By Johnny Patterson
Imagine this scene: you’re sitting in class, and someone sits down in the empty seat to your right. They ask you your name and give you theirs. You immediately hit it off, the conversation flows effortlessly. “Finally, my first friend,” you think to yourself. Eventually, the topic of music is brought up. You tell them your favorite artists and ask what they like. “I listen to everything really,” they say, “well, everything but country.”
How does this make you feel? There’s a good chance you agree. You may have even used this line yourself a time or two. But why is this such an accepted view? I mean it’s objectively untrue. You don’t listen to everything. I mean, when’s the last time you sat back, relaxed, and queued up Wagner’s “Symphony in C Major”? How about some good old fashioned vaporwave? Gregorian chants? Copyright free music?!? Clearly, no one actually listens to everything. But this raises the question: If there are so many obscure, wacky types of music out there, why is “country” the only one that people feel the need to explicitly denounce?
If you pressed an average “everything-but-country” listener on the subject, they would probably tell you that the genre is shallow. “All they talk about is tractors, guns, and girls,” they may claim. And on this point, I concede. There is certainly a disproportionate amount of country songs about those subjects. But I think that these people have failed to consider that all of those things are, indeed, epic. Obviously, they have never enjoyed the high that comes with taking an early autumn ride on the fender of their grandfather’s 1972 International Harvester 1066. That feeling alone deserves a couple of hundred songs. This goes for the other things on the list as well. Guns and girls? I mean come on, those have to be two of God’s greatest inventions.
However, just because there is all this talk of guns, tractors, girls, hunting, fishing, beer, trucks, etc. in a majority of modern country songs, that does not give you a reason to completely reject the entire genre. There are songs that talk about similarly low-brow topics that still have plenty of artistic merit. A majority of rap songs talk about drugs or sex. This doesn’t mean the whole genre is trash. There are plenty of rappers who have meaningful things to say. The same goes for country. Once you look past the surface layer of clichéd imagery, you’re likely to find raw emotion and deep insight.
Country is a wide-ranging genre that is capable of playing to many different aspects of the human spirit. There’s a country song for every occasion. Want to hear something sad? I challenge you not to shed a tear to George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Feeling a little nostalgic? Eric Church’s “Springsteen” hits all the right spots. Fed up with life’s bullshit? Let off some steam with Blake Shelton’s “Some Beach.” Just want a chill vibe? Nothing beats “7 Summers” by Morgan Wallen. What if you just want a nice love song? Well you’re in luck. This is where country truly excels. I could name twenty masterpieces straight off the dome. Nothing captures the spirit of romance like a soft guitar and a southern accent. My favorite of the thousands of country love songs would probably be George Strait’s “Give It All We Got Tonight.” Strait is known as the “King of Country” and I think he earns that title for this song alone. It’s beautiful. Everytime I play it, I have to be careful to not become a victim of seduction myself, lest I fall in love with “King George” and spend the rest of my life pursuing him. I am a straight man.
Along with being a helpful aid to “getting in your feels,” so to speak, country songs can also have some rather deep themes and messages in them. Take the 2002 hit “Three Wooden Crosses” by Randy Travis. The song is a redemption story that tells the story of a hooker who came to accept faith after miraculously surviving a bus accident that killed several others. Some deep stuff. Another classic is Marty Robbins’ “They’re Hanging Me Tonight” which features a cowboy reflecting on his actions after committing a crime of passion. The song just touches the soul. It makes you question your thoughts about love and regret. For something more modern, look to Luke Combs’ COVID hit “Six Feet Apart.” This track brought peace of mind to a nation in distress after its release in May of 2020. Listeners felt comforted, they felt a moment of safety amidst a world that seemed to be falling apart in front of their eyes. A little more than merely “guns, girls, and beer.”
By this point, an honest country music hater may be willing to admit that it’s not all trash. They may be willing to say that certain artists actually make meaningful and touching music, even if it’s not to their taste. If that is the case, I am glad, but I am not satisfied. I will defend the honor of even the least sophisticated forms of the genre. To find where this lack of sophistication stems from, we must look at a little history. In particular, we must travel back to the early 2000s. At this time, the dominant force in country was the “neotraditional” style. This was the style embodied by singers like the aforementioned George Strait, along with people like Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks. It was simple and elegant. Neotraditional singers sought to bring country “back-to-its-roots” after things had gotten a little wild in the 80’s and early 90’s. They succeeded for a long time. It was a good look for country. It was classy. No longer were the days of the wacky line dances in honky-tonk bars. The civilized people were in control again and everything was going to be okay.
And then Toby Keith arrived on the scene. Maybe the least sophisticated man ever born. Toby loved women, beer, and America, and he wasn’t subtle about it. Although he did have some early hits in the neotraditional style, he quickly shifted to a louder, more bombastic type of music. Some early Keith titles include “Who’s Your Daddy?” and “Trailerhood.” As you can see, he was not exactly “refined” in his taste. But it was his post-9/11 banger “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” that changed the course of country music forever. The track is Keith’s magnum opus. I’m sure you’ve heard it, if not give it a listen immediately. It is powerful. It was probably single-handedly responsible for half of the enlistments of the troops on our side of the Iraq War. In fact, I bet if the 9/11 hijackers were given the opportunity to hear this track before they went through with the attack, they would have actually switched sides right then and there—flew a plane into Bin Laden’s compound instead. It has that effect. Just raw, uncontrollable feelings of ‘Merica. The pinnacle of the genre. The song saw massive popularity, and other artists in the mold of Keith began to pop onto the scene. People like Trace Adkins and Justin Moore kept the low-brow, redneck energy going, but they still maintained some merit in their lyrics. They would at least usually make some good points about patriotism or love or something.
But out of this wave also spawned people like Keith Urban, the infamous Australian “Spring Break country” singer. Urban, along with similarly carefree, summery singers like Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley created what we now refer to as “bro-country.” This became the most popular style in the early 2010s and has held on since. It is really what most people are talking about when they say they hate country music. It is the final boss of “guns, girls, and beer.” Many people who like the country even disown the style, calling it “fake country.” And I’ll admit, bro-country, with its pop influence and admittedly meaningless lyrics, is not my favorite. But I am a man of my word and I promised to defend country music. I can’t give up now. So I’ll say this: music isn’t just about reflecting on life in a somber and serious way. Sometimes, you don’t want to overthink life. You just want to live it. To be happy, to be proud, to laugh, whatever. This is exactly what bro-country is good for. It’s purely vibe. Sure it’s silly. High school English teachers wouldn’t be impressed. But dammit, it’s fun. Nothing beats the feeling of going for a summertime joy ride with the windows down, feeling the breeze through your hair while cranking some stupid country song like Thomas Rhett’s “Crash and Burn.” Life at its simplest. Life at its best.
There is some evidence to show that country music is already gaining massive popularity, which would render my argument useless. After all, the top three titles on the Billboard Hot 100 at the time of writing this are all country songs. But I would argue that we have not yet gone far enough. Most people haven’t experienced the full scope of the genre. All they’ve heard are a few Morgan Wallen or Luke Combs songs and maybe some of the new bluegrass stuff that’s on the rise. I hope this can change. I hope people can broaden their horizons. Country is one of the most versatile and diverse genres out there. Just give it a fair shot. Set aside your preconceived notions and try the sampler platter. If you don’t like a song or an artist, skip it and go to the next. You will find something you like eventually. Just let the music speak to you. You may discover something powerful.