A Transcendentalist Defense of Country Music

In exactly one month, about 1750 first year students will move into Duke University. They will come to Durham, North Carolina from places as diverse as Manhattan, Rye, Scarsdale, and all four corners of Long Island. In exactly three months, these students will return north for fall break to ask their parents to buy them boat shoes and Nantucket Red shorts. With them they will bring newfound wisdom of the South: the joys of Bojangles in the morning, the gender neutral benefits of the pronoun “y’all”, and of course, country music.

I love country music. I don’t love it unconditionally. It’s not a “if you’re a bird I’m a bird” type of feeling, but upon further reflection, I think I do indeed love it. This has been tough to explain to my friends, family, and dentist, but in the next 1000 words I think I’ll try to explain it to y’all.

In my 11th grade AP Language and Composition class, I learned the importance of Aristotle’s rhetorical method of establishing ethos before diving into an argument. In this particular case it seems rather prudent for me to build some country credibility before explaining why a Broadway loving Asian from the suburbs of Philadelphia has such a sudden affinity for Blake Shelton and Brad Paisley. In no particular order, here are my country music credentials:

  1. The bassist from Florida-Georgia Line went to my high school. This means that the Florida-Georgia Line lies somewhere between Montgomery and Chester County Pennsylvania.
  2. On Tuesday May 5th, 2015 I went to Country Night at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for almost a full hour.
  3. I once spent a weekend in Nashville, Tennessee.

I understand that these credentials seem flimsy at best, but please remember that Keith Urban has sold 15 million country albums. “Wait Ray, you mean the Australian who is perhaps most famous for his role in EA Sport’s ‘Celebrity Sports Showdown.’?” Yes reader, that Keith Urban.

Celebrity-Sports-Showdown_Wii_US

There are many reasons to love country music. The sweet cadence of a southern drawl. Memories of your childhood in the Dixie. Nationalism. None of these appeal to me in particular, but after months of self reflection I have boiled my love of country music down to three main points.

  1. Oral Storytelling

Long before there were video games or talking pictures, our society entertained ourselves with storytelling. Country music hearkens back to the simple human desire to hear a story from beginning to end. Other genres oftentimes take the more “artistic” route and base their lyrics around imagery and symbolism in an effort to expose some grand universal truth. Although this can lead to a deeper experience, you need a PhD in Comparative Literature to understand song lyrics nowadays. Seriously, can anyone explain to me a single thing that Regina Spektor is saying in this song?

Country music stories are simple. They’re love stories. Stories with generalizable characters and predictable endings. In their simplicity you can find comfort, and the oh so sweet feeling of closure. If your favorite movie scene from childhood was the ending to the Sandlot, then you’d love how country songs never leave you hanging. This predictability does not mean that country music is boring, though. A particularly clever lyrical device in country is the use of the same chorus to imply different meanings based on the placement of that chorus in the narrative. Listen to this song by Kenny Chesney for example:

The chorus goes “there goes my life, there goes my future, my everything.” The first verse describes a teenage boy finding out that he has unexpectedly gotten his girlfriend pregnant, in exasperation he laments “there goes my life, there goes my future, my everything.” As the song progresses, it fast forwards through his life as a parent. The final verse talks about his daughter packing her things and leaving for college, and he ends the song as she drives away with the same “there goes my life, there goes my future, my everything.” Tears.

  1. Easy to Sing

My love of country music has been inextricably tied to my love of singing while driving. Country music is reliably playing on the radio. In fact, in that wondrous span of human non-civilization along I-85 between Durham, NC and Richmond, VA, it is pretty much the only music playing on the radio. And as far as car music goes, it cannot get any better than country. As a (surely) law-abiding motorist you do not want to be too distracted from the road. Country music allows you to keep your attention on driving with its repetitive lyrics and consistent melodies. Once you have heard the chorus of a song for the first time, you can join in singing by the next time it pops up in that song.

Not only are the lyrics repetitive; they’re predictable. Even if you don’t know the lyrics to a song, it’s not that hard to guess what word is coming next. What rhymes with “hug me”? Truck me. In a not at all scientific analysis, I have determined that the most common words in country music are “trucks,” “guitar,” “blue jeans,” “beer,” and “girls.” In order to reach a deeper level of lyrical diversity, you can name specific brands of trucks, guitars, blue jeans, or beer. Listen to Keith Urban’s song “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” in which he masterfully crafts a song entirely by listing proper nouns.

  1. The Simple Life

Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau wanted to understand the simple life, and so he built a cabin in the woods where he lived without human contact for two years. After this process of introspection, Henry David Thoreau preached that “It is well to find your employment and amusement in simple and homely things. These wear best and yield most.” In this broad proclamation, the transcendentalist movement endorsed country music. Fast-forward 160 years and we now have the pleasure of listening to the Henry David Thoreau of our generation, Chris Janson.

Country music doesn’t try to wrestle with big issues like self-actualization, institutional racism, the state of the Oxford Comma, etc. It focuses on life’s simple pleasures. Chris Janson puts it so simply when he says, “Money can’t buy happiness.. but it can buy me a boat.” This genre sheds pretension and implores us all to live simply and happily. While Drake raps with hubris about his “10 bands, 50 bands, 100 bands”, Brad Paisley sings with tongue in cheek humility that “I figured this out in college walking past them Gothic columns. That I was gonna probably wind up somewhere near the bottom.” Every time Kanye proclaims and flaunts his 1% status with stories like, “Right now, I’m calling you from my home gym, Right after that, n****, I’m gon’ swim. Just did a couple laps in my home pool And my daughter right there getting home-schooled”, we can bask in the simple, relatable pleasure of Tim McGraw getting a “barbecue stain on [his] white t-shirt”.  It’s a blue collar genre that doesn’t seek to shame people into aspiring for greater, but teaches us to be happy with what we have.

Country music is not without its problems. It still has a long way to go in terms of social responsibility, artistic diversity, and more. Maybe I will write about these shortfalls one day too. But for now, Brad Paisley just wants to remind you that “every week has a weekend,” and I’m going to finish up mine.

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