How to Enjoy Country Music

A Guide for Millenials

There are two very important steps: a.) avoid crappy stuff on big radio stations and b.) learn to appreciate deep lyrics and dry humor (provided they are written by people who are actually decent songwriters — see step “a”.)

Just from reading this title, you’re likely thinking “No, I hate country music. No one can can change my mind.” And to be quite honest, you’re right to be skeptical. If you’ve heard any of the “bro-country” (no, I didn’t invent that word) that populates the airwaves, then you’re probably justified in your animosity towards country music. If all you’ve heard are songs about tight jeans, cowboy boots, alcohol and pickup trucks, then I would agree with you — country sucks.

Or maybe you have never really heard much country music, but associate it with a stereotype of “dumb hicks” singing about topics that you can’t possibly relate to. In reality, however, there is a vast difference between mainstream country music that is most commonly played by the big stations, and alternative, or “outlaw” country.

The latter originated with some of the greats — Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings etc. There are many overlaps amongst genres, and with music being easier to make than ever (and more accesible than ever), there are countless styles within a “genre.” Therefore, what one person may consider country music may not be what another is used to.

That being said, however, there are several factors that differentiate Alternative Country/Americana artists from “bro-country/pop-country” and make the former worth listening to. The most glaring distinction is the almost literary nature of the lyrics of alt-country.

In “alt-country” (okay, we are going to refer to it as REAL country from now on), the lyrics generally are slyly self depricating, ironic and illustrate larger social issues, often with a Hemingway-esque simplicity.

For instance, the Grammy winner for best country album this past year, Sturgill Simpson (google him), has lyrics that are poignant in the tradition of the emotionality of country, but also self-mocking and indicative of larger issues or universal struggles.

“Woke up today and decided to kill my ego/It never did me no good no how…” Simpson sings on the song “Just Let Go” off of his second album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. If nothing else, the title of this album should show a vast range within the label “Country” that is tacked on without consideration of musical value when compared, for instance, to Florida Georgia Line’s Anything Goes.

Furthermore, Simpson’s aforementioned lyrics demonstrate the tendency to not only be grounded and recognize that existence is more than partying in pick-up trucks, but also demonstrate the universality of country’s simplicity (when done right). Who hasn’t literally woken up and felt like what Simpson describes, in one way or another?

Country music, like folk music, tells stories. Perhaps because so much popular music has cultivated spectacle, and therefore, emptiness, people often forget that songs can be as meaningful as short stories or films. And meaning doesn’t necessarily make a song difficult, boring or “depressing.” Such a listening experience can bring something more to your life, even if it only lasts until the next track plays.

While everyone’s taste differs, there is so much decent “alternative” music out there that it seems a waste to write off an entire, ill-defined genre. If I haven’t convinced you as of yet, go listen to a Jason Isbell song and then get back to me about Country. (That guy writes some kick-ass lyrics.)