By Ryan Uytdewilligen
What is it about Country music that attracts so many listeners while simultaneously putting many people off? It’s certainly the only genre of music where you can sing about food like fried chicken, trucks and trains, and diseases like cancer. Could you imagine Led Zeppelin or Katy Perry doing a song about any of those? It’s a very unique genre because it’s so area specific. I am not aware of any Swedish country bands or Indian or even Chinese. Come to think of it, there really isn’t anyone from Asia, Africa, or Europe who’s hit it big with country. The United States, Canada, parts of the UK, and Australia are the only places with active industries and popular Country music stars. But even within those countries, there are large portions who despise the twangy sounds of banjos and guitars and lyrics that are deemed offensive or lazily written. But to some, including myself, it’s not just a type of music; it’s a way of life. Country music is what we grew up on which defines and summarizes what we lived with. Generally speaking it’s a small amount of people, but when you look at all the stars, the history, and the sold out shows every week, it’s a massive genre.
The thought of writing about Country music spawned after I recently listened to it and I had the epiphany. I grew up on a farm in Alberta where that type of music was king. I loved it and thought it was pretty normal to listen to Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson. High school was divided with people who loved and lived the music and those who hated it, both constantly letting you know to what extent if they found out you were a fan too. People change and so do tastes; I’m big into classic rock from the seventies now and have since moved out to Vancouver where that’s a pretty popular style to hear, but I found literally no outlet for Country. Everyone hated the sounds and messages of that music or, better yet, they had never even heard of it. Naturally, it made me miss the music I grew up on… so from time to time, I binged on Country.
This time around I got curious after meeting so many people who rolled their eyes when I said I listened to Country. Why is it that these people hate it and the people back home love it? I mean, there are certain types of country even I don’t enjoy, so what did that mean for me? Looking back at the history of the genre, it’s no doubt one of the most influential and most important out there. I’m not trying to sway you to listen to it; I’m just defending a style that constantly gets picked on. But without Country, we wouldn’t have Elvis, The Stones, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and so many more.
It’s hard to really pinpoint where the genre began because it might just actually be one of the oldest. Stemming from cowboy songs of the old west, it was used to tell stories and relate to the common working folk which stood out from fast jazz or classical. The Grand Ole Opry was established in 1925 and would guide and preserve the music while creating a central hub in the southern U.S., like Tennessee. From that, stars like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash rose to fame by telling simple stories with easy but memorable beats. Other genres like Gospel, Bluegrass, and Folk took inspiration from Country to create different sounds and tell stories, eventually inspiring Country in return. It was these types of rhythms that got the most airplay in the first half of the 20th century, inspiring everyone from Keith Richards to John Lennon.
By the time the 1950’s rolled around, Elvis revolutionized the genre with a rock n’ roll mash up that would be dubbed rockabilly. Gentler sounds like John Denver and Willie Nelson soon became popular, while bands like The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt played with the limits of gentle country and hard rock. More and more women like Patsy Kline and Dolly Parton got in on the action, bringing new life and perspective to the table. Soon enough, Country’s so called “fifth generation” created such mega stars like Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire that country was indeed one of the most popular music genres.
Today there’s everything from Kenny Chesney’s beach music to Brad Paisley’s often humorous songs with life observation. Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift have added a pop sound amongst the twang while people like Eric Church and Tim McGraw still faithfully follow genre traditions. A lot of them cross over into rock territory and few artists like Darius Rucker move into country, allowing for a very different style to be experimented with. I guess the attraction for other artists would be to use a platform where storytelling and song plots are still a must.
Where Country gets a bad name these days is the sexist themes, especially against women. Now there are more female country artists than ever before, but a lot of male driven songs like Luke Bryan’s “(Country Girl) Shake it for Me” stereotype women and fun loving, beer drinking, sexy party girls. Other people have rejected the music because of its open religious themes and sometimes dated views of sexual orientation. You could say it’s a conservative genre that’s stuck in a simpler time like the 1950’s.
People like myself might look past those songs and see that the controversial ones aren’t the common representative. I don’t listen to rap or hip hop but it seems to me that music speaks to a certain type of person and contains just as much sexism as Country. That music doesn’t interest me because I didn’t grow up with it or in a place that reflected that style. Music really just boils down to what genre fits someone’s lifestyle.
It’s blue collar music that speaks to people who are often physically working hard or grow up in small town life. These songs are about first and last loves, relaxing, or celebrating family. In other words, Country is really kind of innocent music. The city lifestyle has different values and a different pace, and I can see why this music wouldn’t fit. Small town rural living is at a lot slower speed and these songs act as a reminder or a reflection of what that type of life is. I think that’s why we listen to music in general. Unfortunately there may be sexist or “controversial” views and lyrics, but doesn’t that happen in all music? So the next time you or someone you know wants to bash country, it’s important to see that a lot of well respected bands have flirted or taken inspiration from it. It’s simple heartwarming music that takes me back home and paints a picture of what I grew up with. That is the key to any art form and the true agenda of this genre. That to me is Country Music.