Kenneth Burns: It's all country music, and it's all good

Apr. 09, 2013 @ 06:22 PM

I heard the line so many times: “I don’t like country music, but I like you.”

Ten years ago, when I lived in Madison, Wis., I was a country singer. Some graduate school friends and I discovered a mutual love for old-school country: Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson.

At jam sessions, we played their music. We also wrote songs that, we hoped, captured the humor and sadness of country at its best.

We were called the Junkers. Before long, we were playing club shows. We raided thrift stores for cowboy suits, hats, neckwear. We released albums and branched out to Milwaukee, Chicago and other Midwestern cities. We hoped for a record deal.

It was all kind of tongue in cheek, and yet it wasn’t. We took the music seriously, and we were grateful to fans who supported us.

And regularly at shows, people came up at set breaks and told us: “I don’t like country music, but I like you.”

We knew what they meant. They meant that they liked old-school country, not the Nashville-produced music played on contemporary country radio.

I understood. Country is not what it was 20, 30, 40 and more years ago. If you think country ought to sound like “Folsom Prison Blues” or “Jolene,” then you may not like new country.

But sometimes those people wanted affirmation. They wanted me to confirm that I, too, don’t like new country. And that I couldn’t do.

Because I’m a fan of country music from all eras.

True, I’m partial to the old stuff. I think Hank Williams singing “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is American artistry at its finest.

I grew up in Nashville in the 1970s, and country was all around me. In my house, it played regularly – old Carter Family songs, Oak Ridge Boys records, an album for kids by Tom T. Hall. We tuned in “Hee Haw” every week.

My second-grade class devoted a week to a country curriculum. We visited the Grand Ole Opry and learned to sing Cash’s “I Walk the Line.” One day we dressed as country stars. Lots of girls were Minnie Pearl. I was Sevier County native Beecher Ray Kirby, better known as Bashful Brother Oswald, Roy Acuff’s Dobro player.

So when I think of country, I often think of the music I loved in those days, from the 1970s and before.

But what’s miraculous about country is that it keeps changing. Unlike other important American genres – blues, Midwestern polka – country is still commercially successful on a large scale.

True, I don’t like every song I hear on country radio. But I often hear songs that are beautifully sung, or that make me laugh, or that capture some important truth.

Then there is my benchmark test for a great country song: It makes me cry. I’ve been moved to tears by Waylon Jennings’ “The Last Letter” and Patsy Cline’s “Faded Love” – and, most recently, by Taylor Swift’s “Begin Again.” With its offhand lyrics, softly sung, that song is so insightful about breakups and their aftermath. It overwhelms me.

I wasn’t the only one crying a few weeks ago, when country legend George Strait performed at Knoxville’s Thompson-Boling Arena. The show was a stop on Strait’s farewell tour, which is poignantly called The Cowboy Rides Away.

Strait somehow straddles the line between old-school and new country. Strait hits from the 1980s like “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind” are classics, but 30 years after his debut, he’s still releasing smash singles.

I’ve never seen a crowd as adoring as the one in the arena that night. Strait’s performance was gracious yet intense. All around me, people were emotional. They danced, sang, high-fived.

Near the end of the show, Strait performed his signature song, “All My Ex’s Live in Texas.” When he sang, “I’m alive and well in Tennessee,” that Tennessee audience lost it. The cheering drowned out the music.

It was a lovely community moment. And it demonstrated the power of music – country, in this case – to bring people together.

Last summer, I moved from Wisconsin back to Tennessee. I’m glad to be back for many reasons.

One is the music.

—Kenneth Burns is Community News Editor of The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext 212, or send e-mail to Twitter: @KennethBurns