Playing Favorites – Country Music Part 1: I Hate Country Music

In my history as a music fan and having conversations with other music fans there’s a line I’ve heard multiple times that almost always goes like this:

“I love all types of music, except country music.”

Leaving aside the overall hyperbolic nature and countless genres one has not heard of- the obvious response here is, “Well then, you don’t like all types of music, do you?”

The fact is every time I hear this I go poking about and after some 2-3 minutes or less of poking I find that in fact, they do like country music and quite a bit of it.  And not some pop-country or country-rock adjacent stuff but, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakum… Straight up middle lane country. And that just emphasizes how much variety the genre has that folks of all stripes can find some country music they like.

So why is it in so many conversations country music is this qualifier people jump to? Why is it in the mindset from the get go that one doesn’t like country music despite liking country music. TBF I also see this happen with heavy metal and even rap on occasion. But in those cases it is solely related to the music those genre labels define. And in those cases I also find people like those genres despite saying otherwise. How can you not like, “Living After Midnight” and rocking to the core?

But country music beats them handily as the go to qualifier and I find it is not the just the music that turns people off about the country genre.

I have theory that country music has a PR problem it can’t shake. That PR problem is the media image of country music over the years. An image that has largely stayed the same and not evolved as it has with other genres like metal or rap.

We know not all hip-hop performers and fans derelict gang members. And we know that not all metal performers and metal fans are Satan worshiping threats to societies morals an image once brought to us by the satanic panic of the 1970s.  In the mainstream the PR has evolved around those genres and those who inhabit them.

But in WAY to many circles country music still is the redneck, hillbilly, ignorant, conservative, racist aunt, confederate flag waving and yes, white person thing. Think the kind of people you assume watched Dukes of Hazzard even though that show was so popular it was watched by people of all demographics and featured many types of people in guest spots or supporting roles. But yeah the General Lee had a confederate flag on top and so that means the show was only one thing and country music to many people is the genre equivalent of The Dukes Of Hazzard.

Even with acts like The [Dixie] Chicks showing themselves to be very much anything but your standard country music stereotype to say nothing of Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Willie Nelson before them being very progressive very early on in music and actions. Or take the song, “Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning” released by staunch traditionalist Alan Jackson after 9/11.

I formed this theory about the PR problem because I have people in my circle who have a bad habit of trashing the south and “fly over states” because of the stereotype they are sold by the media (i.e. mouth breathers, ignorant, racists) and so too country music takes a hit as well because it is assumed this is the preferred genre of those kinds of people. Ironically, a lot of those people folks in my circle troll and trash are classic rock fans first not country music fans first.  If they are even country music fans at all.

And many I’ve known over the years have been stunned to discover that, as a queer who LOVES to dance to diva anthems, country music is my 2nd favorite genre of all time (my #1 is big band swing jazz). This surprise largely comes out of another stereotype that won’t die, country music is homophobic.  Which is as true and stupid a statement as saying country music is racist.  We queers are very particular about who we choose as “queens” or gay icons and well Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire are in the royal family…

Country music is also the genre I listen to the most at home. And depending on the company I am in my love of country music can trump other more heated topics and even disarm people as if, “Well, he likes country music, he’s one of us.”

So why start with, “I hate country music”, when I love it. Well because that is where A LOT of people start with genres they either don’t know at all or think they know. And I think that needs to be upfront in the open so we can work with that and get past it.

But this write up was not intended to be a long dirge on the bad PR or stereotypes or the problematic history or people’s perception of that history when it comes to country music.  Others have written better words on those topics. This is a panegyric espousing my own love and connection to the music and a little bit of taking music row and the mainstream labels to task for not serving it’s genre as it should, with the lowest common denominator dreck it has been peddling over the last 10+ years.

Because for my money country music has been putting out some of the best songwriting and the most moving, rocking, and just great music going. Period. It SMOKES pop and modern rock for lyrical content and authenticity in my book and has been doing so for a good 6-8 years if not more.

Also it will hopefully be a little guide for those who still think, “I don’t like country music”. You do. Trust me. And you will like it even more once we get through this. You just have to start in the right place and mind-set.

See country music like many genres for those not familiar with them, is a foreign language. I did not know this when I first was starting to listen to it in the 90s and so I was put off by much off it. Ironically, the “much of it” was all the stuff that made country music, country music. The twang; pedal steel, banjo, mandolin, even accordion (more on that in a moment).

So ultimately, I was drawn to the more rock leaning songs. Or more pop leaning material. Especially the upbeat songs I could hyper-dance to like I would to my divas.

