How To Like Country Music, For The Uninitiated

Jan 13, 2020
Originally published on January 13, 2020 9:15 am

Many people have music they love, and whole genres they think they hate. This new year, we're helping you find some new music by bringing in a few folks to help you reexamine different genres. This week, NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks to music writer Marissa Moss about why country music skeptics should give the genre a chance.


On the idea of people liking "anything but country"

I hear that a lot because there's such a narrow view of what country music can be. There's that famous David Allan Coe song ["You Never Even Called Me By My Name"] where he sort of lists off everything that he thinks that, you know, country music is stereotypically about: mama, trains, trucks, prison and getting drunk. And I mean, in some ways, that hasn't changed a lot. There are a lot of truck songs out there and a lot of "dog is dead, I'm in my truck." But it's so broad and so exciting, and that's why I love it.

With people who tell me that they don't like country music, I always ask them, well, do you like Bob Dylan? And I say, well, if you like Bob Dylan, then you probably like Townes Van Zandt. And usually, once they hear a song like ["Pancho and Lefty"] — it has a lot of the same sort of, you know, narrative qualities, it's acoustic-based. It's a folk song, too; you can kind of unveil this whole world that people didn't think existed.

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On country music being "too conservative"

One of the things that I always hear is, like, "Oh, I can't relate to country music; it's too conservative." And I mean, ["The Pill"] would be hard to sing about on country radio now, let alone when Loretta Lynn released it in 1975. And yes, there are so many amazing women in country music. I mean, it's still driven by the voices of women. You don't hear them on country radio a lot. That's a whole other story. But they are there, and they are just telling unbelievable stories.

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On the exciting artists in country today

There's a lot of great music out there. Maren Morris made a great album last year, Girl. And she's someone that, you know, has a whole new take on country music. But on the flip side, I love Tyler Childers, who has a lot more of those traditional elements — steel guitar, fiddle, Kentucky Appalachian working-class tales that are sort of, you know, bringing to the surface unheard stories. Kelsey Waldon's another singer from Kentucky who is just a real gifted songwriter. I love a record that Robert Ellis put out this [past] year, it's called Texas Piano Man. And I love The Highwomen right now; speaking of powerful women in country music [these are] just songs of women's stories.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

This new year, we're helping you find some new music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CELESTE AIDA")

ANDREA BOCELLI: (Singing in non-English language).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SICKO MODE")

TRAVIS SCOTT: (Rapping) Made this here with all the ice on in the booth.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we're getting help, bringing in a few folks to help you discover - we hope - a new genre. Today, we're talking about country music. And music writer Marissa Moss joins us now from Nashville to help us out.

Hey there.

MARISSA MOSS: Hello. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Great to have you. I love country music, so let's just start with that.

MOSS: Oh, good.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But you know, country music encompasses a huge amount of music. Let's start with a song that shows us what it's all about. I'm thinking of "Got My Name Changed Back" by Pistol Annies. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOT MY NAME CHANGED BACK")

PISTOL ANNIES: (Singing) It takes a judge to get married, takes a judge to get divorced. Well, the last couple years, spent a lot of time in court. Got my name changed back, yeah, yeah. I got my name changed back. Yeah, yeah.

MOSS: Yeah. It's twangy. It's fiery. It has great themes, like divorce and revenge and kind of taking ownership. It has a story. It has steel guitar. It has, you know, kind of all the elements that make up country music. It has a lot of truth. You know, three chords and the truth is sort of the cliche, but it can be true.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's why I love it. It always does tell a story. I've heard people, though, say, I listen to anything but country. How do you tell those people that they're making a mistake?

MOSS: I hear that a lot because there's such a narrow view of what country music can be. You know, it's - there's that famous David Allan Coe song where he sort of lists off everything that he thinks that, you know, country music is stereotypically about, which is - I think it's mama, trains, trucks, prison and getting drunk. And I mean, in some ways, that hasn't changed a lot. There are a lot of truck songs out there and a lot of...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are.

MOSS: ...Dog is dead, I'm in my truck. But it's so broad and so exciting, and that's why I love it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I want to listen now to Townes Van Zandt - "Pancho And Lefty" - because you think it's a good song to introduce people who might not like country music to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PANCHO AND LEFTY")

TOWNES VAN ZANDT: (Singing) Living on the road, my friend, was going to keep you free and clean. Now you wear your skin like iron, and your breath's as hard as kerosene. You weren't your mama's only boy, but her favorite one, it seems. She began to cry when you said goodbye.

MOSS: With people who tell me that they don't like country music, I always ask them, well, do you like Bob Dylan? And a lot of times, the answer is yes because a lot of people like Bob Dylan. And I say, well, if you like Bob Dylan, then you probably like Townes Van Zandt. And usually, once they hear a song like that - it has a lot of the same sort of, you know, narrative qualities. It's very - it's acoustic-based. It's a folk song, too - you can kind of unveil this whole world that people didn't think existed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things that I really love about country music is it has such a strong presence of women. Let's listen to Loretta Lynn's "The Pill."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PILL")

LORETTA LYNN: (Singing) All these years I've stayed at home while you had all your fun. And every year that's gone by, another baby's come. There's going to be some changes made right here on nursery hill. You've set this chicken your last time 'cause now I've got the pill.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is a feminist anthem.

MOSS: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that I always hear is, like, oh, I can't relate to country music; it's too conservative. And I mean, that would be hard to sing about on country radio now, let alone when Loretta Lynn released it in 1975. And yes, there are so many amazing women in country music. I mean, it's still driven by the voices of women. You don't hear them on country radio a lot. That's a whole other story. But they are there, and they are just telling unbelievable stories.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what is the stuff that you're listening to right now? What's the stuff that excites you?

MOSS: There's a lot of great music out there. Maren Morris made a great album last year, "Girl." And she's someone that, you know, has a whole new take on country music. But on the flip side, I love Tyler Childers, who has a lot more of those traditional elements - steel guitar, fiddle, Kentucky Appalachian working-class tales that are sort of, you know, bringing to the surface unheard stories. Kelsey Waldon's another singer from Kentucky who is just a real gifted songwriter. I love a record that Robert Ellis put out this year. It's called "Texas Piano Man." And I love The Highwomen right now - speaking of powerful women in country music - just songs of women's stories.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's go out with "If She Ever Leaves Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF SHE EVER LEAVES ME")

THE HIGHWOMEN: (Singing) I see you watch her from across the room, dancing her home in your mind. It takes more than whiskey to make that flower bloom. By the third drink, you'll find out she's mine.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to go get myself a drink and listen to that on repeat.

That's music writer Marissa Moss speaking with us from Nashville. Thank you so much.

MOSS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.