Do You Actually Hate Country?
Reading Time: 6 minutes
You have probably heard the phrase “I listen to everything but country” sprinkled into conversations about music taste. Country gets copious amounts of hate from city slickers who claim to detest the genre as a whole, but is it all justified? When the average person thinks of modern country music, they picture radio stars like Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, Garth Brooks, and Morgan Wallen. They imagine songs about trucks, drinking beer, and the good ol’ American flag, and they envision all the hyper-patriotic, bible-thumping conservatives that they think enjoy this music. While there may be some truth to these perceptions, they are ultimately ludicrous when projected onto the genre as a whole.
Country music emerged in southern Appalachia as a mix of folk and blues, combining instruments like the fiddle and harmonica from Europe and the banjo and washboard that were popularized by enslaved African Americans in the South. It wasn’t until the 1920s that country music gained traction; “The Father of Country Music” Jimmie Rodgers became regarded as the first country star after his song, “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas),” sold over one million copies. Rodgers masterfully combined blues, gospel, and the yodeling in mountain music into songs about rural working-class life. As the nation changed, so too did the dominant genre of country music. Bill Monroe took the sound of Appalachian folk, adding a banjo played in the abnormally fast style of Earl Scruggs, and fused them together with jazz influences to create bluegrass. Hank Williams emerged unexpectedly during the mid-1940s and achieved widespread acclaim for his gut-wrenchingly honest and autobiographical lyrics, which struck a chord with people from all walks of life. Country was generally a male-dominated field, but as honky-tonk gained popularity in the 50s, more women emerged onto the scene. Kitty Wells’s song “It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” (1952) directly criticizes husbands who mistreat their wives. She asserts that every heart that has ever been broken “was because there always was a man to blame,” a lyric which resonated with countless housewives. Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, however, were the first two country superstars. Cash was arguably the biggest country star in the 50s and Parton became a pop culture icon in the 70s, getting voted the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year in 1975 and 1976. Their creative stage presences created a new standard for the modern country star to live up to.
Unfortunately, much of this rich history is lost as the trucks-and-beer stereotype has come to define the mainstream narrative on country music. The songs “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” (2005) by Trace Adkins, “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day” (2016) by Luke Bryan, and “Beer Never Broke My Heart” (2019) by Luke Combs are just a few examples of the repetitive tunes that seem to plague the genre. But these clichés were not always the balmy corral dust that they are today. This wave of mainstream country music was born out of the tragedy of 9/11. In the aftermath of this devastating event, somber and comforting songs gave way to staunchly patriotic ones as musicians took advantage of the deeply emotional reaction to American pride that was spreading across the nation. In 2003, “Have You Forgotten?” by Darryl Worley hit number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and even name-dropped Osama Bin Laden. Patriotism reached the point of jingoism with songs such as “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” (2002) by Toby Keith and “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag” (2001) by Charlie Daniels. The lyrics emphasized “American” values like freedom, Christianity, and community, and were sung in front of a backdrop of excessive American flags. While some of the hyper-patriotism has died down, popular country music still has the mark of being a patriotic genre; modern country stars have simply appealed to this idea by incorporating “American” images and motifs into otherwise unimaginative lyrics.
Country music is more than just the songs that populate the radio. If you dig a little deeper than mainstream radio, you’ll find a plethora of exciting subgenres under the country label, like bluegrass, outlaw country, and even cowpunk/country-punk and gothic country. Praising country’s past might imply that its golden days are in the rearview mirror of a beaten-down pickup truck, but modern country music is not as doomed as it might seem. There are several current artists that stray away from the trucks-and-beer stereotype and create emotionally dynamic music that hints back to the roots of the genre.
Tyler Childers and Zach Bryan are described as neotraditional country artists, inspired by stars of the past like Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, and Kitty Wells. They are both Appalachian-born musicians that take slightly different approaches to songwriting. Childers has spoken out against his categorization under “Americana,” preferring to stick with “country.” His lyrics are conversational yet profound, and he takes pride in expressing his musical roots in bluegrass as a Kentucky native, similarly to Bill Monroe. Childers takes advantage of modern music editing techniques without overpowering the sound of folk and turning his music into the shiny and overproduced pop country songs typically heard on the radio. Bryan rose to fame in 2021 after being honorably discharged by the navy to continue his career in music. His etymological similarities to Luke Bryan create a humorous contrast when comparing their polar opposite musical styles. Zach Bryan’s connection with his audience of fellow younger adults allows him to tug on all their heart strings with poetic passion that translates into a sincerity that Luke Bryan doesn’t even attempt to emulate, despite being one of country music’s richest stars.
Chock-full of whistles and yodels, Nick Shoulders makes progressive country music that has its fair share of politically charged tunes. His love for the folk traditions that are the backbone of country music is very apparent through his continuation of vocal and instrumental techniques. He elegantly addresses history and denounces the South’s blind allegiance to systems of oppression that he witnessed growing up in Arkansas. His song “Bound and Determined” (2019) is a perfect example of his political wit, with lyrics like “And though I might eat all of my steaks rare / I never sold my soul to a billionaire” and “Is life worth living if there’s lead in the last stream?” He actively opposes the ultra-patriotic messages that some country singers spread by returning back to the roots of the genre while also being politically progressive. However, he is not solely political, and is also able to craft sorrow-filled songs with alluring storytelling such as “Hardly Feeling” (2019). He sings, “I’ll be chasing lizards in the tumbleweeds / I’ll hold on to what I can but I won’t hold you.” He is unapologetically country, and the way he uses his voice to form all the yelps and yodels is unimaginably admirable.
For fans of reinvigorated outlaw country, Orville Peck takes notes from Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton along with Oasis and Lana Del Rey to create a mix of country and alternative rock. He has amassed over 900 thousand monthly listeners on Spotify with his fresh, captivating sound and emotionally tortured lyrics that emulate the best of Johnny Cash. Peck also boldly defies the image of a modern-day country singer; the top male country stars use the same formula for everything from music to fashion to stage presence, but Orville Peck boldly and successfully defies this with his fringed mask and mysterious aura. This appearance is one certainly inspired by recent trends of alternative and theatrical stage presences, yet it also hearkens to the cowboy look of past country stars.
Country should not be reduced to solely the pop country subgenre. Country was always the music of heartbreak and hardship, not mindless patriotism; this new pocket of musicians emulates these ideals thoroughly. Post-9/11 patriotism is not indicative of an entire century’s worth of complex music interwoven with various cultural influences. Unfortunately, the oversimplification of music genres is not exclusive to country. Many categorize hip hop as the Drake songs they hear on the radio; similarly, emo is reduced to My Chemical Romance, jazz to Louis Armstrong, Rock ‘n’ roll to Elvis, etc. There are positives to this sonic oversimplification; namely, it offers a straightforward approach to music categorization. Elvis is Rock ‘n’ Roll so that the average person doesn’t get lost in the genres of blue-Eyed soul, rockabilly, and pop rock. On the other hand, this oversimplification sends out a false narrative that the sound of big name artists is the only one that constitutes the genre in question, failing to recognize the rest of the unique and innovative artists under the genre who break these molds. If you don’t listen to country music because you were discouraged by a snippet of a Morgan Wallen song, take another listen and you might hear something you enjoy.