Northwest Washington Fair. I couldn’t hate a song that gave me such inspiration. Still, I refused to seek out country music, if not avoid it altogether.
Meanwhile, the big singles of the mid-2000s era won me over, not only because of their striking imagery, but because of their profound lessons. Chris Cagle showed me how being daring improves your life in “Chicks Dig It.” Keith Urban taught me the virtue of contentment in “Days Go By.” “Summertime” and “Young” by Kenny Chesney showed me how to cherish your current stage of life.
I didn’t fully grasp these messages until years later, but something in them sounded profound, and I’d be compelled to nod my head, stomp my foot, or rock on my air guitar. This how country and all music should be enjoyed: first with your heart, then with your head.
That wasn’t hard to do with the classics such as “God Blessed Texas,” “I’m From the Country,” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” They’re hyperbolic, unapologetic, and sincerely patriotic. Their audacity charmed me. It also helped that my older brother and his friends—those I admired most growing up—would sing them and quote them in conversation.
I read Blue Like Jazz many years ago, and what stuck with me was this quote: “Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.” I wouldn’t say that I loved country music until 10th grade, when I went to the Washington FFA (Future Farmers of America) state convention. In WSU’s Coliseum, I watched hundreds of high-schoolers shout along to “International Harvester”:
I’m the son of a third generation farmer
I’ve been married ten years to the farmer’s daughter
I got two boys in the county 4-H
I’m a lifetime sponsor of the FFA—hey-ayy!
After that, I was a true convert. I realized none of these kids could literally relate to what they were singing, but it didn’t matter. It was about the spirit. It was about hearing a good story. See, that song wasn’t made exclusively for middle-aged farmers or even people who knew one. Neither is the genre, though many believe otherwise.
I’ve never owned a pickup or killed a mammal. My farm experience is mostly limited to sorting raspberries on a harvest machine, where the only folks my age spoke Ukrainian. I joined FFA for competitive trapshooting and stayed for the leadership training, never once raising or selling an animal. My country cred is disputable, and yet my appreciation is no less diminished.
Turn on the radio and hear the greatness for yourself. Few artists can shred the guitar and write both comic and tragic stories like Brad Paisley. Few can match the melodic sophistication of the Zac Brown Band. Few can hit the high notes like Carrie Underwood. Listen to the harmonies of The Band Perry and Lady Antebellum or the baritones of Alan Jackson and Josh Turner. Listen to the first two tracks on Taylor Swift’s Red and tell me she’s not a songwriting genius.
Even still, a certain misconception not only holds many back from appreciating all this talent, it makes them hostile toward the genre. People hate country for what it’s “associated” with: inbreeding, binge drinking, white supremacy, and worst of all, conservative politics. What they hate is not country music; it is a caricature of country music. I’d ascribe this mistake to our media climate, which encourages shallow and highly inaccurate ways of thinking.
This is why I can only smile at those who say, “You like country?” in a tone that implies I should somehow be ashamed. Yes, I do like country. Because it stokes my imagination. Because it taught me how to live. Because it sounds like family, friends, and crowds of overjoyed people singing aloud. Because I don’t see a stereotype, I see creativity. And partially because I love cold beer. If I can go from hating all that to loving it in a few years’ time, I believe there’s a hillbilly bone in all of us.