Me and Tim McGraw: Why country music moves me

Photo of a CD collection

Libraries and CD collections; a quick perusal into the tastes of the owner. (izzie_whizzle/Flickr/CC-A-SA)

It’s true that you can’t judge a book by its cover.  But can you learn about a person through their music collection?

I sure thought so in college.  Back in the dark ages known as the 90s, we had these things called compact disks, or “CDs.”  For some reason it was popular to organize them in these furniture-like creations, displaying them in your dorm rooms that everyone could admire your musical good taste.  Of course, taste is a matter of preference, except in obvious cases such as finding more than one Disney album in the collection of a 20-year old girl.  Beware, beware, beware.

Nowadays people don’t stack their CDs in public view.  So if you want to snoop into a person’s music collection, you need to sneak a peek at their iPod or their computer.  You can try the iTunes “Top 25 most played” trick, which might tell you something about a person’s musical preferences.  In the interest of full disclosure, here’s the top ten of mine:

  1. Little Jeannie – Elton John
  2. New York State of Mind – Billy Joel
  3. House at Pooh Corner – Loggins and Messina
  4. Building a Mystery – Sarah McLachlan
  5. Night Life (Live 2003) – Willie Nelson and Eric Clapton
  6. 12:51 – The Strokes
  7. Good Things – The BoDeans
  8. Stacy’s Mom – Fountains of Wayne
  9. What a Wonderful World – Joey Ramone
  10. Waiting in Vain – Bob Marley
Pic of Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson is another musician who appears regularly in my playlists. He's collaborated with everyone from Ray Charles to Wyclef Jean. (thetripwirenyc/Flickr/CC-A)

Perhaps I shouldn’t have looked.  This is what I listen to?  In my own defense, I almost exclusively listen to XM Radio these days, so I’m not sure this is an accurate reflection of my musical tastes.  Plus, it’s left out a few obvious ones: Peter Gabriel.  Jimmy Buffett.  Bruce – I can’t believe I don’t have a single song by Bruce in the top 10!  Al Green.  Classical music in general – yep.  Chopin works his way around from time to time as well.

And we’re missing country.  Perhaps this is the strangest one of all, since I’m on a country kick lately.  It’s okay to have eclectic music tastes.  But generally, you wouldn’t think that a prep-school educated sort like me would be kicking back to Johnny Cash.

How did this happen?

I blame my local radio stations.  I’ve got about a 20 minute drive to work daily, and by the time I get into the car, I’ve generally covered the basic news of the day.  I can’t listen to NPR every day.  So I try to find some music.  Do any of my local radio stations play music in the morning?  No.  In their minds, the way to listeners’ hearts is clearly through the hiring of a team of morning personalities, qualified to perform lame sketches and pathetic commentary passing for humor.  What they can’t apparently do is press the play button for a song.

So these guys drove me back to my local country station.  Generally I only listen to it when it’s time for the ball game.  But they play music during the morning drive time, which is why, most weekday mornings, instead of Dumb and Dumber running their mouths off about the latest idiocy in the news, I get to hear about literature, history and american culture.

Don’t believe me?  Check out the first verse of Tim McGraw’s “Southern Voice”;

Hank Williams sang it
Number 3 drove it
Chuck Berry twanged it
Will Faulkner wrote it
Aretha Franklin sold it
Dolly Parton graced it
Rosa Parks rode it
Scarlett O chased it…
Don’t let this old gold cross
In this Allman Brothers t-shirt throw ya
It’s cicadas making noise
With a southern voice (Tim McGraw, “Southern Voice”)

And I’m hooked.  Why?  I’m not southern.  But I like the song.

And I recognize the names in the first verse.  Perhaps that’s the key.  Hank Williams, Dale Earnhardt and Chuck Berry share the stage with William Faulkner, Aretha Franklin and Rosa Parks.  These are the heroes of southern culture – which, as David Masciotra points out in his essay on the song at The Daily Yonder, is not the stereotypical cliché of “toothless, rump-scratching, drunken low-lives whose favorite hobbies are burning crosses, incest, and dropping out of school.”

Masciotra goes on to argue that the song, with its “maddeningly incomplete” list of people who have played an important part in southern culture, ought to remind listeners that southern culture is American culture:

Despite the low-budget horror movie that passes for its political system and its Ponzi scheme management of the economy, the United States of America is still an extremely fun and satisfying place to live. Much of this is due to the country’s eclectic options for musical, literary, artistic, and culinary delight. The brilliant hybrid of American culture was created and is continually crafted by immigrant influence and regional difference.

And this is where my own musical tastes begin to make sense.  I can’t explain the presence of “Little Jeannie” on the top of my playlist, but if I look at my list with the word “hybrid” in mind, it begins to make sense.  “House on Pooh Corner” plays off the book by the English author A.A, Milne.  The performance of Willie Nelson’s “Night Life” by Eric Clapton gives it a smoky, bluesy drive that smacks more of a basement big-city club than a late night in a roadhouse.  Joey Ramone covering the standard “What a Wonderful World,” first recorded by Louis Armstrong but subsequently covered by at least 50 other performers.

To the extent that we can identify an “American” culture, one has to say that it’s a hybrid.  This allows a middle-aged white guy born in Wisconsin and grew up in the northeast to like music from a wide range of performers.  I don’t have to make any apologies for switching from the blues to some old skool hip-hop, if I so choose.

Picture of Johnny Cash's star

(Jorgemir/Flickr/CC-SA)

And as far as listening to country on my driving to work?  In the words of Johnny Cash:

I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak, and love. And Mother. And God.

That doesn’t just describe country music.  That describes American music.  Bring it on.

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