What I Learned from Today's Country Music

I used to hate country music. I stereotyped country music as ignorant nonsense about getting drunk, tractors and trucks, breaking up, cheating, and hooking up in honky-tonk bars. I was wrong. Sure, country music provides its audience with stories about the effects of drinking alcohol, the elements of southern living rife with tractors and trucks, as well about the complexities of relationships that include cheating, breaking up, and even hooking up in honky-tonk bars. But what I discovered about country music entirely and forever changed my perspective and my respect for country music artists and writers.

My gateway drug into country music originated from today's new country music, actually, and specifically through one artist: Chris Stapleton. I was in my truck one afternoon and flipping channels on the radio when I heard "Parachute." I was immediately drawn to his rustic, soulful, passionately growling voice. But then I actually listened to the lyrics: "You only need a roof when it's raining / You only need a fire when it's cold / You only need a drink when the whiskey / Is the only thing that you have left to hold / Sun comes up and goes back down / And falling feels like flying till you hit the ground / Say the word and I'll be there for you / Baby, I will be your parachute." This country music male artist was poetically pouring out his heart to a girl, offering to be her soft landing, so to put the matter.

I learned that many country male artists actually wear their emotions on their proverbial sleeve when they love a girl. This is not the image of a Marlboro Man, "real men don't cry," motif that I originally imagined. These manly men pour out their emotions about the woman they love. Consider Chris Young's "Sober Saturday Night," lyrics that use sobriety as a double entendre referring to not being hungover due to drinking but being sober from not being with the woman he loves but who is forever gone. The music video is heart-wrenching, given the involvement of alcohol and jealousy and fighting, and the narrative of the woman he loves being with killed in an automobile accident. Country music is the stuff of real life -- for everyone.

Consider also Darius Rucker's best song to date, "If I Told You," a song as honest and transparent as one can exhibit: "If I told you all the stupid things I've done / I've blamed on being young / But I was old enough to know I know / If I told you the mess that I can be / When there's no one there to see / Could you look the other way? / Could you love me anyway?" Near the end of the song he asks, "Could you love me anyway? Please?" A man is asking to be loved, revealing his need to be loved, displaying his heart in wanting to be loved.

I discovered that country music communicates desires of love and passion better than any other genre (perhaps with the exception of pop artists like Adele, Sam Smith, and Sade). The passion between two people in love is so obvious in songs like Dierks Bentley's "Black," a song amazing in scope and production, that could just as easily gain airtime on rock stations as on country stations. The recent single from Old Dominion, "No Such Thing as a Broken Heart," encourages us to love fully and not half-heartedly: "No you can't keep the ground from shaking / No matter how hard you try / You can't keep the sunsets from fading / Gotta treat your love like / You're jumping off a rope swing maybe 'cause the whole thing is really just a shot in the dark / You gotta love like there's no such thing as a broken heart."

But there is pain expressed in these songs, as well, and none more obvious than "A Better Man" by Little Big Town, written by Taylor Swift. From beginning to end there is a haunting longing for what could have been; and with each passing line, the listener can sense the deep anguish of losing someone who could have been the life-long partner of one's dreams, if only he (or she) would have made the effort. Even Jason Aldean's "Ask Any 'Ol Barstool" maintains a sense of painful longing for what could have been in the midst of lyrics suggesting that he is not grieving. But he is grieving, for he confesses, "Sure I take more Jack in my coke now / A little more high in my smoke now / Sure I stay 'til they're all long gone / And I take the long way home." These lines inform us that, though he insists that he "ain't sittin' 'round tryin' to drown the thought of you," the truth is told when we ask any 'ol barstool. His method of coping with the loss tells of his inner longing, pain, and anguish.

Brett Young, from his song "In Case You Didn't Know," pours his heart out for the girl he is smitten with but is too shy to tell her: "I can't count the times I almost said what's on my mind / But I didn't / Just the other day / I wrote down all the things I'd say / But I couldn't / I just couldn't / Baby I know that you've been wondering / Mmm, so here goes nothing / In case you didn't know / Baby I'm crazy 'bout you / And I would be lying if I said that I could live this life without you / Even though I don't tell you all the time / You had my heart a long, long time ago / In case you didn't know." Here are the men of today's country music: in trucks and on tractors and with dust on their boots and mud on their tires (thank you, Jon Pardi), these men have strength, respect, character, integrity, and they have heart.

But country music is more than love songs and heartache. The "stuff of life" also consists of social justice issues, and country music artists like Eric Church address these head-on in his song, "Kill a Word": "If I could kill a word and watch it die / I'd poison 'never,' shoot 'goodbye' / And beat 'regret' when I felt I had the nerve / Yeah, I'd pound 'fear' into a pile of sand / Choke 'lonely' out with my bare hands / And I'd hang 'hate' so that it can't be heard / If I could only kill a word." If you think all country music artists are KKK-avowing racists, "fag-hating" bigots and misogynists, then think again. Many of these artists care deeply about social justice issues, the LGBTQ community (thank you, Carrie Underwood, Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, Brothers Osborne, Willie Nelson, Wynonna Judd, Toby Keith, Martina McBride, Tim McGraw, Reba McEntire, Ty Herndon, Faith Hill, Rascal Flatts and Blake Shelton), ending racism and misogyny. This has not always been the case, mind you, but country artists, and many country fans, are evolving in the right direction.

I think the substance of country music is also evolving. When, in 1999, Kenny Chesney was singing "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy," today he is considering life and love with a bit more thought, care and concern, as evinced in his song, "Noise." Consider also Tim McGraw, who, I think, is getting better with age. Who can deny the good-natured values of "Humble and Kind" or "How I'll Always Be"? Who can fail to be inspired by Brad Paisley's encouraging and heart-warming "Today"? Luke Comb's "Hurricane" resonates with the effects of love; Luke Bryan, in "Fast," sings about our attempts to soak in life as much as possible; and Florida Georgia Line uses theological language in describing the love between a depressed, desperate, and hopeless man and the woman who rushed in and saved him through love.

Reba McEntire's "Back to God" is a bold declaration of faith and community and love. Craig Campbell, in "Outskirts of Heaven," thinks about the afterlife and what he dreams heaven will be like. Miranda Lambert insists that God knows and understands her heart. High Valley, in "Make You Mine," sing about loving a girl while using Christian references such as Hallelujah and Sunday morning. Brett Elderedge, in "Wanna Be That Song," wants to stand with his girl on the back pew of a church on a Sunday while she is pouring out her heart. Tim McGraw, in "How I'll Always Be," confesses that he will always be fan of little one-room churches. Chris Janson, in "When I'm Holdin' Her," celebrates God in giving him a wife and "a six pound and an eight ounce sweet baby girl." We have to admit: themes like the ones listed here are alarmingly vacant in all other genres of music today except Christian music.

What I learned from today's new country music over the last four months of listening to country radio stations is that I was largely wrong and misinformed about much regarding country music and country music artists. I have no dog in the fight between what constitutes real country from psuedo (or new) country. However, I will join the debate over artists like Sam Hunt and Chris Lane representing country music, neither of whom I consider to be actual country (or even new country) artists. Though a band like Florida Georgia Line may sound more akin to southern rock, they do, in my opinion, maintain a heavy country element, and I consider them within the boundaries of new country music, or what I would call an evolution of country music itself. Country music, largely, has faith, soul, and substantive heart. I am happy to count myself a fan and a lover of country music.


My photo

My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.