For example, one of Reba McEntire’s least country sounding songs, “Take It Back” helped me learn country music did in fact use saxophone AND helped me gradually like her more straight up country songs. In fine diva form it is fun and sassy and great for triple time swing and helped me inch closer to song that are WAY more country like this Merle Haggard hit that also has saxophone.

Now how I discovered the stuff to begin with I don’t know for sure. My family did not play “country music” in the house, though ironically, my own grandfather played accordion in a cowboy band in the 1920s. And maybe even more ironically, one of my own father’s favorite bands was CCR, which is about as country as you can get and still be labeled rock music.

I mean, “Down On The Corner” is straight up a country jam and songs like “Proud Mary” and “Lodi” are totally country. The latter carrying on the long tradition of country songs about small towns. Hell, on the song, “Looking Out My Back Door” John Fogerty name drops Buck Owens originator of the Bakersfield Sound in southern CA. Then there is the John Denver and the Muppets Christmas album which is still on seasonal rotation in my life.

Side Note: My father is a classic example the classic rock fan who hates country music while listening to country music. Oh he also LOVED The Rolling Stones and well, “Honky Tonk Women”, by The Rolling Stones is damn near country IMO as is Tumblin’ Dice.  At the very least both are southern rock and well, Linda Ronstadt cover might make the song even MORE country.

Still, outside of all that, country music was just not played in the house growing up. I was a pop fan. My older brother was into jazz fusion and funk, my younger bothers were doing Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, and Jam Bands of the 90s plus some Iron Maiden. So the only way I can think of that I came to country music in the 90s was maybe CMT, which showed some videos and the random country hit that made the pop charts but I didn’t watch CMT. I watched VH1 or MTV, mostly.

Also at the time I did not know the connection my family had to country music’s earliest days. I knew my grandfather played music but mostly it seemed to be accordion versions of pop or jazz songs from the 30s/40s or show tunes. Country music was never discussed and none my aunts or uncles ever played it around their houses or mentioned it.

Maybe it was leftovers from the whole teenage, I’m not going to be like my father tradition. Or maybe by the time it got to me country music was seen as low class. I know my grandmother never discussed it and seemed to prefer big band swing and Hollywood musicals, though she liked western films and TV shows. So I don’t ultimately know.

One other possible route that got me to country’s music front porch was Melissa Etheridge and the album, “Yes I Am”. I wrote about that here.

But the short version is that album was the first where I really noticed song-writing and lyrics as true craft in which you could tell full stories. And I think because of that I went looking for more of it and pop, fun though it was, was not telling the kinds of stories like Melissa was telling.

The other “in” I had was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, specifically the album Into The Great Wide open, which leaned heavily into that fuzzy area of the late 80s early 90s where rock/country/and blues all seemed to blend and swirl and the only reason an artist got labeled any certain way was because of the artist’s previous work. But that was the era of acts like; The Black Crows, Bonnie Raitt, John Hiatt, and Chris Isaak where they all dabbled in a little bit of a lot of things. “Learning to Fly” is country song, fight me. OK. OK. It is both country and rock, sure, I guess, whatever… “End Of The Line” by Traveling Wilburys, there. Happy?!

Oh and I wrote about that album here.

Side Note: This fuzzy genre issue is not new for as I write this Roger Miller’s, “Where Have All The Average People Gone” is playing. A song that speaks to this in some ways.

Anyway, with all these country adjacent acts going around, especially being passed around on my local station KFOG in the 90s I wanted to locate more of that sound. And a lot of the early-mid 90s country was doing just that.

I think the first “proper” country music CD I bought was Wynonna’s self titled debut. This was LONG before I even knew she was already a country LEGEND being formerly a duo with her mother as the Judd’s and WAY before I knew any of the family trauma and drama that I also would come to relate to in a big way.

I bought the CD because of the hit, “No On Else On Earth”. A perfect example of the fuzzy early 90s sound going around. That song is a great ROCK song (with horns I might add) and would fit perfectly along side Tom Petty and Mellencamp on classic rock radio. But she is labeled a country singer (rightly so) but that gets her narrowly pigeonholed, which means less people are likely to be exposed to a great song they might like.

While I like that hit I was not a fan of the album. I didn’t care for the slow songs. I wanted to dance, and I had not yet learned about two-step. So I bought it and was now stuck with it, which meant it would be sitting on the shelf begging me to come back to it. And this is essentially how I became a country music fan, I kept coming back to it in bits and pieces, song by song, artist by artist.

