This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
Last night, I snapped at someone. It was the very beginning of my Disabilities in Education course that I’m taking as part of my certification program, and I was talking about country music with one of my peers. She had just secured Morgan Wallen tickets for herself, her brother, and their father, excitedly telling me about the upcoming concert, her feet quite literally dancing beneath the desk.
“I never liked country music until one of my best friends got me into it during grad school,” I told her. (That best friend is, indeed, Mackenzie Sanders who also writes a column here.) “But now I think some of the best songwriting is in country.”
“What?” Came the voice from my right. Short in stature and not at all part of our conversation, another student had decided to join in, judgment sharpening her tongue. “Country music’s all ‘I love my truck’ and shit. I can’t believe you think country music is good songwriting.”
I could have brushed her off. I could have said well, that’s your opinion. I could have said or done a lot of things. But, instead, I saw my new friend’s face wane from across the table. I felt her feet quiet and the floor settle.
“That’s not what I’m talking about and you know it,” I told her. The voice was recognizable but alien, a tone my mother often comments I use towards my father. A no-nonsense, relentless, I-was-done-with-this-conversation-before-it-started voice that I reserve for special moments.
At the beginning of this summer, another friend, Arianna Cooper, published a substack piece about her newfound love of country-adjacent music. Asking, if real country music is about returning to a simple life and a desire to return to the mountains, then “Could country adjacent music be the escape from capitalism and materialism?”
Country music, in the more recent, pop-centric scene, is all “I love my truck” and songs about unhealthy, unchecked drinking patterns. But that does not define the genre. It’s only been the last twenty-five years—specifically after the tragedy of 9/11—that country music has changed into the ultra-patriotic, almost laughable soundtrack we often associate it with now. Before then, country music was the sound of anti-establishment, of the fight against oppression felt by minorities (not to mention American Western country was the music of previously enslaved people). It was not the voice of patriotism. It was not about horses and trucks and God and beer.
It was what we’d now refer to as Country Bluegrass or Country Folk, maybe even Outlaw Country. Which happens to encompass my current favorite musicians: Tyler Childers, Zach Bryan, Colter Wall, Sierra freaking Ferrell, and—my goodness—Chris Stappleton. Musicians who remind us that storytelling should be at the core of everything we do. That we should embrace earnestness.
Recently, I came across a meme on social media. It was a clip from Seinfeld where Kramer repeatedly asks George if he yearns. “I yearn,” Kramer says. “Often, I…I sit and yearn.” The text overlay reads, “Me after I listened to this sad cowboy music for the first time.”
Sometimes, I catch myself hesitating around poetics that are so deeply sentimental like a sickly soppiness. I cringe at people being vulnerable, who yearn in public. Like a poet at a recent reading who walked around the podium, toying with her hair and taking up oh so much space. The idea of revealing my messiness, my tenderness, is enough to make my skin crawl. But to make good art that resonates with people is to strip yourself bare, raw, and put it on display.
The country singers I listen to remind me of this.
Tyler Childers said in a 2019 CMT interview, if you don’t listen to country music, that’s your own fault. Your own inability to yearn, to deeply feel in an almost uncomfortable way, to open yourself up to an intense sensitivity to the arc of a day, the heat of the sun, the sweat on a brow.
In “Oklahoma Son” a song off Zach Bryan’s most recent album, his gently rough voice reflects on the truth of his character. The honesty he cannot run away from. “Did the city beat your ass like the trash you are?” He sings. “You can’t hide where you’re from with nightcrawler blood on your casting thumb / You can fight and fiend and sell your guns / But you’ll always be the Oklahoman son.”
To love country music is to embrace the cringe of being heartfelt and earnest, of feeling deeply. Or, as Mackenzie says, it’s “equal parts nostalgia and equal parts calling out bullshit.”
In this third memoir revision, I’m struggling through feeling numbed by the work. I like to blame it on having read the manuscript once too many times now, becoming desensitized to what initially was a baring of my soul. But when listening to Tyler and Chris and Zach and Sierra, I wonder if I haven’t dug deep enough. If I am still protecting myself from the drippy, navel-gazing beauty of exposing oneself down to the bone.
For Tyler, country music on the radio’s “not about a dude’s work day or someone that lost a good friend or relative,” though it should be. If you consider those songs the end all, be all of what country music is and what country music was, you’re are doing yourself a real disservice, and you are not listening hard enough. “There’s nothing to hold onto when you’re going through something,” Tyler said. “That’s what music is supposed to do. It’s supposed to help people out.”