When I first started this newsletter over a year ago, I knew eventually I would want to write about country music. I wanted more people to know its history: how the banjo comes from West Africa, how English settlers in Appalachia reworked their traditional ballads, how legends like Hank Williams learned from Black musicians like Rufus "Tee Tot" Payne, how there's a rich vein of leftist, black, queer country. And I do still want you to know all these things, but like, you have Google don't you?
Instead, it's more important to me that you understand the beauty of country music. Throughout the past two years (and counting!! 🤠) of the pandemic, country music has often been my only source of comfort. There's a simplicity to the music that makes it timeless, and no matter how unique you think your sadness is, a country singer has already written the perfect words to describe it. And when the world started to feel unrecognizable, country music kept me grounded: the cities and landscapes in country songs are still the same, even if everything else has changed.
Some of my best memories during the pandemic so far (!! 🤠) have been talking about country songs with an old veteran in Arizona, singing "Gentle On My Mind" in a karaoke room in St. Marks with all my friends, dancing the two-step with an ex in Texas, seeing Orville Peck perform outdoors in Denver while a thunderstorm brewed on the horizon. On long drives around the West, I'd sing Bobby Bare's "500 Miles Away From Home" whenever the odometer hit that milestone. Whether I was alone or with strangers or people I've known for years, country music helped me feel rooted and connected during a time when that could feel impossible.
We've hit the point in the pandemic where we've been in it so long that people are starting to make movies and shows about it; Netflix literally has a special called "Death to 2021". All this media is, no offense, garbage, and I say this as someone who has seen 8 seasons of Vanderpump Rules. I can watch garbage and enjoy it. But pandemic media keeps striking me as hollow and also a little useless. Do we really need a TV show to tell us the pandemic has sucked? Did anyone really miss that memo?
Art, at its most sublime, helps us make sense of the chaos we live in. It connects us with the people around us now and those in the past. Isn't it amazing to know that someone a long time ago in a different part of the world has felt exactly what you're feeling now? Or saw the world the same way you do now? Country music offered me so many examples of people somehow going through the same suffering as me, even if it was in a different context. We're living in a time where every single one of us is weighed down by the loss of loved ones, uncertainty about the future, homesickness, nostalgia, heartache, distrust of the government, and crushing loneliness, and country songs written 40, 50, 60 years ago have more to say about all of it than something Netflix could slap together for the sake of a little extra profit.
It's easy to dismiss country music these days. It has disappeared from the mainstream and has a reputation of being cheesy and something just for conservative white people. We've all known someone who "listens to everything but rap and country"; maybe we've been that person ourselves. But country is an incredibly rich genre and I'd like to leave you with a few songs that are especially close to my heart. I hope whenever you're also struggling to stay afloat in this sea of misery we've all found ourselves in for two years, these songs will be a life raft for you like they have been for me.
Emmylou Harris, “Beneath Still Waters”
“But each and every heart must take its turn at misery/And this time it's me and I'll cry alone” I mean it just doesn’t get more powerful than that.
Cisco Houston, “The Dying Cowboy”
A deeply mournful song, tied in with the beauty and harshness of the Western landscape. It never fails to make me cry and think about the people I’ve lost.
Linda Martell, “Bad Case of the Blues”
I do think only Linda Martell could literally sing “Yoodle-ay-hee-heeeeee” and make me say, “That is SO true.”
Lucinda Williams, “Am I Too Blue”
If you worry you’re too sad to be around sometimes, don’t worry, Lucinda Williams has been there, too.
The top comment said it best: “I was waiting for the drop, but the only thing dropping are my tears”
With that, I wish you all a brighter 2022, hopefully full of beauty, love, and good music. And if there’s any country music you want to share with me, please do 🤠 Thank you so much for reading and for accompanying me through this god damn pandemic. Love you all. Yeehaw!!!
I’ve been listening to so much country music lately! Particularly Alison Krauss & Union Station, which reminds me of driving to school with my mom as a little kid. “Baby Now That I’ve Found You”, “Stay”, and “Let Me Touch You For Awhile” being my favorites. Her voice is so sweet, and hearing the banjo and fiddle almost feels like a warm hug.
I am so glad I stumbled over your post! I am hitting the road rn, so these songs will be great for that. I write about Music and Art as 2 of the 5 elements of life I write about. I include a 10-song playlist in all of my posts, and, like my dad used to say, "There is two kinds of music - Country & Western." Just posted Dwight Yoakam's Things Change! You can check it out here https://riclexel.substack.com/p/12312021
can't wait to read more of your stuff!