The country music Immersion Experience

You run across a lot of people in life who describe their musical taste by saying something like, “I like pretty much everything. Except country.”

It always seems like there’s a certain pride attached to hating country music. This same phenomenon happens with the NBA. People who don’t like country music and people who don’t like the NBA are proud to not like those things.

Well, I don’t want to be one of those people, even though if I were to be completely honest, I don’t really “like” country music. Or I’ve never liked it in the past. Usually when I have heard country songs, I have been bored by them. That’s the best way of saying it. I don’t actively dislike it, but with a few exceptions it has never pushed any buttons for me.

But many, many people love country music and given that I have lived my entire life in country-music kinds of places (Kansas, Texas and Indiana), I decided I would immerse myself in it for a day by asking people to make recommendations and see what happened.

This is the result:

“Hey good lookin’,” Hank Williams

I’m not going to include “Sr.” in his title, because that would dignify the musical careers of his offspring.

Well, this is pretty straightforward. He’s got a hot rod Ford and $2 and thinks this will be enough to lure a girl to go dancing with him. I bet he’s right.

There’s a long solo by an instrument I genuinely cannot identify. Then there’s one by a violin. Don’t think I’ve heard a violin in a song since the last time I listened to Kanye West, which was earlier today.

Also of note: Hank has a “date book,” which is awesome. In the old days, people dated each other very casually. They may be dating five at a time, evidently, and had to have a book to keep them straight.

This dating concept is totally foreign to my generation. For one thing, you don’t go on dates right at first. You just meet in social settings, usually in groups. And can you imagine if you went on a date with one girl on Friday night, and that same girl saw you on a date with someone else on Saturday night? You’d be lucky to come out of that with either of them.

Grade: B-plus.

“He stopped loving her today,” George Jones. 

Has this woman died? Or did she just leave him? No. She just left him.

He kept hoping she’d come back. This guy is lonely.

Oh crap, this song is ridiculously sad. Do people like listening to this? Why? Why do people like listening to this? Why do people intentionally make themselves sad? I can’t take this anymore.

Also, George, speaking is not the same as singing, bro.

Grade: A for storytelling, D for being so sad. Averages to a B-minus.

“Okie from Muskogee,” Merle Haggard

“We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee. We don’t take no trips on LSD. We don’t burn no drag cars down on Main Street.”

Guess I’d better update my “Places I’d like to live” list:

One of the big messages of country music seems to be “You’re OK.” And I get this. People who live in the South and Midwest are constantly being told how stupid, backward and uncultured they are. A lot of people look at us like we’re losers who could never get out of here. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that a lot of us like it here, and not just because we don’t know any different.

Grade: C

“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Loretta Lynn

This girl’s got soul, daddy. Wow. You can tell every bit of this is real, and I wrote that before I looked her up on Wikipedia and found out that she actually was born a coal miner’s daughter. The imagery is too vivid, too honest.

And look at these lyrics:

“Daddy shoveled coal to make a poor man’s dollar.”

“Mommy rocked the babies at night and read the Bible by the coal oil light.”

“Scrubbed our clothes on a washboard every day. I’ve seen her fingers bleed. To complain, there wasn’t no need. She’s smile in Mommy’s understanding way.”

“In the summertime we didn’t have shoes to wear. But the wintertime we’d all get a brand-new pair. From a mail-order catalogue, money made from selling a hog. Daddy always managed to get the money somewhere.”*

*Remarkably, Kanye expresses a very similar sentiment in “Champion,” when he says this about his father: “My dad would say when you see clothes, close your eyelids … Every summer he’d get some brand-new hair-brained scheme to get rich from. And I don’t know what he did for dough, but he’d send me back to school with a new wardrobe.” Maybe he was selling hogs?

“The work we done was hard. At night we’d sleep ’cause we were tired.”

This song is just incredible. Vivid storytelling, a great voice and it makes you feel something. You can’t ask much more from music.

Your dollar is your vote, and I voted for this by purchasing it.

