I grew up in a small, rural town where muddy trucks would cruise up and down main street with rifles mounted in the back window and country music blasting from the speakers. I grew up hating country music. I thought it was stupid, cheesy, and ignorant. To me, country music was the soundtrack to a conservative, small-town mentality that felt incredibly stifling. I tuned it out in favor of pop, rap, oldies, indie rock, and metal (for years my musical taste could be easily summed up as “Everything except country!”) until one day in 2003, when the Dixie Chicks caused a firestorm by speaking out against President Bush on stage. This was progressive, ballsy, the complete antithesis to everything I thought I knew about country music. I realized if these kinds of women were singing country songs, maybe it was time for me to reconsider my hatred for the genre. I slowly–and secretly–starting getting into country. Pretty soon I was asking friends for country recommendations and discovering that I have a serious banjo fetish.
This year I drove two-hundred miles roundtrip to attend a country music festival and even took a trip to Nashville to get my live banjo fix. My high school self would be stunned. Here are seven things I’ve learned to love about country music since my conversion to a proud country fan…
1. Every song has a story. As someone who loves storytelling, I can’t believe I resisted country music for so long. Country music is all about storytelling: there’s a strong focus on narrative voice and many songs are structured as stories with a beginning, middle, and an end. When you listen to country, you’ll meet characters, hear about their conflicts, become invested in the outcome, and then celebrate their triumphs or mourn their failures. Not bad for a three-minute song, huh?
2. It’s heartfelt. Want evidence? Listen to Dolly Parton’s voice quivering as she hits the high notes of “Jolene.” “I’m begging of you please don’t take my man,” she pleads. It’s a fucking tragedy. One thing that country music has always done well is convey deep emotions through simple, straightforward lyrics. Country singers usually mean exactly what they say, and that honesty makes the music accessible and relatable for anyone who’s ever had a broken heart, wanted to achieve a big dream, or, you know, gotten their truck stuck in a ditch.
3. No topic is off limits. One of the biggest misconceptions about country is that since the lyrics are simple, the subject matter must be simple too. For years and years I thought all country music consisted of cowboys losing their dogs. I was so, so wrong. Country songs tackle anything and everything: death, abuse, addiction, affairs, politics, war, religion, even murder–the Dixie Chicks have a peppy song about a battered wife poisoning her husband and dumping his body in the lake. And some of my favorite country songs deal with subjects that are harder to define: feeling lost or unsatisfied with life, searching for something bigger and better although you’re not sure what it is. If someone has experienced it, chances are it’s been sung about in a country song.
4. It takes some serious musical skill. Listen, I love pop music as much as the next person, but so many of today’s hits consist of auto-tuned vocals layered over electronic beats. It’s becoming more and more rare for pop stars to play their own instruments. I know that country music has changed a lot in recent years, but there is still a focus on artistry and musical skill that I think is being lost much more rapidly in other genres. Love her or hate her, even Taylor Swift plays guitar, and other mainstream country acts showcase serious skills on mandolins, fiddles, violins, and banjos.
5. It’s really, genuinely funny. Remember when I said that every song has a story? Well, they’re often funny stories. No other style of music includes such a consistent sense of humor. Lyrics are littered with unexpected plot twists, irony, puns, and clever wordplay. In Sugarland’s “It Happens,” Jennifer Nettles sings about getting into a car accident with an ex and his new girlfriend, and right before the chorus she throws in a “Sorry about your neck, baby” in a sassy Georgia accent that always cracks me up. Dierks Bentley’s “What Was I Thinkin'” is so catchy and ridiculous that it makes me laugh pretty much constantly the whole way through. Country singers knows how to do big, tragic ballads, but man, they also know how to have fun.
6. It can spark social change. Some of the greatest protest songs in history have been folk, bluegrass, and country songs. So much about country music–from the honest lyrics to the fact that it was born in the politically and culturally complicated American South–makes it the perfect medium to convey revolutionary ideas. Ever since Woody Guthrie scrawled “This machine kills fascists” on his guitar and sang “This Land Is Your Land” with his defiant Oklahoma twang, country music has provided anthems for countless political causes. I used to think country music was small-minded, and sure, some of it can be, but throughout history it’s also been a powerful vehicle for social change. Let’s give credit where credit is due.
7. Banjos. If you want to hear banjos, you’ve gotta listen to country music. If you love banjos, you’ll love country music. That’s all there is to it.