Country Music: a Midlife Love Song

If you’re not from Alabama, what I’m about to write may seem strange. I am from Alabama — born and raised — and I never owned a pair of cowboy boots, never drove a pickup truck, wasn’t much into football. And I never listened to country music until well into my twenties.

It’s not that I wasn’t surrounded by it. My grandparents had a beautiful collection of bluegrass and classic country vinyl. At summer camp, everyone was listening to Clint Black and George Strait and Driving n’ Crying, which, I don’t care what you say, is country music. My best friend in high school listened to Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers. Country radio played in grocery stores, gas stations, Wal-Mart.

And hell, I even listened to it. I loved Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Eagles. In college I grew to love Alabama and Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. My favorite bands — the V-Roys, the Grateful Dead, the Jayhawks, Rob Russell — were country or country-tinged. My friend Brandon gave me tapes of Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue and King of America, and I wore them out. But still, if you asked me if I liked country, my answer would still be a surprised and emphatic no. I could name every classic rock song on the radio, but no, I was not a country fan.

Country was for rednecks.

When my wife and I moved to St. Louis in 2002 to attend graduate school, I went to work in the stockroom at a Williams-Sonoma for the summer. The manager, Linelle, was an quiet black man from Illinois who always kept the radio tuned to the country station. As we opened boxes and priced freight, we’d listen to Tim McGraw.

I suffered in silence for several days, until one day I summoned the courage to ask the question that was burning me up. Cautiously, casually, I said, “Hey Linelle. Can I ask you a question? Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t know a lot of black guys who listen to country. What gives?”

He stared a couple of holes into me for a second, then scoffed. “What am I supposed to listen to?” He asked. “Rap?”

Still, the damage had been done. In all of that listening, a few songs had caught in my head, so as I drove around St. Louis in our old Saturn with the busted CD player, I inevitably turned past country radio and caught a song I liked. Later it turned into two, and three. Soon I was hooked.

Pause: Some of you now want to have the debate about “real country” vs. “commercial country,” and I’m not interested. I love Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton, and I just got finished listening to Dwight Yoakam. But do I still listen to country radio, even though it’s so mainstream, so commercial?

Sometimes. Country has always been populist, and since the Bristol Sessions of 1927, it has been commercial. Johnny Cash and Hank Sr. aimed to make money, and did. At the time, they were pop country radio.

Let’s drop it. Either you like an artist, or you don’t. Either you like a song, or you don’t. Unpause.

So what now? I’m a university professor who’s pushing 40, living in Alabama, just bought my first pickup truck. I do own a pair of cowboy boots, and yes, I listen to country. Some might accuse me of taking on (yet another) affectation except for the fact that, on reflection, I’ve always loved country.

Let me me illustrate it this way. My father is a smart and successful doctor. He also grew up on a farm in Elba, Alabama. He loves high and lonesome music, acoustic guitars, fiddle, songs of the mountains. Once he came to my buddy George’s farm when we were playing old time music and he was absolutely rapt. But does he like country? No.

Except he does, because it’s in his blood.

A few years ago, I was given a folder of song poems written by my great-grandfather on my father’s side, a tenant farmer in Coffee County. I remember him from childhood: a thin, grizzled man who dipped snuff, wore overalls, and swung with me on the porch swing, showing me his gold pocket watch. I knew he was a hard man, a smart man, but I never knew he was a writer.

The lyrics were written on the backs of overall labels, in promotional snuff box-shaped notebooks, in pencil on lined notebook paper. Randall Bedsole wrote of politics, salvation, drinking, and women, and his lyrics aspired to country radio as he heard it at the time. In reading his lyrics, I found myself, re-centered myself. Now I plan to work them into an album, but I’m careful. I’m taking my time, trying to understand what he heard and what he thought.

Recently I moved back to Alabama after having lived away for 13 years. In my rash youth, I had sworn never to return, but in my rash youth, I swore a lot of things. Now I’m a vocal advocate for my black students. I don’t own a gun or a Confederate flag or vote Republican, but I love country music.

Country is the music of my people.

One of my goals this year has been to find things to love about Alabama again, and surprisingly, it hasn’t been hard. A maker culture has emerged. We have craft beer and a food scene. Music (not just country) is blowing up. We have fashion designers. Alabama is evolving.

I have friends who love roots music too, and can make all kinds of distinctions. They can speak brilliantly about old time music, bluegrass, Appalachian music, sacred harp, country, but to my ears, it’s the same: It’s that tight and searing harmony, that maligned twang, that thumping bass, that old sweet pentatonic scale, that high and lonesome sound. It has made the hair stand up on the back of my neck in the Down Home in Johnson City, Tennessee, and in my buddy’s living room in Tallahassee, Florida.

And finally, in some ways, embracing country is like re-embracing Alabama. When my wife and I first got jobs back in Alabama, I worked through the angst of moving by writing a song called, “Anywhere but Home.” I goes, in part, like this:

Left my family years ago
I was never coming back and I told them so
Left Alabama with my backpack on
I said take me anywhere but home

But now we’re back, and it feels like home. I listen, without irony, to country, and I lean into the last verse of my song:

Read one time that the road will bend
You all the way home at the journey’s end
You can bury me here, you can rest my bones
I was going anywhere just to get back home
I’ve gone everywhere, now take me home