Back in 2006, when I finally got my Facebook profile — this was back when you had to be a college student to join Facebook, and my future alma mater had just accepted me and sent me my .edu email address and I was literally manic with joy over it – I was busy filling out my information with all kinds of boring shit no one could possibly care about except me, like my lame favorite quotes and all the crappy TV shows I liked when I was 18, I got to the music section and I was all like, “I like everything – except country, LOL!” And I probably put a smiley face because I was 18 and this was 2006.
Back then, my knowledge of the country music genre basically consisted of TV informercials for NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL MUSIC MMXVII COUNTRY EDITION that replayed the same strain of that song that goes, “I got a barbecue stain on my white t-shirt…” over and over again. I mean, who wants to listen to that when I can listen to Beyonce singing about it being midnight in the club and she’s crazy in love or whatever? I mean, really.
Then I got to college all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, holding a bunch of boxes full of hair products and a giant window fan and all the other stuff you need to successfully attend college in a small Southern town when you’ve never lived in a place that has humidity before, and it wasn’t long before I started hearing the acoustic guitar and fiddle strains that mark a good country song wafting from the frat house windows. I just rolled my eyes at it and kept listening to Destiny’s Child or whatever was popular in 2006.
Then one day, a girl from my dorm and I went down to the convenience store on the cobblestone walkway of shops and bars by campus and opened up a little icebox by the counter and discovered a bunch of Mexican Coca-Colas – the ones made real cane sugar, that still come in little glass bottles, heavy and thick and covered with ice-cold condensation. There’s something about the substantial feeling of that glass in your hand, the way the paper label starts to peel off in the melting ice, cracked and faded, that transports you to another world – some ’50s place that doesn’t exist and maybe never existed, somewhere where you think maybe they’ll cost a dime each but really they cost $1.99 because it’s 2006, but it’s fine.
We bought two and walked out to her truck.
“You wanna go for a drive?” my friend asked, opening her Coke with a bottle opener she kept on her keyring. The Mexican Cokes didn’t have twist-offs.
The sun was shining. It was April, I think; the air was crisp but clear and the flowers were blooming all over campus. It was a Wednesday, maybe, I don’t remember now, but I don’t think I had class, or if I did, I skipped it.
We went careening down a back road, the windows open and the cold Cokes in our hands, and I pressed the dial on the radio to search for the right song to accompany our adventure. Rock was too harsh, pop too frivolous. I hit a pre-set for a country station, then, registering what I’d done, prepared to select another option – and stopped.
It was just…right.
The road – and our college – was in the middle of nowhere. On either side of us, fields of tall, pale green grass reached endlessly toward the horizon. The breeze came swift and cool through the windows, rustling our hair and turning our collars up against our necks, but the sun was hot when it touched our bare arms as it shone down onto the black leather of her seats. There were no other cars as far as we could see; just us and a landscape so drenched and wet in warm sunshine, the way lemonade would feel if you could just breathe it in. It was the palette of the South: blue, yellow, green, the bright pinks and stark whites of the crepe myrtles, the dark asphalt and umber clay.
On the radio, the country singer totally got it.
And so did I: This is what they’d been singing about the whole time, this springtime lemonade world I didn’t know about before this drive.
The words to a lot of country music, while admittedly occasionally referencing silly things like microwaving rice, are overwhelmingly dominated by a profound sense of gratitude and love. There’s an emphasis on family that’s hard to come by in other genres, and an appreciation for story-telling (a lot of story-telling) and wordplay.
Like any genre, there are duds. There are songs I hate so violently I’ll turn the radio off and drive in silence just to avoid them. And sometimes I still feel like throwin’ on some Beyonce or whatever. But more than anything, I was surprised to find that country music was actually about the real things I came to experience as an undergrad at a Southern college, not just a bunch of stereotypes and silly crooning about dogs and trucks (although dogs and trucks came to feature prominently in said college experience). Sometimes you really do get barbecue sauce on your white t-shirt, y’all.
We drove that road over and over again. We sped down it on the way to my friend’s family’s farm, where we fed her horses and threw sticks for her dogs, the number of whom always seemed to be changing, and I never could never keep track. We listened to those songs in our apartments, drinking beer on the balcony while the cicadas tried to drown us out. They provided the backdrop for our bar conversations and the lazy days we passed in the grass when it was too nice to go to class, drinking Starbucks or – if we were lucky – Mexican Cokes, popping off the metal caps with our keyrings.
Maybe it’s a difficult thing to get if you haven’t been baptized by April sunshine in a field somewhere in central Virginia like I was. I’ve spent hours trying to get my New Yorker boyfriend to appreciate my favorite radio stations, and while I think I’m starting to make some progress, he’s still largely uninterested in the odes to backyard bonfires and three-point fences that make me shut my eyes in happy nostalgia within the first few bars.
I guess I’m not really trying to convince you to like country music. You don’t have to listen to Randy Houser or Chris Young or George Strait or Willie Nelson or Toby Keith. But for your own sake, you should take a drive down a backroad sometime and see if you can’t find the right soundtrack for yourself, country or not.