By T.J. TranchellI’m writing a book in which most of the characters listen to country music. This, of course, means I’ve been listening to more country music than I usually do.
Sure, Johnny Cash is a constant, but I’m going beyond my small doses of outlaw country and spinning some Garth Brooks and George Strait, too. That’s about as recent as I can handle and still feel good about myself.
I’m no expert when it comes to modern country music but I’m
pretty sure you have to do more than put on a cowboy hat and boots to really be country.
I feel the same way about the 1980s country music that I grew with. The irony of “Rhinestone Cowboy” is that its attempt to mock a certain style of “country” instead validated it, and we now have country music videos that look more like hip-hop videos.
I’m all for crossover, and if the country people and the hip-hop people got along as well as they seem to in some of the videos, that would be amazing.
So maybe my growth in this genre was stunted. I never grew up beyond “Hee-Haw.” When the Muppets sing with John Denver, I’m there. When Dwight Yoakam covers Buck Owens, well, gosh darn it, that’s about as good as it gets.
But what I really love about country is how dark it can get. “Jolene” by Dolly Parton is about as dark as you can get. It’s real-life dark, unlike the heavy metal I usually listen to. Or try not crying when George Jones is singing “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
I know the twangy basics have become something of a joke to many music listeners, but why not give it a chance? Get past the associated aesthetics: Your truck doesn’t have to be broken down, your dog can be by your side and your wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend/best friend doesn’t need to have run off with anyone else for you to enjoy a good old country song.
Yes, a cold beer with a friend helps, but I’ve been listening to Willie Nelson alone, drinking Mountain Dew with a black cat curled up nearby.
There are plenty of characters in the country music of days gone by. They live in the songs, the singers and the songwriters. There’s still a cowboy riding back to El Paso to meet his love despite the threat of death. We’re still walking the line on the streets of Bakersfield with a good-hearted woman who is standing by her man.
And if you meet up with a gambler, pay attention. He’ll tell you when to show your cards.
Tranchell is a freelance writer and author in Moscow. His story “Let the Devil Take Tomorrow,” from his newest book “Asleep in the Nightmare Room,” is based on the Kris Kristofferson-penned song “Help Me Make it Through the Night.” What is your favorite old country song? Let’s talk: firstname.lastname@example.org.