When I wrote in a previous column that I didn’t listen to country, I got a few comments from concerned country music-listening citizens. “For the love of God,” they said, “at least listen to Dierks Bentley.” Which got me thinking about what was going on: I loved music, so why not country?
In upstate New York, where I’m from (the “country” to New York City’s “city”), a common expression would be, “I like all music…except country.” There was a time when I was interested in anything alt-country. That sounds good, what’ve you got? Wilco, the Jayhawks, Old 97’s? Yeah, I’d go for that. You don’t hear the term alt-country very much any more, though, nor do you hear it’s other, lesser-known derivative: “y’allternative.”
I also have a soft spot for The Thing Called Love, the 1993 movie starring River Phoenix about young dreamers trying to write the perfect country song (“Look out, Music City! I’m here and I ain’t never leavin’!”). I used that movie as a girlfriend litmus test for many years. “What do you mean, you thought it was cheesy?” I also really like the song River sings in it, “Blame It on Your Heart,” written by Harlan Howard. That’s a hell of a tune.
Reading this magazine made me hip to the fact that there was a whole other kind of “songwriter” out there, and a whole other songwriting industry—that which fed the country music market. In Nashville, even the plumber’s a songwriter, Robert, the mag’s publisher, told me. Before that, I thought it was mostly pop singers who had songs written for them.
I can remember looking at Billboard charts in the late ‘90s, amazed how Alan Jackson and the like could rule the charts like their name was Whitney Houston. Now, it’s like all the boundaries have broken down; Taylor Swift has broken the barrier and united east and west, north and south. Across the great divide comes Miley Cyrus. Soon, even Justin Beiber will be wearing a cowboy hat.
My dad (fairly tone-deaf, more of a book lover than a music listener these days) loves country music. He’s a Jew from Queens, grew up on Dylan and the Beatles, and, as a student of poetry, will often critique rock music on the lyrics alone. He doesn’t have much use for rap, emo bands and the like, but he loves the stories country music tells. Years ago, when he was driving around Florida as his dad was dying, he’d listen to two things: radio talk show preachers and country music. He took great comfort in both.
Then, when the movie Cash came out, he got deep into that and showed a keen admiration for Johnny Cash, an artist who had previously escaped his attention. And he always dug Lucinda William’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which I’ve dubbed copies of for him at least a thousand times. Currently he’s into Patti Smith, but that’s another story.
“It’s the poetry of everyday life,” he says, and rattles off some of his favorite tunes: “I’m Gonna Miss Her,” by Brad Paisley, “Huckleberry,” by Toby Keith and “We Rode in Trucks” by Luke Bryan. He likes the wholesomeness, the patriotism and the sense of Americana.
To me, country music was always about the same three chords being exploited over and over again. But then again, that was my problem with the blues, too, back when I was an opinionated teenager. That attitude seems kind of silly to me now.
They say country and the blues had a baby, and rock and roll was born. And I love me some rock and roll. I like “Goin’ Up the Country,” by those California good ol’ boys, Canned Heat. The Dukes of Hazzard theme. “Looking at the World through a Windshield,” as performed by Son Volt; Ben Kweller’s country-fried album, Changing Horses; The Rolling Stones’ country blues. I never could stomach Garth Brooks. I like The Byrds’ album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Ralph Stanley, and the theme song to Squidbillies (as performed by David Allen Coe). What is Bruce Springsteen if not a country music artist without the accent? (“I come from down in the valley, where mister when you’re young, they bring you up to do just like your daddy done”? Sounds like a country song to me.) I once saw Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson play a show together, and liked Willie Nelson better—was never a big Nashville Skyline fan. One time, I was waiting to meet someone at a bar a block or two up from the Beacon Theatre, and the bar was “western themed.” I waited for 15 minutes, started out on “Okie from Muskogee,” and 15 minutes later was nauseous with country music. I like Dolly Parton’s voice, and her country sweetness. I like anything I’ve ever heard by John Prine. I like Steve Earle a great deal.
Wait a minute, maybe I do like country!