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Country these days gets a bad rap. A lot of mainstream, modern country follows a formula so cloying and vapid it makes me want to chug Jack Daniels and kick a brick wall with the reinforced steel toe of my cowboy boots.
I'm glad to see contemporary country stars working hard to counteract the cheesy image their genre's gotten (I'm listening to Kacey Musgraves as I write this!), but it still breaks my achey heart every time I hear someone say they hate country music.
Country is a HUGE genre of music! Various subgenres of country find their roots in bluegrass, folk, blues, and Western music, but overall, country music is known commonly as music with a simple harmony that tells a story. (One day, I'll explain to you all my theories on the similarities of country and hip-hop, which also explains a lot about me as a person. My most played artist in 2014 was a tie between Tanya Tucker and Kanye West, okay?)
I'm pretty biased, though, because I was raised on country music. My parents didn't force any specific religious or faith dogmas on me, but I knew by a young age not to use Reba's name in vain in our home. The first concert I ever attended was a Brooks and Dunn show as a 5-year-old, followed by Shania, Montgomery Gentry, The Judds, Dixie Chicks, etc. The list goes on.
Framed photos of Kenny Rogers and Vince Gill hung on the walls of my childhood homes. CMT provided the background music as I grew up. I remember the somber sadness from both my parents and the television the day Johnny Cash died. Around that age, we moved to a house 20 minutes outside of town. I sang Martina McBride to myself while I watched my mom ride a lawnmower around our several acres.
At Catholic school, I studied the Holy Trinity. Then I came home, and worshipped the Honky Tonk Angels. I begged my mom to sign me up for vocal lessons so I could become the next LeAnn Rimes. I wondered if I'd ever find a love like Faith and Tim's.
As my teenage years progressed and peer pressure took its course, I delved into other, poppier genres of music. I wasn't immune to the boy bands and pop stars of the early aughts (I could talk about Britney for six or seven hours straight, no problem), but I never lost track of my humble beginnings as a country music baby.
In the past couple years, I've gotten really into country again. It might have something to do with the fact that I moved to Mississippi, but I also like to think that I rely on country music in certain ways. Country raised me, and a lot of the things I know, I learned from country. In tough times, I rely on these lessons to get me through. Here's some of the greatest lessons I've learned from country music in my life.
Don't Mess with Women
While modern public opinions of country would have you believe it's a genre about barefoot, simple-minded women riding shotgun in trucks, that's simply not true.
Female country artists have been singing about empowerment and independence long before Beyonce crowned herself The One Feminist To Rule Them All.
At least half of the Dixie Chicks' songs were about being on your own as an independent woman. ("She needs wide open spaces! Room to make her big mistakes!") Dolly sang about making it on her own in the frustrating world of "9 to 5." "Harper Valley PTA" by Jeannie C. Riley is basically an anti-slut shaming anthem. Jo Dee Messina sang about the importance of equality in a relationship, singing "I want a man who stands beside me/ Not in front of or behind me."
But beyond empowerment and financial independence, country music is chock-full of songs representing one of my favorite subgenres -- Music About Women Getting Revenge on Men. Emily rounded up an amazing collection of these songs, and it's no surprise to me how many of them are country. While I was fortunate to be raised in a peaceful, supportive, violence-free home, I was never unaware of the realities many women face every day. My mom explained the evils of this world to me around the age of five when I heard Martina McBride's "Independence Day" for the first time. (This was also around the age my mom taught me the term, "chauvinist pig" because she thought I would need it one day. I did. Thanks, mom.)
I hate that, as a woman, I live in a fearsome world and country that continuously deprives and strips women of the rights and protections they deserve, but country music has made me feel stronger. Dolly taught me that you can't make me feel shame "Just Because I'm a Woman." Loretta Lynn literally sang about the joy of being on "The Pill" YEARS before it was socially acceptable for women to talk about that sort of thing! (She got herself banned from many country stations because of it, too.) And Carrie taught me that when a man breaks your heart, you break his windshield -- perhaps the most important lesson of all.
