by Libby Sternberg
I drive an old Buick, a car my late father owned. AM stations don’t work on its radio anymore, so listening to talk radio babble is out of the question when I run errands throughout the day. (Note to talk radio critics: It’s entertaining.) What to do? Well, for years now, I’ve had the radio tuned to a local FM country station, and I’ve become a fan of this genre. Oh, I used to catch the occasional country hit back in the day, but now I know who Eric Church, Dierks Bentley, Jason Aldean, the Band Perry, Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert and Sugarland are. Favorites include the aforementioned Lambert, Church and Bentley, as well as Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban. Mute-button triggers are Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw.
I’m not unsophisticated musically, so what is it that attracts me to this genre? First, let’s stipulate that all western popular music, from hip-hop to techno to country, is based on some pretty simple chord progressions. Therefore, no popular genre is traveling to new frontiers of harmonic complexity. Within the I, IV, V chord outlines, melodies can be mind-numbingly repetitive to clever to sappy to sentimental to so monotone that a classically trained musician might suggest they resemble recitative.
But, given the fact that most popular music shares a simple common musical language, here’s why I prefer country:
Country music lyrics are easy to understand: You can actually get 99 percent of what they’re singing about, with little guesswork. In pop music, it’s often hard to pick out the words. They’re mumbled or covered by dense guitar strumming or drumming or…stuff. Back in the 1980s, I remember a coworker confessing to me that for weeks, she thought Huey Lewis and the News were singing about wanting a new “truck” instead of the “I Want a New Drug” hit saturating the airwaves. I don’t think her experience was atypical. But virtually every country music song has clearly articulated lyrics.
Country music has a wicked-good sense of humor: Speaking of those lyrics, they often contain a good measure of self-deprecating humor. Take, for example, Steve Holy’s “I Got a Brand-New Girlfriend,” which celebrates, tongue in cheek, a man’s quick turnaround after a breakup. Or how about Brad Paisley’s “I’m Gonna Miss Her,” which similarly pokes gentle fun at a man’s caddish behavior in choosing fishing over his girl. These songs are funny.
Country music has a wicked-good sense of humor grounded in brutal frankness: In addition to the songs mentioned above, country music is full of hits filled with clever, honest humor. Dierks Bentley is a master of this with his “What Was I Thinkin’?” a song about a man’s lustful pursuit of a girl who gets him into trouble time and again (“I knew what I was feelin’, but what was I thinkin’?”). Bentley’s recent hit “I’m Getting Drunk on a Plane” gives voice to the wishes of many a broken-hearted gal or guy: a desire to drown one’s sorrow in booze, living it up while mourning an aborted relationship.
Even songs that don’t have a smile-inducing chorus can have slyly funny lines. Rodney Atkins’s “If You’re Going Through Hell,” a song about toughing out bad times, contains this gem: “You…ask directions from a genie in a bottle of Jim Beam…and she LIED to you.” Speaking of Atkins, he has another, uh, funny song called “Cleaning My Gun” about a father waiting up for his daughter to come home from a date. He tells her fellow before the couple takes off: “You all run along and have some fun/I’ll see you when you get back/Probably I’ll be up all night… still cleanin’ this gun.”
Or what about the Band Perry’s “Chainsaw,” a tune about cutting down the tree upon which is carved the initials of a couple who is no more. (“It’s hard to bury the hatchet… holding a chainsaw.”)
Country music contains interesting rhymes: How about the last syllable of “listening” rhyming with “game?” Taylor Swift manages it in “Mean.” ‘Nuff said.
Country stars sing about family and church and…family: Yeah, they sing about getting drunk and trucks and hot girls, too, but country music stars aren’t afraid to sing about the joys of family and about faith–either implicitly or explicitly. For example, Craig Morgan’s “That’s What I Love About Sunday” celebrates going to church, cutting coupons, swinging on the front porch…ordinary, sweet blessings. Or what about Eric Church’s “She Loves Me Likes Jesus Does”? It’s not a song about religion, but it’s drenched in southern/western religion references: “I’m a back row sitter at a tent revival/But she believes in me like she believes her Bible, loves me like Jesus does….she carries me when my sins make me heavy…” Or there’s “Down the Road,” one of whose singers has been – gasp, Kenny Chesney. A song about the cycles of life, it has this line in it: “Her momma wants to know if I’m washed in the blood or just in the water…” You don’t need to be a believer to enjoy these songs. There’s an unselfconsciousness about them that makes them charming. They’re not proselytizing. They’re saying, “hey, this is who I am, who we are…ain’t it great?”
Anyway, them’s my reasons for enjoying country music. Think I’ll go listen to some right now…
Libby Sternberg is a novelist.