Introducing Zackary Kephart

Perhaps, for obvious reasons, I’m biased when I say this, but I view music criticism as its own art form: Like the music itself, it’s up to interpretation and subject to its own criticism; it resonates more with some people than it does others; and, for as much as critics are generally supposed to distance themselves from the art at hand, the posts that dig deeper through a personal connection typically make for much more interesting reads.

In other words, I can’t express how honored I am to join the Country Universe team. As I thought about what to say here, I went back and read similar opening posts from Leeann Ward, Tara Seetharam, Ben Foster and Dan Milliken, all of which said what I’m about to say much better. It’s funny, though; most of those posts were written nearly a decade ago, yet the stories reflect a common childhood fondness for country music. The only element that’s changed is the music itself.

Which is to say that, unlike those aforementioned writers, I didn’t grow up on ‘80s and ‘90s country. I was in second grade when Country Universe started up, and I didn’t start really *loving* country music until around 2005 or so. I understand the attachment, though. After all, an affection for the ‘90s was all the rage in mainstream country music last year. Besides, 2000s country music, at least to me, is defined more by its artists than a typical “sound.” The Dixie Chicks, Taylor Swift and Eric Church (among others) made their own marks in their own respective ways (and we, as country music fans, didn’t always respond well to that, but that’s neither here nor there).

However, I wasn’t so concerned with that when I started loving country music. My earliest memories include watching Shania Twain music videos with my mother (a rock ‘n’ roll fan who converted to country music in the ‘90s) as a toddler, and some of my best country music memories – perhaps fittingly – include listening to it on the radio. I’ll always think of country music as the sound of my grandparents picking me up from school. I’ll remember it as the time I was incredibly embarrassed when my grandfather, who apparently decided Brad Paisley’s “Ticks” was the best song ever, blared said song as I opened the door to get in. And there it was – Paisley sang that line, “I’d sure like to check you for ticks.” I didn’t look back, though I did see a horrified woman in the car ahead of us.

By that same token, I’ll also remember it as the sound of my grandfather and I singing along to Tim McGraw’s “Last Dollar (Fly Away)” as we drove home; an utterly goofy song, so it was perfect. I’m even still young enough to remember how excited he was to find the CD with that song on it. I’ve likely heard that song more than any other, and with every new listen – especially now that those days are gone – I learn to appreciate it a little more.

My grandmother was the other driving force behind my early love for country music. She, unlike my grandfather, never expressed her praise through such … um … boisterous measures. If she loved a song, it was like time stopped. She’d drop what she was doing and just listen. I remember watching her lose herself in Josh Turner’s “Long Black Train” – pure magic, really. I loved watching CMT music videos with her, if only because it helped me, as a young kid, put faces to names (at this point, you’re likely thinking, “wait, are you sure you didn’t grow up in the ‘90s?”). Artists like George Strait, Alan Jackson and Reba McEntire may as well have been the founders of country music to me then, given how “ancient” they were compared to other performers of the time, but this youngster liked them anyway.

In a nutshell, I’d say my childhood was defined by the following: Brad Paisley’s cornball humor (sure, even “Ticks,” I guess), Lee Ann Womack’s angelic voice, Alan Jackson’s warmth and grace, Gary Allan’s defiance of mainstream norms, Miranda Lambert’s unequivocal edge, Dierks Bentley’s charm and charisma, and so much more. Of course, if you had asked me then why I loved country music, I would likely just said, “because I like the noises those instruments make” (that’d be the fiddle and steel guitar, young Zackary, though I must admit I’m first and foremost a dobro person today). It sounds cliché, I know, but even as mainstream country music sanded away its edges in the late 2000s, it was that warm sound combination that made me appreciate the genre.

Of course, as I grew older, I actually started listening to the words. Don’t get me wrong – there’s plenty of wonderful country music being made and released today, but I miss those days when a song would take me by surprise on the radio – Sunny Sweeney’s “From A Table Away,” Brett Eldredge’s “Raymond,” and Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me,” for example – I didn’t yet relate to anything these artists released, but I resonated with the emotion in those performances anyway. I already had access to YouTube then, and even now can listen to whatever song through whatever (legal) means necessary, but I miss those days. I finally understood what my grandmother was doing all those years ago – she was listening to country music.

That’s what inspires my writing – a curiosity and willingness to try and understand why I like what I like. That, and other writers, of course. Country Universe has had some tremendous writers throughout its history, all of which from whom I’ve learned something valuable: I love Kevin’s ability to say so much with so little (especially when redundancy and long-winded posts are my weaknesses – and yes, I see the irony here); I love Jonathan’s way of digging at the heart of every matter with not a word wasted; I love Leeann’s way of reminding us how to merge the critic and fan perspective; I love Ben’s eagerness and enthusiasm shown through his posts; I love Dan’s unmatched humor and wit (seriously, read his review for Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb”, if you haven’t); I love Tara’s attention to detail that makes me think, “Wow, I never noticed that”; I love something from just about every writer here, past and present.

And, since I, too, am a Nintendo guy, Kevin, I’ll throw in a reference to one of my favorite video games by saying that I love how Country Universe is a “link to the past,” not just for the music, but for other country music blogs, too. I envy those who can say they read websites like the 9513 and Engine 145 daily until the end. The best I can do is to search through Internet archives, but it’s not the same. I’ll even kick myself, too, for only discovering Country California a few months before it shuttered.

All of this is to say, again, how music criticism is a lot like art itself. As a country music history nerd, I’m thankful for how blogs like those ones paved the way for others, and I’m thankful Country Universe stands tall as a reminder of that history; and remains an excellent website to this day. Today, if one is to start something new, it’s usually through a podcast or YouTube channel. I’m grateful for that, especially for someone like Grady Smith who brought country music into the 21st century with his own channel. But there’s something about writing I’ve always personally loved. It clears my mind, relaxes me, and helps me have fun by getting to talk about the best music on planet Earth. I suppose that, like my own childhood journey with country music, I’m an old soul in that respect.

I’m here, however, to help Country Universe enter not only its sixteenth year, but its first year in the 2020s. I’ll admit I could have picked a better time than, you know, now to join, but I’m thankful for the opportunity and can’t wait to get started.

4 Comments

  1. Yay glad to see you join! I’ve long loved this site and you already know I love yours! Excellent addition!

  2. Welcome! Although my my interest in country music started to fade significantly around 2012ish as bro-country became more and more prevalent, I still follow Country Universe because this was always my favourite of the country blogs, and the writers are fantastic.

    I also started loving country music in the early-mid 2000s, so it will be interesting to see the perspective of someone who came into the genre around the same time I did.

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