Recently, I found myself watching Garth Brooks: The Road I’m On – an A&E documentary series that peeks into the life of the best-selling solo artist. Towards the end of the first episode, as Brooks reflects on his career, he speaks earnestly to the camera, “Between me and you, country music, I don’t think, has ever been treated with the same respect as pop, rock…We always kind of get downplayed.”
And Garth Brooks was correct.
When you ask someone, “What kind of music do you listen to," it’s common to hear someone excitedly reply, “Oh, I listen to everything! Except for country.” And when the word country rolls off their tongue, it sounds as if they were name-dropping “He Who Must Not Be Named” – the Lord Voldemort of all music genres.
Why has the genre of the American working class that is revered for its ability to tell stories over beautifully and simply written melodies become the laughing stock of the music industry?
Country music originated in the South, taking influence from the folk music of Appalachia and the blues music of the African-American South, as well as Mexican and Cajun traditional music of the West.
Jimmie Rodgers, the “Father of Country Music,” pioneered the genre during the 1920s, but it wasn't until decades later that the genre took off in popularity.
Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline are just a few names of country artists who dominated during the peak of the genre during the mid 1900's. Singing songs with themes of love, heartbreak, redemption, honesty and the simple joys of life, the artists of this genre became relatable to the majority of Americans.
“Of emotions, of love, of breakup, of love and hate and death and dying, mama, apple pie and the whole thing. It covers a lot of territory, country music does,” Johnny Cash once said.
The country music of the 1960s and 1970s saw crossovers with rock and roll, soul and pop, allowing it to become accessible to the mainstream, and the 1980s led to a country-rock revival.
The modern perception of the country music genre shifted with the turn of the century.
The impacts of the 9/11 attacks transcend politics and society – it affected culture and entertainment as we know it. With the overnight increase in patriotism, much of the music became reactionary, like the Toby Keith lyric, “And you'll be sorry that you messed with The U.S. of A., 'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass, It's the American way,” in his song “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American.)”
With this emphasis on nationalism, we began to see an uptick in lyrics concerning small towns, four-door Chevy trucks, Budweiser, Levi’s blue jeans and Marlboros. Symbols like these became central to American patriotism.
Today, that has narrowly translated into the “trucks and beer” stereotype that we know. For those who aren’t familiar with the genre, this surface-level and inaccurate representation of a genre with deep roots causes people to automatically scoff and turn their noses up at country music.
The genre has also gained a reputation of being overwhelmingly white and exclusive of people of color within the sphere, despite the fact that they helped to build the genre from the ground up. Charley Pride was a leading figure within the genre for decades, being recognized as one of only three Black members of the Grand Ole Opry, alongside DeFord Bailey and Darius Rucker.
Ray Charles, the renowned singer and pianist known for pioneering the soul genre during the 1950s, first graced the Billboard 200 chart in 1962 with his album "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music," an ode to his southern roots. Lionel Richie released "Tuskegee" in 2012, a love letter to his Alabama hometown, filled with country-fied versions of his previously released songs sung alongside stars of the country music genre.
Country music goes deeper than the shallow stereotype that it has become.
Although much of what tends to top the Billboard Hot Country charts has dwindled in quality, you can make that argument about various genres. You have to dig deeper. Zach Bryan, Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson, Yola and Chris Stapleton are just a few examples of artists who are writing honest, vulnerable and authentic country that stay true to the origins of the genre.
And I know that everyone has that one country song that they will make an exception for, whether it’s “Old Town Road,” “Before He Cheats,” “Need You Now,” “Tennessee Whiskey,” “Jolene,” or that video of Mason Ramsey singing “Lovesick Blues” by Hank Williams in a Walmart from 2018.
So, no. You don’t really hate country music. You hate surface-level post-9/11 4/4-time snap-track pop-crossover beers-and-trucks country.
And I still enjoy the occasional beer song from time to time. Who doesn’t love “Chicken Fried?”
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