Two other examples from the period that come to mind right off are Every Little Thing” by Carlene Carter a member of the legendary Carter family and Suzy Boggus’ cover of, “Outbound Plane” originally by Texas music icon Nanci Griffith.

Talk about a nostalgia button pusher! “Outbound Plane” with those piano lines… it just gets me in my core. This song is an example of the eras more pop leaning production styles. I could easily see and act like Wilson Phillips also singing, “Outbound Plane”. And the former song is just straight up rock ‘n’ roll.

In a just world where Billboard wasn’t so disorganized in the way it handled charts, that song would’ve been rock/pop hit like Bonnie Raitt was having at the time with songs like, “Something To Talk About”.

To which, Bonnie Raitt didn’t make much traction on the country charts even though that string of three albums from Nick Of Time, Luck Of The Draw, to Longing In Their Hearts sounds a lot like the stuff Suzy Bogguss and Carlene Carter and Mary Chapin Carpenter and others were putting out at the time.

Was it the slide guitar that kept her from being labeled country or seen as making country music? Because “Papa Come Quick (Jody and Chico)” is a country song. “I’m Not The Only One” is just as country as “Only A Dream” by Mary Chapin Carpenter.

But chasing that specific sound from, “Outbound Plane” to other more rocking songs of the period, as I said, I found myself a little underwhelmed by the ballads and the stuff that was actually straight up country with full twang at beer o’clock. But I would learn later the reason for this was because I was unfamiliar with it as a musical language.

Remember, what I said about music being a foreign language? Also as I said, I didn’t know how to dance to it. I had not yet discovered the two-step nor had I learned how to waltz.

So when I get somebody who doesn’t like country music. My first job is to find out what country music they like, say Johnny Cash and his “American Recordings” series. Or even The Grateful Dead who were pretty damn country a lot of the time with all that mandolin.

Fun Fact: Jerry Garcia originally started out as a prominent banjo player for twelve years.

So once I have established a starting point for a person I find an act that is subtly 2-3 degrees or less towards the twang thang. Just a little nudge. Once they have adjusted to that, slide a little further in the scale, push another 1-2 degrees. And so on. Start with Johnny Cash’s cover of, “Hurt”. Or start with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Southern Accents”, which Cash said at one point was the greatest country song ever written.

Go from their. Pretty soon just like me they might be listening to Jean Shepard. Now I am not saying all these people will become converts or super fans but they will all ease there way into something they had previously said they hated (or thought they hated). And will find many things to like. And also many people may ultimately not like the all the music they hear but respect the musicians. But most importantly they will find all the PR BS they’ve been fed is 99% bunk like it is with most music.

So why is this so important to me? It matters to me because country music, bluegrass, blues, and jazz are the four foundational pillars of all modern music (certainly in the US). We got to the NOW because of the THEN. Elvis’ Rock ‘n’ Roll wouldn’t exist with out those for foundational genres, to say nothing of all the variety that came after from metal, to disco, to new jack swing, and new wave that all own debts to these genres.  Without them there is nothing for the new genres to have evolved from.

Also it matters to me because I think being a well rounded music fan makes you a more well rounded person able to traverse many spheres out in the world. For example going to Jamaica while hating reggae… you wouldn’t have the same experience if you put some reggae in your diet.  Or going Mexico and hating rancheras or cumbia will make it harder to have that cross cultural experience you might be seeking.

But historical preservation and musical health aside, it matters to me most because I love the damn stuff and there is so much good stuff being put out that I know others would like and would be a great salve to all their pains if one is stuck listening to the mainstream these days.

And so we will two-step our way to part and the absolute WEALTH of great musicians, songs, and albums over the past 8-10 years that mainstream country deliberately ignored in favor of the country version of glam metal- the mom jeans checklist country known as “bro-country”.

An era of mainstream country that like glam metal (with it’s token Lita Ford) ignored women aside from the token Miranda Lambert. And let me tell you from first hand experience- ladies have been cookin’ up not just good stuff but some of the BEST stuff in ANY GENRE even while music row ignored them and let the bros run the charts, awards, and radio. Proving once again major labels are starting to matter less and less.

Now in parting here is a sampler of country music and adjacent sounds that was my personal starting place and got me more curious about the genre. Some of it is country, some of it maybe not. But it all helped me move further down the highway from the night club on to the roadhouse BBQ and then to the honky-tonk bar.

And if you want to get a taste of the new and the good mosey on to part two below.

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