The Appeal of the "Bad Boy"
The idea of a "bad boy" in general is pretty cheesy to me. In the films I grew up with, I never got their appeal. Troy in "Reality Bites" was suuuuuch a loser. J.D. in "Heathers" had more appeal, but was still pretty douchey. (Yes. I only watch Winona Ryder movies as a rule.) Movie bad boys always seemed like such try-hards, and all the "Hollywood Bad Boys" I heard so much about just seemed like buffoons. Was anyone *actually* ever attracted to Russell Crowe? Tell me the truth.
The bad boys of country music are an entirely different story though. First of all, I'm talking about the actual outlaw dudes. Not, like, Tim McGraw singing about "Indian Outlaws."
Outlaw country is its own subgenre of country, featuring the likes of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and more. These dudes were actual bad news. They were drunks, druggies and sometimes violent criminals. They wore their hair long, they were scruffy, and far from clean-cut. Outlaw country is rock 'n' roll with a bit of twang. I love every second of it. I totally understand the appeal (theoretically) of being the good-hearted woman in love with a good-timin' man.
But Also, The Importance of a Good Man (or Woman!)
With all that said about bad boys, I've never actually hoped I'd end up with one of them. (Except for my own Johnny Cash, maybe. Maybe.) In the end, I want my own Tim or Garth.
Basically, I don't wanna stand by my man unless he's good to me. Good dudes forever.
Life is Going to be Hard (Like, Really, Really Hard)
As a kid, I was really sick. I spent the beginning of my life in and out of hospitals. Most of my first memories involve surgeries, fear, nurses and doctors, watching "Care Bears" in my hospital bed, and playing with other sick kids in the play room. I was my sickest when I was about four. As doctors broke the news to my parents that I might not make it (spoiler alert: I DID!), Tim McGraw released "Don't Take the Girl." My parents still have a hard time with that song. Listening to it now gives me a lot of feelings.
After I got mostly healthy, the rest of my childhood was fantastic. I've had a happy, mostly pain-free existence, but I always had a premonition that adult life would be wildly difficult. Maybe it's got to do with my rough beginnings, but maybe it's because half of my favorite songs were ridiculously sad country songs.
Country songs, by their nature, tell stories. And some stories are just really sad. Between heartbreak, violence, and death, country songs can be brutal.
Sad songs are useful, not because we like to be sad, but because we need to know other people have felt that sadness as well. A good sad song can feel like someone taking you by the shoulder and saying, "I've been there too." When you're sad, sometimes you don't want or need someone telling you how to get over it. You have to feel that sadness for a while. That's when I turn to some very sad, very good country songs.
In the "death" category: Reba's "She Thinks His Name Was John" broke my tiny heart as a child, and it's how I learned of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Johnny Cash's "I Hung My Head," in which the narrator shoots and kills another man for no reason at all, is unlike any other song I've ever heard. "Go Rest on that Mountain" by Vince Gill was written as tribute to his brother. It's a spiritual one for sure, but the lyrics, "I wish I could see the angels' face / When they hear your sweet voice sing," get me every time. In more contemporary releases, Lee Brice's 2012 release, "I Drive Your Truck" tackles the loss of a close friend in a uniquely somber fashion. I particularly love the lyric, "You'd probably punch my arm right now / If you saw this tear rollin' down my face. / Hey man, I'm trying to be tough." God.
Lots of hugely successful country songs have covered the topics of domestic violence and child abuse. I'm hard pressed to think of another genre with as many top ten singles about these difficult subjects. Martina McBride's "Concrete Angel," about the horrors of child abuse, will ruin your day for sure, but it was also a number one hit in the country world. Martina also had a hit with "Independence Day," an emotional song about domestic violence that ends on a horribly depressing but somehow slightly inspiring note. (Martina is an unparalleled vocal powerhouse. Martina forever.)
And very few people do heartbreak like country singers: "He Stopped Loving Her Today" by George Jones can leave me wrecked for hours. When Willie Nelson croons, "But you were always on my miiiiiiind," you can hear the sincere and sorrowful regret in his warbling voice. In "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," Tammy Wynette will break your heart when she sings about her heart break in trying to keep her impending divorce from her young son. If you're going through a breakup, or just need a good cry, turn to country.
