Country music is for "them." The big-haired, low-IQ, dysfunctional whites somewhere way out there, where the trucks have gun racks. It was for inbred, future mouth-cancer patients and Promise Keeping lame-dads. Not for me, not for people like us.
So I thought.
None of the above was taught to me in a single quotable command. But it was made clear anyway in a thousand gestures from my peers and adult influences: the well-timed eye rolls, the fast fingers on a radio dial.
My taste was supposed to be so much better than that. A slightly self-regarding love of Motown and a passion for Bebop era jazz was carefully instilled in me by adult figures. As a teenager my peers turned to the minor-key doo-doohing and detached observational distance of Ben Folds Five, and then the twitchy, clever canon of new wave veterans: Elvis Costello and David Byrne. At the time I needed music that made anomie and alienation sophisticated and civil. Wry and dry.
So in the new releases this month, I should be thrilling to the new St. Vincent album, which Rolling Stone praises for "twisty beats pushing her lovably ornery melodies toward grueling revelations." I loved her collaboration with Byrne last year, but I can't even get through one song of her new album. Listening feels labor-intensive and compulsory, like a term paper.
Instead I keep spinning the dad-and-flag twang anthems on Dierks Bentley's new album, Riser. In a song written as a vow — even a protest — to a woman who might "worry about me walking out," Bentley sings, "I hold on / To the things I believe in / My faith, your love, our freedom." The chorus could have been cribbed from margin notes on a 1990s Promise Keepers pamphlet, it's so big and cheesy. My almost physical reaction to the song — heart swelling, spontaneous fist-making, spine uncurling — makes the teenage wiseass within me want to vomit in self-rebuke. The sentimental lame-guy is me.
So as with David Byrne, the question comes: "Well, how did I get here?"
Obviously, my youthful prejudices against country music were steeped in ignorance, and were vulnerable to even the slightest invasion of experience or knowledge. But it still took me 20 years to figure out that country was as capacious a category as rock or hip-hop, and that I could actually pick and choose from within it. It wasn't all militarism and goofy line-dancing moms.
Once the first defenses were down, I had access to the indie-rock sensibilities of a Ryan Adams or the Adderal-fueled bipolarity of retro-bluegrass outfits like Old Crow Medicine Show. And then there were zeitgeist-approved classic country artists like Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Marty Robbins.
Another common blow to easy prejudices: the discovery that family members are a part of it. Not only into it, I had family members who actually were a country music outfit, who played with Garry Tallent of the E Street Band and even got Emmylou Harris to sing on one of their very cool Everly Brothers–meets-the-shit-kickers records. A visit to them in Nashville in turn exposed me to the regulars at the Station Inn, musicians with Berklee-school training like Sierra Hull and grind-it-out Gospel acts like David Parmely and Continental Divide.
But there's more to it than simple exposure. At the same time that I've grown older and more conventional, mainstream rock seems determined to abandon so much emotional territory to the omnivorous Nashville machine. I might have taken middle-aged refuge in Bruce Springsteen records if I were middle-aged in the 1980s. There is no Springsteen act for now. And I've just lost any shame about enjoying a form of pop music that occasionally affirms the major projects of adulthood: getting and staying married, working to provide, building a family.
Snobbery is an important pursuit for young people and should mostly be encouraged. It's often the first awkward gesture at discernment, self-knowledge, and wisdom. I rejected country music because I stupidly associated it with the stupid. To give that up doesn't mean giving up discernment altogether. It's still worthwhile to rate Dierks Bentley over Florida-Georgia Line, just as it is to recognize the genius of Steven Isserlis' interpretation of Bach's cello concertos over Yo-Yo Ma's.
But part of growing up is the willingness to be declared guilty under the critical judgment of your previous too-cool self. Even my wiseass idol Ben Folds has become willing to embrace the lame. In his reunion with his old bandmates, he sang: "So tell me what I said I'd never do / Tell me what I said I'd never say / Read me off a list of the things I used to not like / But now I think are okay." Despite myself, country music's okay.
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