Growing up in suburban Chicago, I didn’t listen to country music. It was either my father’s symphonic music on WFMT, or my mother’s bobby-soxer/50s crooners, or local pop radio on the radio in my room. Occasionally, we’d click past HeeHaw on TV, but we never stayed to watch. I learned early that that wasn’t *our* kind of entertainment.
Neither was Soul Train, but if I was too sick for mass on Sunday, I reveled in the chance to see people dance to funky music on the UHF channel. Reception was fuzzy but I didn’t care.
My father sang one Mac Davis song, “It’s Hard to be Humble”, when he was in a good mood. Country music was for satire, for humor, for mocking ignorance and lack of sophistication. It wasn’t, from what I could tell as a child, “real” music. Plus, country music was from the south, and people in the south did horrible things to black people. They couldn’t be trusted.
When I went to school in southern Illinois, I found myself plunged into a completely different culture. While still strictly part of Illinois, and therefore the North, southern Illinois has a heavily Deep South-influenced culture, from the accent to the food to the music. The southern tip of the state, from Effingham on down, is physically south of the Mason/Dixon line, and also, oddly enough, the linguistic “greasy/greazy” line. Above this line, the word “greasy” is pronounced with an “s”, below it, with a “z.”
I learned a lot in college that had nothing to do with my major.
Instead of multiple radio channels dedicated to 80s pop hits, the dial in Carbondale was peppered with country music, and I resisted every note. My primary motivation when I went to university was to go out with a lot of boys, but introversion is a terrible thing for a girl with such ambitions, so I let my prospective dates’ music choices be my guide. Guys who liked country music would never be caught dead with a big girl like me; they wanted someone who looked like Daisy Duke. They were the ones who had the “no fat chicks” sign in their dorm windows. I wasn’t safe around them.
My worries about country music were not unfounded; a Mississippi State University sociologist analyzed country chart-toppers from the 1980s through the 2010s, and has found that “country hits increasingly objectify women and glorify whiteness,”
In recent years, Leap reports, country hits have “increasingly depicted women as sexual objects instead of employed equals.” In addition, “whiteness is celebrated far more often than it was in the 1980s and 1990s”—a trend that dovetails with the rise of white identity politics, particularly in the rural areas where the genre is most popular.
…beginning in the 1990s, more hit songs contained “allusions to idyllic pasts.” That sort of nostalgia has obvious racial undertones, made overt in 2003’s “Beer for My Horses,” in which Toby Keith and Willie Nelson “reminisce about when public lynchings were commonplace,” as Leap puts it.
Willie Nelson? Come on, man!
My wariness of country music resulted in lots of music-department boyfriends–brass players, drummers, and later, a husband who was a professional jazz bass player. No country music fans in the lot. Find me a chart-topping country hit with trumpet, I dare you.
Somewhere along the line, Shania Twain appeared. And Faith Hill. I edged toward country music as cautiously as I could, making sure the lyrics didn’t cross the line into the “bad” kind of country music, the stuff about missing the confederacy and women knowing their place. These performers were women exerting their independence with a twang, accompanied by steel guitar and sometimes mandolin. I could get past my Pavlovian response to the instrumentation and sing along with their lyrics about seeking their own paths.
There’s something outdoors-y about country music, and for that reason, I wished I could like it. It’s playful, like splashing in the swimming hole, drink lemonade in the sun, roll in the hay, all things I enjoy. I do not enjoy propping up mediocre white men, marginalizing people of color, longing for the “ante-bellum” days (read “slavery”), or praising the Confederacy. With most of country music, I just couldn’t get past that.
And then the Dixie Chicks happened, and suddenly, country music was fun. I mean, “Goodbye, Earl” completely turns country music tropes on their head. (Fun fact: Dennis Franz, who plays “Earl” in the video, went to school at Southern Illinois University. Just like me.) I flung the windows open and played their music at the highest volume. Songs like Cowboy Take me Away, Wide Open Spaces, and Sin Wagon were a joy, and to this day, speak of hot summer nights driving with the windows down.
Then I moved back to the Chicago area, and put away my country music to listen to on my own. I really only had those three artists, but it just felt out of place in the suburbs. Coming to Oregon moved me farther away from any country music, and listening to it here seems doubly insulting to black people, with Oregon’s history as an all-white state. My listening to traditional country here might signal to accidental eavesdroppers some allegiance with white supremacy, and I won’t allow that lie to spread, even just outside my car.
A few years ago, someone suggested I listen to Kacey Musgraves, saying she was “different” from other country acts. I refused. Then I started listening to Brandi Carlile, whose powerful voice exudes the longing and passion articulated in her lyrics.
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I’ve been
And how I got to where I am
But these stories don’t mean anything
When you’ve got no one to tell them to
It’s true, I was made for you
Swam all across the ocean blue
I crossed all the lines, and I broke all the rules
But, baby, I broke them all for you
Oh because even when I was flat broke
You made me feel like a million bucks
I was made for you
One of my friends said Brandi sounds like she’s going to bust a vocal cord. Turns out, I kinda like that. Her songs are about finding forgiveness, about boldly being an individual in a world of conformity, about learning how to love her daughter when it didn’t come naturally, and her love for her wife.
Her experience as a gay performer immediately set her apart from many artists I was listening to, and put me at ease about her message and background. There’s not a single country trope in her lyrics. She’s raw, unhinged, intense.
Brandi Carlile started her career as a little girl outside Seattle singing country music on stage with her parents in bars and markets. She grew up dirt poor, living in a trailer. Her first love is country music, and now after this great success–six Grammy nominations last year, three wins–as an “Americana” artist (WTH is that, anyway?), she has started working in country music again. This year, she will be touring with a group called The Highwomen, a nod to 1980s country super group The Highwaymen, built of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson.
The Highwomen comprise Carlile, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires among others who will rotate in. I know only Carlile of those names, but I’m willing to give the group a shot if only to hear her sing music she loves. She has an easy, warm vibrato that veers into yodeling in the higher registers, and she sounds so joyful when she bursts into those moments, I just want to sing with her. And so I do.
She and her Highwomen bandmates have struck out on this path with the intention of bringing more female voices to country music, and to spread a more inclusive message among the fans. I hope they’re successful. I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said “God, save me from your followers.” I feel like that could apply to country music, too.
And I finally did discover Kacey Musgraves. Last summer, like millions of other people, I stumbled upon her album “Golden Hour,” and fell head over heels in love with her trim vocal pattern, almost vibrato-free tone, and lyrics that defy all KINDS of country tropes.
It takes a lot to woo me musically, but she’s got it; unexpected lyrics, intriguing and simple harmonies and melodic lines, and defiant uniqueness. Her voice gives me shivers. She won the same Grammy that Carlile was up for, and I wasn’t even mad; “Golden Hour” is a thing of beauty.
Here’s one of my favorites; trippy, hypnotic, and full of joy and love. And steel guitar!
It’s summer in Oregon, and I am ready to throw open the windows and blast some summertime music. Here’s Brandi Carlile with her whole family, including some superheroes, on stage last summer in Bend. Tim and I were about 10 feet to the left of the person who shot this video. Best show I’ve seen in a while. Get yourself a little new country music, if you have a chance.
But stick to the women; they’re getting good.