I am from Texas and I like country music. At Princeton, though, I have struggled to understand why people hate it so much. My friends have gone to disturbing lengths to relate country music to racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, the South’s low education rates, and raging bestiality in Virginia’s hill countries.
I sympathize with them. Toby Keith’s song, “Taliban,” seems racist (“so we prayed to Allah with all our might/and then those big U.S. jets […] dropped little bombs all over our holy land”), and Lonestar may be the most worthless songwriter known to man or ape. Nevertheless, there are plenty of misconceptions about country music. Too often, people judge modern country music by what is played on terrible terrible Country Music Television (CMT). Country music has deeper roots than this, and, like most genres specific to one geographic area, one has to live in the South in order to truly grasp its nuances.
Real country music springs out of folk music, rudimentary tunes that are built up over time and—unlike classical music—tunes that are not meant to be played for the sake of music alone. While professional classical violinists regularly practice in isolation, country singers and performers use social interactions to guide their music. Yo-Yo Ma insisted that “you have to take time […] to let an idea grow from within.” Local country singers let an idea grow externally and use social interaction to guide their music. In College Station, Texas, two Texas A&M students—Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen— would practice on their front porch to an audience of twenty of their classmates. One of my older friends who used to watch them told me that no one went there for the music alone. “My favorite part,” he said, “was to see them warm up, talk to us a bit, smoke a few cigarettes, and then make up a few tunes about some chick in school.”
Another one of my friends told me that his best description of country music was simply “driving to a lake in my truck, then camping.” The description is simple, and in other contexts, might be taken as worthless. For example, when someone listens to a Berg symphony and says it reminds them of an LSD trip, they are often criticized for being simple-minded and not noticing the twelve-tonal structure. In country music, though, this type of description is actually more legitimate. The music’s dependence on sensations and landmarks can even be liberating. Kris Kristofferson—Rhodes scholar, mediocre actor, and brilliant lyricist—often says in interviews that he became interested in country music because it let him express emotions through concrete lyrics instead of abstract ideas. In “Border Lord,” Kristofferson actually mixes the two:
Each of us was a-humming to a half forgotten echo?Hangin’ over in the brain?Tappin’ time and thinking of the time we never had the time to take
As a lyricist, Kristofferson is an exception. Many country singers don’t depend on complexity of lyrics and instead embed situations in their tone. The lyrics of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” are straightforward, almost to the point of idiocy:
On the road again
Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway
We’re the best of friends
Insisting that the world be turnin’ our way
Nelson’s relationship to the audience is essential in songs such as these, and this can’t be captured in CD’s. Even though Columbia released this single live, it still couldn’t reflect Nelson’s bobbing head and the eager (drunk) fans who he allowed to crowd the stage during the song.
As country music has grown in popularity, some companies have tried to focus on merging it with pop music by changing typical instruments and lyrics. Instead of acoustic guitar, artists like Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney now rely primarily on electric instruments. The lyrics of the genre have become conventional, yet many modern listeners refuse to admit it. In an Amazon.com review of Toby Keith’s newest CD, James E. Bagley shares many critics’ sentiments when he writes that “Toby Keith has been one of country music’s most perceptive analyzers of damaged relationships.” Has he really, James? In “He Ain’t Worth Missing,” Keith sings:
He’s flying high tonight?He’s got a brand new lover?Here you come a-runnin’?You’re looking for some cover?I know you’re sad and lonely?I know you’re feeling blue?You miss him so much?Won’t let me get to close to you
When looking at lyrics like Keith’s, it is difficult for me to defend country music. The country music which many people at Princeton hate is an art form that has been crippled by audio disks and pre-planned concerts. I’m surprised that, in an attempt to be innovative, country music has ignored the conservatism in which it was bred. Pure country music should put restraints on industries that demand change for the sake of change (and profits) alone. Some of my friends from home hold the same attitude: “When you get bored,” they say, “just piss with your left hand.”