Grade: I spent money on it.

“Rocky Top,” Loretta Lynn

Man, somebody is THRASHING that banjo.

I don’t think it’s even possible to dance this fast.

Grade: Not my thing.

“On the road again,” Willie Nelson

As I understand it, Willie Nelson would not have a very good time in Muskogee.

Willie has a certain tone to his voice. I feel like he sounds older than he is.

There have been a lot of songs written across all genres about being on tour. This one is definitely one them.

2:00 mark: I’m bored. I get it. You want to get on the road again. Is that all?

Grade: C-minus.

“Georgia On My Mind,” Willie Nelson

I know this is not an original Willie Nelson song, but I also know it’s not an original Ray Charles song either, so don’t give me that. This song was written in the 30s or something, and the original version is awful. I’ve heard it.

I think Willie sings this song beautifully. And if I close my eyes during the harmonica solo, I can picture my old neighbor across the way in Burrton, Kansas, sitting in front of his garage, next to his tomato garden, waving as I ride by on my bike on a summer evening.

Nicely done, Willie.

Grade: A

“Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny Cash

This is such a great story. And it has that quality where the sound of the music seems to contradict the lyrics, but in a good way, not that stupid way like in Christian rock.

He shot a man just to watch him die. What an DOUCHE.

Johnny Cash had a healthy empathy for the imprisoned, and the lyrics to this are wonderful. A guy hears that train coming and it makes him think about coffee. That’s just great. It’s always the little things, isn’t it?

Grade: A-plus

“Highwayman,” Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash (?)

I’m not sure how this song ended up on my playlist, and I’m not even sure who’s on it, but this has a flute in it. I did not expect that. It also sounds like it could have been written by, like, Genesis. This is what would happen if Johnny Cash did a song with the Alan Parsons Project.

Grade: Incomplete

“Friends in low places,”  Garth 

This song is about a dumb hick that shows up in boots to a black-tie affair and I hate it. I really, truly hate this stupid song.

Every time I have ever heard this song, there has been some sweaty red-faced drunk standing there with his eyes closed growling the chorus like “I GOT FRIENDS IN GARBLE GARBLE  where WHAPNAY BLEGS and the BEER! chases my BLUDYBLAY … I’ll bludyblay.”

And we’re all supposed to love this song because “That’s totally me, you guys! I am totally that hick who doesn’t know when to wear a proper pair of pants!”

Fact: 90 percent of people who hate country music began hating it because of this song.

Grade: F

“Remember When,” Alan Jackson

I feel like I’ve seen fathers dance with daughters to this song.

Alan Jackson has an amazingly clear voice.

Ok, I just don’t care what he has to say anymore. This song is boring. Moving on.

Grade: (fell asleep)

“Walking After Midnight,” Patsy Cline

Can we be sure this is a country song? This sounds like a 60s pop song to me. But whatever it is, it’s by a country artist and it’s exactly two minutes long. That’s incredible. What happened to the two-minute song? Bon Iver hasn’t even played his first note at the two-minute mark, it’s just silence and melodic cooing.


Grade: B for brevity.

“I fall to pieces,” Patsy Cline

Patsy has been put in the friend zone by someone she sees on a regular basis, and you have to admit that’s pretty uncomfortable. The good thing is that this song is less than three minutes long, because she doesn’t have a lot to say on the topic, despite writing a song about it.

That’s what I like about Patsy. She keeps it concise. I bet she would have been great on Twitter.

I wonder, though, is this the same guy she was looking for after midnight? Because I can see why he dumped her. She’s the stalker girlfriend walking by his house, dialing his phone then just breathing heavily into the receiver when he answers.

Grade: B

“Crazy girl,” Eli Young Band

One of the best things about country music is that you can always hear the lyrics. It’s a remarkably well enunciated genre. Unfortunately, the lyrics to this song are so meaningless that there is no point in hearing them.There is not a single expository moment in this whole song.

All we know is that this guy loves a crazy girl. Well who doesn’t?

