I grew up believing in the kind of love they sing about in old country ballads. The pop music that blared from passing car windows and other kids’ iPhones seemed plastic and false, laden with metaphors I didn’t understand. The country music that lived in my dad’s garage felt true, genuine. I couldn’t imagine hitting the city with Kesha and her friends, but I already dreamed of a love that was “deeper than the holler, stronger than the river, higher than the pine trees growing tall upon the hill”.
Maybe it was because I really was a country girl: the mile-long driveway, the stretching view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, roosters calling in the morning. Imagery of bright lights and sleepless cities didn’t look anything like the world around me, but a dirt road was synonymous with home—the long trek we took in the snow when the driveway was all ice, those early-July strolls down the mountain to pick raspberries. Country artists like George Strait and Jo Dee Messina sang about love and heartbreak, just like any pop musician, but they did so in a language I was primed to understand.
There’s also the possibility that country music was just familiar to me. It played in my house and in our car, to and from school, filling up empty spaces and comfortable silences. A music taste passed down smoothly from father to daughter, just like the auburn hair and seasonal allergies.
Whatever the reason, I was hooked. I went to concerts in a too-big cowboy hat, all of nine years old, every word memorized. I added 94.9 Star Country as a pre-set station on our car radio, and before long I could identify most of the songs that got radio play within the first couple notes. I was an aficionado.
This, of course, was long before I conceptualized “coolness.” I felt expansive and unselfconscious love as a child, for Nancy Drew and Hannah Montana and nearly every country song I heard. There was no sense of “cool” or “uncool”, no impetus for shame. Just a blissful dream of enjoyment without fear of judgment.
Middle school taught me what embarrassment felt like. How loud the beating of a heart under scrutiny, how sharp the choked feeling of restrained tears. “Coolness” not only gained definition but became a parameter against which every interest had to be measured. When asked what kind of music they listened to, the kids in my class replied, “Oh, everything but country.” Their voices carried an airy certainty that this was the right answer, possibly the only answer. Again, that newly familiar pinking of my cheeks, the rush of blood in my ears. When asked the same question, I kept my mouth shut.
I was a fast learner, though. “Everything but country” became a phrase I traded like loose change. Soon, it wasn’t even a lie. Multiple generations of iPods bursting with pedal steel and cowboy metaphors went by the wayside, replaced by a sleek Spotify library boasting new, far “cooler” playlists rife with alt rock, indie folk, and bubblegum pop. Everything but country.
In many ways, the expansion of my musical diet was a net positive. There were brand new artists, new sounds, new types of lyricism that better captured the tumultuous frenzy of becoming a teen. Country had captured my young imagination, telling stories of enduring loves and endless sorrows, like fairytales in which tractors replaced horse-drawn carriages. But I’d grown past fairytales, finding my hormones far better reflected by angry Midwestern boys singing of “surfed out brain waves” and “the murder machine.”
I found music that I loved, and still love, because I set aside my singular focus on country. But social pressures didn’t allow me to simply let go of my first great musical love. I had to revile it, to endure the whiplash of moving from a wholehearted fan to an outspoken hater near-instantaneously. I was loudly anti-country, citing the explanations that people always trot out when asked to explain their distaste: every country song is about a beer-drinking, pickup-driving man whose primary focus is objectifying women. How could anyone stand the repetition, much less the misogyny?
This was a stance I took for years, conveniently forgetting every country ballad that had held me in its twang-y arms as a child. I knew that it was wrong to treat any genre as a monolith—a principle that led me to listen widely—but country persisted as the exception. Examples of bad country songs that followed the oft-critiqued template were easy to find, while examples of good ones stayed locked in my distant memory.
My return to my country music roots was not sudden. There was no jolt of realization that shook my dislike for the genre loose, no immediate catalyst that changed everything in a moment. No, there was just Darius Rucker’s cover of “Wagon Wheel” that I added to a road trip playlist on a whim. The perfect song for driving, and the only song I know of that namedrops my hometown. A few Dolly Parton songs thrown into the rotation, just because they’re classics. Then “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, which made me viciously homesick during my first semester of college. I listened to it while I flew home for that first winter break. When John Denver crooned “Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River,” I began to cry.
The gradual seep of old country classics into my Spotify library became, with time, a steady leak. Soon I was listening to George Strait’s full discography while making the 45-minute trip from Roanoke to Floyd, feeling for all the world like the same little girl in a cowboy hat that covered my eyes. I rediscovered the fairytale lyricism of Faith Hill’s “This Kiss” and the promise of independence in The Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces.”
All of this culminated in January of this year with the creation of a playlist entitled “country music redemption arc.” I chose a subset of the best country songs—whether that meant the most emotive, or lyrically complex, or just the funniest—as a snapshot of the best parts of the genre. It is meant to be a primer for any listener still unconvinced that country songs exist beyond the stereotypical tale of the pickup-driving misogynist. Songs about back roads and moving away from home and measuring your love against the trees or the oceans.
While the playlist is intended in part to “redeem” the genre for country-averse listeners, the only real redemption arc is my own. I abandoned an entire vast, complicated, personally significant genre of music in the pursuit of the elusive idea of “cool,” unable to believe that my interests were worthwhile when they weren’t met with the approval of others. Even once I’d escaped from the middle school fishbowl, I failed to understand that I could welcome brand new sounds without recoiling from the old ones. I came back for country music, though. I abandoned the pursuit of coolness, turned around, and found it again—waiting right where I’d left it, in the space between bright imagination and comforting familiarity.
Now, my Spotify statistics show that I listen to 55 different genres, and only three of those include some form of country. I’m not the devotee that I was in elementary school, and I doubt I ever will be again. There is a wide, wondrous sea of music to listen to, with more being released every day, and I want to hear so very much of it. But among it all, there’s this: the soundtrack to a buttery yellow Appalachian spring morning, a love song about back roads and cornfields, a tribute to twang. When asked what kind of music I listen to, I can finally give the true answer: “Everything.”