I used to despise country music. I hated everything about it: the slow background instrumentals, the corny lyrics, the big hair. I didn’t know who the singers were and felt like I had nothing in common with them. I owned a dog, but I didn’t know anyone with a pickup truck. I had had my heart broken, but I didn’t cry any tears into my beer. Adding to the misery was the fact that I had a part-time college job at a radio station that played nothing but country music. Fast forward 20 years, and country music didn’t sound so bad any more. Did I change, or did the music change? The answer was both: the music improved, and I gained some life experience. As a college student, I had only lived in the Northeast, spending my entire life in Connecticut. As a bedroom community of New York City, my hometown was quiet yet somewhat sophisticated. There were small boutiques, family-owned seafood restaurants, and a couple of good community theaters that attracted some top-flight talent in the region. Everyone looked to Manhattan for their cultural inspiration, and ranchers, cowboy hats, and open spaces were absent from the music and general lifestyle. Western life was a continent away, and I didn’t think I could stand being a part of it. Following college, I had the opportunity to move to San Francisco, still a sophisticated city that had no open spaces or ranches.
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Once I crossed the Bay Bridge and started exploring the East Bay, I discovered a bit of ranch life. Just a few miles away from my son’s school were several ranches, their locations made even more obvious by the ranchers who strode into the town’s smoothie store, wearing their 10-gallon hats, well-worn cowboy boots, and spurs. They were real spurs and a necessary part of their job. Surely, I thought, he was lacking in sophistication. I was wrong again. In talking with him, I learned he had a graduate degree in animal husbandry from a major university and ran his ranch at a profit, using as much technology to manage it as he needed. Myth number two was busted. Western life was not a bucolic way to hide from the real world. It was at the core of our world. This quiet rancher provided a good portion of the local meat for the region, a complex and ongoing responsibility. The last barrier to fall was revisiting country music itself. Granted, the genre had fused with rock and pop quite a bit, which made the transition a bit easier for me. The lyrics were modern, the rhythm was more infectious, and the singers were my age or younger.
My journey to musical Damascus was completed when stuck in a traffic jam in Berkeley. I wanted out. I wanted some fresh air, and I switched from the news station to the country station. I even opened my driver’s window, unashamed to share my musical choice with the hipsters of the college town. I became curious about the roots of country music and started exploring the legacy singers: Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, June Carter, Merle Haggard. Their songs, which I had spurned and muted while I worked at that country station in the late 1970s, had new meaning. I had met the people they sang about, saw the land, and had gained a new perspective and respect for the people who live in that wonderful, vast portion of the United States that stretches under the big skies of the West.
Not only did they sing about Western life, but they also sang about everyone: people who hurt, loved, lost, and exulted in their lives. While the music had changed, I had changed more. In re-examining my view of country music, I had to take the long road. A change in residence, new experiences with people who represented the core of country music’s meaning and message, and reopening my mind all played a part in awakening a true appreciation for the genre. It was no longer corny; it was real. More than simply allowing me to add to my musical repertoire, it allowed me to be unafraid to take a second look at other preconceptions I carried.