Flannel shirts, failed romance, heartache, heartbreak and sad, sad songs. All the reasons I’m a sucker for country.
I know it isn’t fashionable. Country is just about the daggiest style of music an otherwise self-respecting young woman could have chosen to embrace. It’s tragic – like being a 27 year-old collector of Tupperware or VIP customer at Copperart. It’s the soundtrack of choice for dingy American diners and dimly lit highway truck stops. It doesn’t have the brazen rebelliousness of punk, or the art school precociousness of indie rock or the forthright sexuality of pop. The genre is defined by the nasal twang of the singer and slow walking swagger of the band. It’s country music – it’s about loneliness, loss, and line dancing. And I like it.
My music tastes have not always been this way. I have not always been a fan. I used to be one of those cynical cool kids who thought that country music, littered with hideously sequined Tammy Wynette clones and silver bearded Kenny Rogers types, was not for me. Sure I liked the bedazzlar, stone-wash denim and spiral perms as much as any child of the eighties, but I was never going to listen to Dolly Parton. No amount of Billy Ray Cyrus mulletude could make me trade ballet for boot skooting. For me, country music was always considered tacky and trashy. Even my parents – whose tastes included a passion for Australiana decor and home-made Jenny Kee knitwear – had the good sense to be fans of other musical genres.
As a kid, I spent most my childhood living in small rural areas, so most people make the assumption that it must have been the seventeen years I spent in towns without traffic lights that secured a love for country music. This is not the case. In my formative years I was a full-fledged pop fan with the Kylie Minogue cassingles and the ra-ra skirt to prove it. Growing up, the only hints of the country enthusiast within was a fairly well rehearsed cover version of the Alannah Myles song “Black Velvet” and a one-time yodeling gig in my primary school eisteddfod where, armed with a hot head of freshly crimped hair and some seriously disturbing white patent leather cowboy boots, my attention seeking soul got the better of my good taste. Now, these are the embarrassing details of decidedly naff childhood, but they could belong to any performative ten year old growing up in the early nineties.
No, this love for country music is something relatively new – something that didn’t hit me until my early twenties, when I started listening to the moderately successful new generation of artists now widely referred to under the sub-genre of “alternative country”. In the alt-country world performers like Ryan Adams, Jeff Tweedy and Lucinda Williams wooed their audiences with harrowing harmonicas and harmonies and tales of eternal heartbreak. They labeled themselves “country” but were a dark contrast to the more popular country stars like Shania Twain or Keith Urban. Archetypal alt-country bands like Wilco and Whiskeytown represented a seedier side to country – less spray tanned, less gaudy, more Neil Young than Nashville factory line.
And so I became a fan. And the more I listened to alt-country, the more I grew to accept other types of country. And the more I came to accept country music as a whole genre, the more I realised I had crossed a neon lit, barn dancing, gin swilling point of no return, signified by a proposed road trip to the Tamworth music festival and the needless ownership of three pairs of cowboy boots.
Perhaps it is because I now live in the city and the music is a nostalgic reminder of home – a place of open landscapes and dusty paddocks and tumbleweeds. Perhaps it is because I am steadfastly heading towards my late-twenties and my taste has been blurred by the onset of premature wrinkles and a career crisis. Perhaps. I know on some level I could try and justify my love, try to defend the genre from accusations of hillbillyness, try to make it worthy, trendy, ironically cool. But I know in my heart, I cannot and do not want to. It’s country music – it’s music that by very definition is quintessentially uncool. And even though I am often embarrassed to admit it – I have to write it down… I like it.