How many times have you heard someone say “I listen to everything…except country”? I’m guilty of this and I’m determined to change it.
Even though the trap rap that’s dominating the radio these days isn’t really my style, I still consider myself a huge hip hop fan. Is country the same way? Maybe there’s a whole world of underground country that I would fall in love with if I could just find it.
First, let me give a little background. I’m no stranger to country. I grew up in Texas, I’ve seen several country concerts (including Willie Nelson), and I’ve been two-stepping. But the music just didn’t stick. Partially due to my taste and partially due to my stubbornness, I just couldn’t let country into my playlists.
There was only one band that made the cut. A friend recommended Whiskey Myers to me and they quickly became my token country band.
Whiskey Myers just seemed to do everything right. In a pop country world of simple chord progressions over a drum machine loop with an anthem-y chorus (looking at you, Blake Shelton) the rock-infused Whiskey Myers riffs had a fantastic groove. In a pop country world of fill-in-the-blank lyrics, Whiskey Myers had some of the realest lyrics I’ve ever heard in songs like “Broken Window Serenade”.
Armed with an open mind and a band to start from, I embarked on my journey down the dirt road through the denim forest. I took a three-pronged approach: I started Spotify stations from Whiskey Myers songs I liked, I asked my friends for recommendations, and I scoured the internet for answers.
In my research I was relieved to find that country fans hate country even more than I do. From TFM to TIME reviewers lamented the rise of “bro country” like Florida Georgia Line. It was comforting to know I wasn’t alone. Also, since every action has an equal and opposite reaction, this means that some sort of opposite extreme must exist. Surely there must be a branch of country that rejects the cliches?
Enter outlaw country. Outlaw country came about in the 1970s when artists like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings abandoned the cookie-cutter Nashville pop country sound. They walked the line of famous bad boy Johnny Cash and made stripped-down songs with rebellious lyrics.
So I listened my way through the outlaw albums, from Cash’s famous 1958 Folsom Prison set to Hank Williams Jr.’s 1979 album “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound”.
I have to admit that I expected more badassery than I got. “Outlaw” made it sound like this was going to be some hard stuff. The problem is I grew up with Lil Jon screaming obscenities at me. I know it’s unfair for me to base my judgement on my expectations, but honestly outlaw country disappointed me with how relatively “soft” it was. I can only listen to so many stripped down, intimate songs before my brain just filters it out like white noise.
In 1976 Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Tompball Glaser, and Jessie Colter teamed up with RCA records to release “Wanted: The Outlaws!” Some artists who rejected a common sound found that they shared a common sound and worked with a flagship record label to create the first country album to go platinum. The outlaw artists would continue to have successful careers, but this was the ideological end of the outlaw movement. Pop country rose again in the 1980s, but I followed the musical roots of outlaw country to the Texas country branch.
I pulled up Robert Earl Keen on Spotify and played the top song, “Feelin’ Good Again”. This song had it all: some gentle guitar picking I could float on, a chill beat, and unobtrusive vocals. I listened to his entire “Walking Distance” album…and I liked it! I went back to Wikipedia’s list of Texas country artists for more and noticed a few familiar names: Casey Donahew, Micky & The Motorcars, and the Randy Rogers Band.
How did I recognize these names? They were the only artists I had saved songs from after going through my Spotify stations and suggestions from friends. They all also happened to be considered Texas country artists just like Whiskey Myers, my old guilty country pleasure.
I like these artists. These are Texas country artists. Therefore, I like some Texas country. Am I ready to throw my boots on and head to the nearest honky-tonk? Absolutely not. But I am excited to have a new genre to explore.
And country certainly is an interesting genre. I listen to furious thrash metal, mind-bending electronica, and depraved rap yet my friends are most upset about me listening to country. No other genre seems to carry so much social weight. I’m looking forward to writing another blog on how this ends up ruining my personal life.
I set out to discover an underground scene without realizing that I grew up right in it. Maybe it’s because I’m at the intersection of being a little burned out on my current music and missing the softer touch of the humid Texas air after living out of the state for three months. Maybe I was finally able to put aside my biases enough to see what was right in front of me.
Either way, this is an exciting personal discovery and I hope I’ve encouraged you to dig a little deeper for the musical gems. My summer nights playlist is a great place to start!