This is nothing but a pop song, and a bad one.

Grade: D

“Shoulda Been a Cowboy,” Toby Keith

This starts off with a Gunsmoke reference, which seems like a storytelling risk. When the first line of your song sends half the audience to Wikipedia, you’re not off to a strong start.

People hate Toby Keith because of some political expressions he’s made, and Toby has said some pretty stupid things. But so did John Lennon (Have you listened to “Imagine” recently? It’s preposterous.) If you’re taking your political cues from musicians, you’re going to be flying off the deep end pretty quickly.

Also of note:

Toby Keith: “California has women, whiskey and gold.”

Notorious B.I.G.: “Going back to Cali strictly for the weather, women and the weed.”

Grade: B-plus

“She thinks my tractor’s sexy,” Kenny Chesney

Does she?

I don’t believe this song. I have no idea who wrote this, but I don’t believe the writer of this song has ever been anywhere near a tractor.

The only reason this song exists is to tell farmers that they, too, are sexy.

“You’re OK.”

Grade: Dumb.

“She’s country,” Jason Aldean

Whoa. Rock riffs!

This song is a lot of fun and is obviously not meant to be anything other than that, so I give it an A.

Note: I saw some teenage girl from Houston perform the crap out of this song on The Voice this year.

Grade: A-minus

“Whiskey Lullaby,” Brad Paisley and Allison Krause

Uh oh. I think this is going to be another sad one. “He put that bottle to his head and pulled the trigger.” Oh no oh no oh no. Don’t do this to me.

Still, good storytelling. This reminds me of a Maker’s Mark ad I saw once. It showed a bottle of Maker’s Mark with that distinctive red top, with copy that read, “My first redhead left me years ago. I’ve been loyal to this one ever since.”

Sometimes liquor companies market themselves directly to suicidal alcoholics, and I’m not joking about that one bit.

Grade: Slitting wrists with my pen.

“Strawberry Wine,” Deana Carter

Is it too obvious to say this song is about Deana Carter losing her virginity? That’s clear to everybody, right? If so you’ll have to forgive me for mentioning it, it’s just that I’ve heard this song played during events where you wouldn’t expect to hear songs about losing virginity.

I mean, some college guy did 17-year-old Deana Carter on the banks of a river at night in July and it was witnessed only by the moon. It was bittersweet, mainly because he pretty much stopped talking to her after that.

Also, I’ve never had strawberry wine. Is this something people drink? This is the part I don’t get about this song. What does it mean to be “like strawberry wine?” Sounds gross.

Grade: A

“Alcohol,” Brad Paisley

Brad Paisley has turned alcohol into the narrator of this song and pretty much rattles off the list of effects alcohol has on the body. Clever, Brad.

Grade: Illegible scribbling.

“When I’m stoned,” Jason Boland

This guy has a good voice. This song seems kind of confusing, though. I’m not sure what he’s trying to say. Does his baby love him when he’s stoned?

Grade: C

“The House that Built Me,” Miranda Lambert

“My favorite dog is buried in the yard.” There’s a line that blasts you right in the solar plexus.

Miranda is having an identity crisis and is trying to reconnect with her roots by visiting her childhood home, a strategy that does not end up succeeding.

This is a good song. Another example of good, simple storytelling combined with a sentiment anybody can relate to.

Grade: Purchased.

“Kiss My Country Ass,” Blake Shelton

Coon dog! Truck bed! Beer! Earnhardt!

Once again: “You’re OK.”

I really feel like this song probably starts fights wherever it’s played.

Definitely the funniest song on this list.

Grade: Blue Collar Comedy Tour.

“Redneck Woman,” Gretchen Wilson

She can’t drink sweet champagne? May I suggest a brut, ma’am?

Gretchen knows the words to every Tanya Tucker song. I considered listening to some Tanya Tucker for the purposes of this essay, but decided I didn’t want to become any more like Gretchen Wilson.

