It’s word association time. I’m going to say two words, you tell me what comes to mind. Ready?
I could be wrong here, but if I were to venture a guess, I’d say your words weren’t anywhere along the lines of “liberating” or “empowering,” but to me, that’s exactly what country music is. And no, I’m not just talking about the high brow country music that most everyone can get behind- the Johnny Cashes or Loretta Lynns. I’m not even talking about the established, respectable musicians such as Garth Brooks or Reba McEntire. I’m talking about the whole lot of them, right on down to Gretchen Wilson.
Country music is for the most part reviled by mainstream America. Tied only with Christian rock & opera, it’s the type of music people love to hate. Maybe it’s just me, spinning elaborate rationales to justify my love of country music to myself, but the thing is, I think the social stigma of country music boils down to more than just personal preference, or lack thereof. Humor me and follow me down the rabbit hole for just a moment won’t you?
I teach a college-level course about social justice and I always spend a class on class. Social class, that is. We talk about how complex class is in America, and how most of us spend a lifetime trying to claw ourselves up and convince ourselves we’re destined for a higher standing in life. We also talk about how many different class markers there are. Last term we came up with more than 30, and income was last on the list (Bear with me, there’s a point in here, I swear). So basically we have this restrictive system defining what it means to be of a certain socioeconomic status, and we’re all desperately trying to convince everyone (ourselves?) we’re better off than we are. That we deserve more, damnit. Now I’m not saying you don’t deserve to move up, I just can’t help but wonder what all this striving, this pretending does on a broader scale. While I can’t speak for everyone I can say what this has done for myself.
I’ve spent a good long while trying to fit in. To pretend like I deserve to be here, wherever “here” is. It feels wrong, it’s too much work, and for what? At this point in my adult life I’ve made it to solid middle class ground, and I’ve gotta say, it’s a little boring. And the view to the upper classes doesn’t look any better. Looking down though, there, my friends, is where it’s at. Enter country music.
Now don’t give me any sort of a lecture on how those artists aren’t genuine country people. I’m sure more of them than not are just cogs in the music industry machine, and I know it’s a lifestyle they’re selling, but that’s alright. I’m buying it. Country music is FULL of life. Getting dirty, having fun, drinking at bonfires into the night, riding around on boats, four wheelers, and snow mobiles. It’s about celebrating where you are, with what you’ve got. You can have your high tea, pinky out. I’ll be getting filthy camping and jumping in the lake to rinse off. Country music feels like freedom. Freedom from worrying about what others think about you, freedom from trying to move up that ladder. It’s accepting you’re on that bottom rung and realizing you’re actually better off for it.
Not only that, but I’ll argue that country songs give women far more room to have an interesting, complex identity. Women take revenge when they’re wronged, they overcome crushing adversity, and they’re so much more dynamic and complex than in other music genres.
And it’s not just women. Despite the emphasis on masculinity that we often associate with cowboys, men are celebrated as sensitive, and even redemptive. Of course there are the songs dripping with machismo, but you also get songs about men loving their wife and their children.
I might not be able to talk you into a love of twangy guitars and dramatic ballads, but that’s just fine with me, to each their own. As for me though, I’ll be happily toe tapping as a redneck woman just a little on the trashy side.