By Daniel Barrett
“I like all genres! Pretty much anything but country.”
Does that line sound familiar to you? I would be willing to bet that you have either heard or been the source of a statement like that one more than a few times before. I know, because I used to be one of those same people myself!
Do not get me wrong, I seriously doubt there will ever be a day where my answer is enthusiastic, “country music!” when asked about what I like to listen to; but as a former detractor of the genre, I think it is only fair that I wear my misconceptions on my sleeve, and make the case for why you should give country music a shot.
To talk about my current relationship with the—let’s call it, “polarizing”—genre, I have to first explain my past relationship with country music.
As a lifelong Texas resident, you would probably assume that I was introduced to Country at an early age. Believe it or not, I managed to go about half of my life without any real exposure to the genre. For my first 10 or 11 years, it was like the leftover pasta that sits in the back of your fridge for a little too long. I knew it existed, but I figured I might be better off just ignoring it.
This was mainly because I was raised on a strict diet of classic and hard rock. My dad instilled a sense of music snobbery in me from day one, and because of that, I was not exactly open to trying out new genres, especially not something synonymous with line dancing and Bud Light.
My first concrete memories of country music come from, of course, middle school dances. I still have hints of PTSD from hearing the whining electric guitars on “Big Green Tractor” start up, ushering in the slow dance portion of the night. Although I eventually overcame my deathly fear of slow dancing with girls, the damage had already been done. To no real fault of their own (other than crafting pre-teen romance ballads) the likes of Jason Aldean and Eli Young Band had soured my opinion of country music even further.
At that same time, a much more sinister sub-genre was beginning to rear its ugly head right into the center of pop culture. It was a sick, twisted form of music that hid malicious intentions behind excessive amounts of denim and Monster Energy snapbacks. I should have included a trigger warning at the top of the page, but it is too late now. I am talking about the one and only, bro-country.
Now, before I pick it apart too much, I just want to make it clear that I understand why this type of music was so popular at one point. It blended the most accessible aspects of country music with other extremely popular genres like hip-hop, pop, and rock. The idea of casting the widest net possible and presenting it under an easily digestible, country music façade is not a bad one on paper.
That is if you are choosing to throw out all artistic credibility in favor of attracting a large audience. I will even admit, Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” (possibly the most notorious example of bro-country) is an undeniably catchy song. The remix with Nelly is almost enough to convince you that the genre might not be so bad.
From roughly 2010-2015, country music was completely flooded with artists just like Florida Georgia Line. Southern party boys who spent the first 15 minutes of their day deciding between a Costa Del Mar tank top or an ill-fitting V-neck. The subject matter was like a rotating glass door of beer, girls, trucks, and beating up other bros for disrespecting their beer, girl, or truck. The same chord progressions dominated every guitar riff, and the same overly emphasized twang could be found in every vocal performance.
This era of country music (that is still around today) was enough for me to write off the genre for good. I had made up my mind; it was a shallow, talentless subsection of music that had no business anywhere near my headphones.
Or so I thought.
As it turns out, the only real way to convert a country music detractor is to trick them. In my case, I tricked myself. As I got a bit older and my musical taste started to expand, I began to explore genres that I knew very little about.
Folk music was something that did very little for me as a middle-school kid, but as I entered my high school years, I slowly began to understand that not every song had to be obnoxiously loud or contain a minimum of three guitar solos.
Before long, I had fallen down a rabbit hole of various folk and alternative artists that quickly became staples in my day-to-day listening. Bands like the Avett Brothers, Fleet Foxes and Trampled by Turtles were leading the charge towards an expanded music taste. I loved the beautiful imagery their songwriting would paint, the raw emotion they expressed and the way their respective sounds could make me feel like I was alone on a mountain top, pondering something deeper than my 14-year-old mind was capable of understanding.
What I did not realize was that this new obsession had quietly opened the floodgates for a myriad of other musical styles to pique my interest. Although I will not try to claim that folk and country music go hand in hand, there is no denying that both genres carry sibling-like characteristics. Folk music did not recycle that same vocal twang that I learned to despise, or the mind-numbing lyrics that bro-country relentlessly peddled.
What they did share was a “less is more” type of approach. While that may be a generalized statement, at their core, both genres thrived off simplicity and intimacy. I just had not put it together yet.
I had vivid memories of searching these artists’ Pandora stations (yes, I realize how dated that reference is), throwing on some headphones, and going on long walks around my neighborhood. I would pass through patches of oak trees and do my best to pretend as if I was traversing through some remote forest in the northwest.
During one of these walks, I was introduced to a band that would change my perception of country music forever. “I Got Loaded” by The Wood Brothers flooded my ears with bluesy harmonicas and soul-shaking vocals. It was like everything clicked at once. On its surface, it was just a guy talking about all the different liquors he was getting drunk off, but that was not what it felt like.
Behind the simple subject matter, I heard loneliness and addiction. It felt like being inside a log cabin with the fireplace burning, as a stranger tells you a story that sounds familiar, but you have never heard before. It was perfect.
Fast forward to the present day, and I’m pleased to say that The Wood Brothers was only the start of my country music redemption tour. From there, I discovered artists like Chris Stapleton, Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson and so many more. That blues and rock-infused style of country music only made me want to further explore what the genre had to offer.
Soon, I was delving into Bluegrass groups like Old Crow Medicine Show and Railroad Earth, then classic Americana bands like The Mavericks and Uncle Tupelo. There was an endless goldmine to explore.
That is where my biggest piece of advice lies for anyone who harbors some deep-seeded hate towards country music. It is a wider genre than you might be giving it credit for. If you are not so much into acoustic crooning, try out some blues-rock fusions like Alabama Shakes or Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats.
If you want to see what the best OF modern country has to offer you could check out some Clementine Was Right or Turnpike Troubadours. Or, if you just want some classic country to make you feel like a heartbroken cowboy drowning his sorrows in cheap whiskey, throw on some Brooks & Dunn or Merle Haggard.
Did you need my entire life story to get up the courage to give country music a shot? Probably not. But if you have made it this far, I have to imagine that you are keeping an open mind. Life is too short to go around hating a genre of music that you have never even given a fair shot.
Even if it is a guilty pleasure that you never openly admit to your friends, I encourage you to take some time out of your day and find some country music that ropes your cattle. Best of luck on your journey, partner!
Featured Image by Danielle Barrett