Grade: D-plus

“Ring of Fire,” Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash reminds me of Bruce Springsteen in that he doesn’t really have a good voice and the subject matter and lyrics of some of his songs are totally ridiculous. But I like Johnny and think Bruce should be locked in a dim room with Willie Nelson until he calms down.

Musical taste is difficult to explain.

Grade: A

“Mountain Music,” Alabama

This is song is sweet. You can tell instantly it was recorded in the 70s. These guys are like a country version of the Bee Gees.

Grade: B

Dixieland Delight,” Alabama

This song reminds me of my parents dancing at my wedding, so I have a particular sentimental connection to it. I had never seen my parents dance before, in any context.

Hey-o! just when you got bored, they break it down with a violin solo.

Grade: A

“Steve McQueen,” by Drive By Truckers

This recording quality is awful on whatever track I ended up with. I can barely hear this. It sounds like it was recorded in somebody’s kitchen. Moving on.

Grade: Incomplete.

“Boot Scoot N Boogie,” Brooks N Dunn

For the record, I don’t know if I’m supposed to be using Ns there, but it feels right.

I’ve definitely heard this song before. It probably is fun to dance to. Unfortunately I’m at home with my dog, and the only dance he knows is The Dougie.

Grade: C

“She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful,” Brooks N Dunn

I don’t know if this was a song cliché at the time this was written, but it definitely is now. Some boy band has a song playing on Top 40 stations that’s almost identical to this. It’s uncanny.

Grade: C

“Play Something Country,” Brooks N Dunn

I think if you’re hiring a band for your very expensive country wedding, you start by calling Brooks N Dunn and work your way down from there.

Grade: C

“Today I Started Loving You Again,” Merle Haggard

Is this Haggard’s response to George Jones? Is this the same character that stopped loving this women today?

I don’t know music, but this chord progression feels VERY familiar. That’s about as specific as I can get.

Grade: C

“Celebrity,” Paisley

First off, there’s no way this guy’s last name is actually Paisley is it? You’re telling me a country singer is named after a country pattern?

This is a funny song about the unreality of celebrity. It’s certainly not the first song about that topic, but it’s probably the most humorous.

Grade: B-minus

“Return to Sender,” Ricky Skaggs

This reminds me a lot of “I’ll Fly Away” in both theme and guitar tickling.

The background symphony is interesting. I did not expect that.

Grade: B-plus

“Wide Open Spaces,” Dixie Chicks

I remember there being speculation that the Dixie Chicks’ outspoken opposition to Operation Iraqi Freedom would damage or end their career as relevant country music artists.

It seems that speculation was correct, doesn’t it? Correlation does not equal causation, but it doesn’t seem like we’ve heard from the Chicks since about 2005.

Grade: Purchased.

“Landslide,” Dixie Chicks

Even though this song was originally recorded by Fleetwood Mac and covered by the Smashing Pumpkins, this is the best version of it. This is because the singer, Natalie Maines, has the best voice of the three for such a song and the other Chicks harmonize well.

Grade: Purchased.

These were not the only country songs I listened to for this. I also listened to some George Strait, some more Johnny Cash (who I already liked anyway) and some of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, which is really bluegrass, but whatever.

I think I had three realizations:

1) Country music is popular because it makes flyover people feel better about being flyover people.

2) The strength of country music is its simple, vivid storytelling and universal themes, which, you could say, is a strength of most good art. And some of this is most definitely good art.

3) I am somewhat more likely to buy a song by a solo female artist than a solo male artist. I don’t know why.

I don’t think country music, as a genre, is any better or worse than any other genre. I think that if you like good country music, if you grew up with it or for some other reason identified yourself as a country music fan, you are a lot more likely to accept bad country music. The same is true of hip hop or rock or whatever.

But what makes country polarizing is that most of the time it asks you to identify yourself with a lifestyle many people consider embarrassing or unrefined or just tragically uncool. If you can’t identify with it because you aren’t from country kinds of places, or if you won’t identify with it because you don’t want people to think less of you, well, you can kiss Blake Shelton’s country ass.