“Honor Thy Music”


Country that stays.

Four years ago, just about the time I got my driver’s license, a country radio station reappeared in the New York tri-state area. While NASH 104.7 immediately became the number one preset on my Jeep’s old radio, this addition was largely unnoticed by my friends. Since then I have successfully converted a few people to Country fandom, but it was not very difficult. Often when I ask people about music preferences the response is “I like pretty much anything, except I’m not crazy about country.” I’ve become so used to this response that when I am the DJ I warn that there may be more twang than they are accustomed to.

In middle school I listened to lots of Top 40. It was what the kids were listening to; hip and cool just like 7th grade me. For example, Bowling for Soup’s 1985 was in the top 10 of my most played songs, I attended a Lady Gaga concert, and I think I have some iTunes receipts for more than one Katy Perry song. Don’t get me wrong, these songs are fun: so catchy, so danceable, so nostalgic. I still listen to some of them, but ironically. Usually it happens like this: I’m about to go on a long car ride, so I make a playlist and include a bunch of ‘classics’ (aka middle school dance songs) to entertain me along the way. And inevitably when they come on I blast the volume and scream the lyrics and proceed to forget about the song until my next road trip.

My emergence from this high-energy pop period of my listening history was largely initiated by a rediscovery of Garth Brooks. My parents both like country music, especially my dad, so growing up there were always CDs playing in the car or in the house. George Strait and Garth Brooks were staples. The album that I had loaded into my iTunes (via CD, what is that?), was the Garth Brooks Double Live album. I think I can still recite the dialogue that runs throughout this album. When Garth’s comeback tour made it to Boston last January, it was amusingly almost verbatim from the 20-year old album. Also amusing was that I could recite the whole thing with him because the album was so ingrained in my memory.

As I listened to this CD in 7th grade, the narrative of the songs, the diversity of energy, and the comfort I found in its familiarity prompted me to revisit Toby Keith, Martina McBride, and Montgomery Gentry. While each of these artists, and in fact most country artists, have a different approach to the genre, what they all have in common is a sense of history and community in Country. Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter, Gene Autry, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline – the list goes on – are legends of Country music to whom every artist afterward pays tribute and whose legacy they carry on. The Country Music Hall of Fame’s motto is “Honor Thy Music” and I have no doubt that the passing of Merle Haggard on April 6 will inspire shout outs and tributes from all corners of the Country community.

In the past couple of years Country has gotten a reputation for “Bro Country,” which is now essentially being disowned by the Country community and considered a sub-genre. These songs, which honestly are fun summer anthems, prominently feature trucks, fields, and parties. And they are very popular. However, artists like Carrie Underwood, Eric Church, and 2016 Grammy Award Winner Chris Stapleton are making more traditional country that is still gaining radio traction. These artists are taking it a step further from a meaningful narrative; Stapleton’s latest music video for a song called “Fire Away” draws attention to the importance of mental health and highlights an organization called Change Direction. This is not the first time a Country music artist has used their music for a cause. Martina McBride has had many songs that draw attention to domestic violence. While these may seem like heavy topics for the radio, it signifies that popular music can also be meaningful.

The narrative in Country songs keeps me coming back – it’s the most memorable part of the music. Whether it’s the story of those we miss (“The Dance,” Garth Brooks), a love story (“Ring of Fire,” Johnny Cash; “Happy Man,” Thomas Rhett + many others), a story of love gone terribly wrong (“The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” Reba McEntire + many, many others) or an meaningful ballad about home (“The House that Built Me,” Miranda Lambert), there’s something for everyone and every scenario.

Country recently came back to New York on NASH 104.7, but there are stations everywhere. In Boston 101.7 and 102.5 broadcast a mix of the old and new. Listening to Spotify in my room or the radio in my car, there is always a familiar tune, even those I’ve never heard before. Country music is more than entertainment, it is stories and concerts with friends and the excitement of sharing a new album with someone even if he is not a fan – chances are he soon will be.
Kelsey O’Connor ‘18(kelseyoconnnor@college.harvard.edu) dedicates this piece in memory of Merle Haggard (1937-2016), a country music legend.