Cities are Fine, but Small Towns and Country Life Really Can't be Beat
I love big cities, but the older I get, the less enchanted I am by them. I love the bright lights, the public transit, the hustle and bustle...until I don't.
I'm a simple soul. And that's okay. I need peace and quiet. I love fresh air. If I can't play outside on the regular, I lose my mind. I like wandering through forests, exploring streams and rivers, strolling barefoot through my backyard. I also like saving money, and I'd probably rather miss out on a few parties than go broke trying to make it in NYC. That's just my preference.
And most of my country idols seem to agree. Waylon Jennings sang "Luckenbach, Texas" about moving to a small, nowhere town with the ones you love most to take it easy. Tanya Tucker would like you to make sure she ends up in Texas, since it's the closest thing to heaven she ever found.
I love Tim McGraw's 1999 hit, "In My Next 30 Years," in which he sings, "Raise our kids where the good Lord's blessed/ Point our rocking chairs towards the west/ Plant our dreams where the peaceful river flows/ Where the green grass grows."
And you'll never convince me that "Cowboy, Take Me Away" isn't one of the most beautiful songs ever written. "I said, I wanna touch the earth./ I wanna break it in my hands./ I wanna grow something wild and unruly." SAME, GIRL.
Also, my dad still loves to sing Alan Jackson's "Gone Country" to me every time I come visit all the way from Mississippi.
Family is Everything
I'm lucky to have such a strong, thoughtful, loving immediate family, and I thank my stars every single day. I also make sure to talk to my parents and sister almost every day, and call my grandparents as often as I can. I have the best grandparents in the WORLD.
Tim McGraw's 2014 hit, "Meanwhile Back at Mama's" is a lovely ditty about the pleasures of heading back home and spending quality time with mom and dad. Johnny Cash's "Daddy Sang Bass" is a fun sing along for the whole family. I sing the chorus of Loretta Lynn's "They Don't Make 'Em Like My Daddy Anymore" to my own dad all the time, because it's true. He's the best forever.
LOVE IS REAL AND FUN AND WORTH IT
I've had my fair share of romantic bad luck, but all my friends will tell you, I'm never one to give up on love. (It's the only time I'm ever the Charlotte of the group.) I live for love -- all kinds of love. I've seen my parents love grow stronger every day for the past 26 years and I know that love is out there for all of us. That doesn't mean it won't be hard work, but it's worth it. Love is real and great and let me prove it through some country love songs.
Just listen to Ronnie Milsap sing about "Pure Love" and tell me that's not something you want! "Milk and honey and Captain Crunch, and you in the morning." Sigh. "I Swear" by John Michael Montgomery is crazy romantic, and my parents' wedding song! When Tim and Faith sing, "It's Your Love," I get shivers all over my body. In a good way!
Country music doesn't present some simplified, cookie cutter clean version of love. Love is hard shit, but these songs can get you through it. "The Dance" by Garth Brooks is an actually perfect song. (Garth is an actually perfect person.) Listening to George Jones and Tammy Wynette sing "We're Gonna Hold On" gives me strength when I need it.
And don't go thinking country music can't be sexual. I mean, have you ever listened to Conway Twitty sing, "I'd Just Love to Lay You Down"???? And Faith Hill had a number one hit out of a song called, "Let's Make Love." (I used to get real creeped out hearing my mom sing along to that one. Thanks, Faith.)
But love is worth it, even if it doesn't work out. Love is really all that matters in this life, and if you don't believe me, you're obviously a cyborg who has never listened to Dolly's original version of "I Will Always Love You." Love is the best. Forever and ever. Amen.
Okay, I'll stop rambling on about my love for country now. (I could go for days though.) Let's talk about it in the comments.
- Do you love country music as much as I do?
- What's your favorite country song?
- Feel free to use the comment section to gush about Dolly Parton. She is the greatest human ever created.