Learning to Like Country

I’m trying. I really am. I’m on a mission to figure out what is so appealing about country music. At latest count, 21 million people have a copy of Garth Brooks’ Double Live, making it the 7th best selling album of all time. To put it in perspective, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, barely sold half that.

Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, country was not part of my musical diet. There’s a kind of stigma on it in the Northeast – country is frequently the straw man for “simple” music, music that takes no effort to appreciate, and gives little reward to the listener. But if that’s true, then why isn’t it easy for me to appreciate? Hence, my quest.

I’m partially motivated to figure this out because I myself am a classical musician, and I’m often reminded that most of the American populous doesn’t really dig Mozart or Mahler. Being on the inside of the genre, I feel that the barriers to appreciating “classical” music are often only perceived barriers – the stigma on it prevents people from trying to appreciate in the first place.

Here’s what I found as I set out to dig country music:

I thought I’d kick it off with the source, Garth himself. As the most sold artist in the business, I figured he’d be a great starting point. I made it a whole 45 seconds into his song, Papa Loved Mama, before I called it a night. The lyrics were about a trucker and his wife, and on day one that was enough to put me off.

I changed the approach. Instead of diving head first into the icons, I needed to dip my toes in with something I knew I was bound to like. As a fan of pop, I searched out music that was essentially pop with a country flair. I found that in Thomas Rhett’s new track Unforgettable, which sounds like Ed Sheeran if he were born in Virginia.

It's uptempo, catchy, and despite it’s poppy sound, it calibrated my ears to certain country sounds. I was becoming accustomed to the super standard country harmonic progression, the faint southern twang of his voice, and the steel guitar that was hidden three or four levels deep in the mix. And the craziest part: I kind of liked it.

Over the next few days, I dug a little deeper. Keeping with the pop mindset, I searched for a voice with even more southern gusto. This time I used Luke Brian’s, Light it Up. Even though his accent is pretty foreign to my northern ears, I began to noticed the inherent warmth a twang adds.

Over the course of a week, I had systematically deconstructed country music. From voice, to instruments, to lyrics. I hadn’t really planned it this way, I was just looking for my personal entry point, which ended up sending me down an unintentionally methodical path. The week culminated with an absurd notification from Spotify’s Radar Release: “Just Released, Luke Brian’s new single What Makes You Country.” I grimaced. I listened to enough country music over the last week to skew my five year old Spotify algorithm. The universe was giving me a final test.

I took a listen. The twang, the instrumentation, the story line— there was no hiding — it was Country. And I really liked it. His voice was naturally sturdy. The sounds were local and tangible. And the lyrics communicated this sense of community that’s completely unfamiliar to me. It was holistically nostalgic, honest, and in a strange way transportive.

Now after a week long excursion, do I love country? Not completely. Ironically, I still haven’t been able to get into Garth, the guy who started me down this path to begin with. But, for the foreseeable future the genre will be popping up on my Spotify, and that no longer petrifies me. I’ve been able break down the barriers and shed the stigma. I’ve found aspects that I truly appreciate, and noticed details about music that I’ve never heard before — not so bad for such a “simple” genre.

***Greg LaRosa is a percussionist at the Colburn School in Los Angeles and a contributor at Movement Zero.