My Start in Country Music

The following article is by guest contributor and Country Universe commenter, Craig R.

My Start in Country Musicroger-miller
By Craig Ross

My memories only started collecting at age four. That year, 1969, my uncle was shot and seriously wounded in Vietnam. I had just started eating hamburgers for the first time. During the summer I saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon on my parent’s bedroom black and white television set. And I knew the entire lyrics to only two songs, which I sang over and over again: “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” by B.J Thomas and “King of the Road” by the great Roger Miller. But growing up in a Baltimore suburb in a middle class, college educated black American home placed me in a rare position. My cousins listened to Motown, R&B, and some pop. The adults listened mainly to jazz. My parents were open to all types of music, and the one I fell in love with was country music.

In 1969 they still called it country-western music. And at that point in time it seemed to be everywhere. On the radio they played Roger Miller, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, and Eddy Arnold on pop stations. On television country music was coming into its own. In 1969 alone we watched Hee-Haw, The Porter Waggoner ShowThe Johnny Cash Show and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. The first time I ever saw the great Louis Armstrong was on Cash’s show.

And of course, every sitcom seemed to be about the country living in 1969:  Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies and Mayberry RFD. It may have been the perfect time to fall for country music. At four I liked the finger snapping of “King of the Road”, the cowboy hats, and the pretty lady singers in their wigs and gowns on television. I wasn’t dreaming of being a bull rider, a farmer or honky- tonk singer. But music defines you in some way. And at forty-four I realize now that I was being converted to a sound that would anchor the rest of my life. Country spoke to me in way no other music of my youth did. The very nature of the raw storytelling was addictive. Truth undiluted, unfiltered, uncalculated – can be a drug like no other.

Ironically, 1969 may have been the start of the dilution of country music as an inimitable sound. The popularity of country music, as it opened up to a greater audience, invited a series of singers, musicians and producers who had previously only seen country music by its limits. Country music‘s national evolution exposed to its new audience all the strengths and flaws that still haunt country: its loyal audience, its simple form, and its openness to unique voices.

But I would not have come to know country music had it not blossomed at the same time that I was growing up. Country music adjusted my sense of self and values. I gravitated to the three minutes of twang because country music never seemed angry to me. The music wasn’t always happy. But like all great storytelling, happiness is usually not the objective. Country music talked about what happened after you grew up. That subject always attracted my senses. I wanted to know what happened when the tingle became the chill. At the same time country music never insulted me or used my faith or values in a trite manner.

Even though the voices of country music were primarily white and Southern, that point never seemed to distract me. Perhaps because during the seventies country music appeared to be a more welcoming sound. As though they had a secret to tell and I was their ear. As an only child I always wondered what the adults were whispering. They knew some truth, some secret, I didn’t. And adult talk in country seemed to fill in the details. That is really how I fell in love with country music. I thought I was being subversive.

But I was really being hypnotized. I was quietly being fed a form of poetry that emphasized substance over style and authenticity over flair. Behind all the wigs, gowns, and Nudie suits were real people who were using their life stories, or folks they knew, to provide a connection of humanity and honesty. Yes, they were famous. Yes, they got rich. But after all that, they still had problems; cold, hard problems. Fame and money only accented their troubles.

The stories from Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, George Jones and Dolly Parton invited my young, small mind to really think about the people around me. In many ways the black men and women I knew were, at that time, quite similar to country music. They were coming into their own, and starting to enjoy a status and attention, mainly because of a greater economic position, that was new and empowering to them. They were overwhelmed and attracted at the same time to having their voices taken seriously. And while they prospered their vulnerability was exposed. As a child I could hear and see in country music the same growing pains I saw at home. Those three chords played against lyrics of a truth that was not foreign to me. Country music filled in the blanks.

My father, although college educated and successful with his work, was a major alcoholic. My mother, a school teacher and devout Catholic, did everything within her power to create a meaningful, happy home. They had both been propelled by the civil rights movement into a new middle class life that offered more opportunities than they could have dreamed of as children. But the struggles and sufferings were still there. As I listened to country singers, I heard their feelings described in ways that they could not have expressed to me as a child. Country music helped me to understand who my parents were and how they got through the day.

Meanwhile, in the mid-seventies, the sound of country started coming from places that were not country. The Eagles sang country. John Denver sang country. Olivia Newton John sang country. Even Marie Osmond was hailed as a country singer. Those singers, while arguably interesting, were arresting the very sound of country. They were removing the core of country, only to replace it with music that was made to make country more welcoming to a bigger audience. Fame had swept country music off-balance.

And yet I know that most country music was not written for me. I am not a Southerner. I didn’t grow up poor or in a rural area. And from four to eighteen I wasn’t a hard drinking, good lovin’, good timing man. But from Alabama to George Strait to Bill Monroe to Bob Wills I was drawn to country music. As romantic as it sounds, the country music I have listened to since four never betrayed me in the real world. Other genres of music can express feelings and thoughts that have no roots in reality. Those themes are the reflection of want and desires that are meant to encourage the listener to think above and beyond their own senses. But country music only asks me to think about the here and now, the real life in front of me, and my hand in the choices of the future.

Which brings me to Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” and Marty Robbins’ “El Paso”. Every time I hear those songs, or country songs like them, it is like reading a short story in three minutes. I imagine every detail, every point of view, and I am still left wondering. Why did Billie Joe kill himself? Why did the cowboy kill and return? Was it merely for love? A great country song asks as many questions as it answers. That is what creates its intimacy, and establishes country music’s place among great American literature. I am a part of the story from beginning to end. And then I’m left to ponder and create my own feelings and thoughts. For all the stereotypes that label country music, its real reward is that it never insults the listener, and it is never aloof.

That is why I am nonplused about the state of country music. I wonder if the sounds and feelings of the country music I was married to are being retarded by overexposure to an audience not attuned to its history, by a music video format that condenses everything down to an image or a look, and by simple American greed for quick fame and even quicker profits. Where is the modern day Randy Travis who will save country music from itself? I am discouraged by the amount of time that modern country music spends on being country. Every music genre has to evolve with the core origins of that music intact. That doesn’t mean that any song containing a Southern accent and an obligatory steel guitar or fiddle is country music. That method is trite and pandering. Older country never seemed to pander. It didn’t list Southern clichés for the sake of a quick and general connection with the listener. The song took its sweet time, and said what it had to say.

Since the rise of Shania Twain and Garth Brooks was forged in those early days of expansion for country music. As the audience has grown, the music has slipped away from its base. Few artists are earnest enough to translate the same feelings I got as a child. The adult story isn’t as important as the youthful impulse. What stuns me about the state of country music is that the gatekeepers don’t seem to like or respect the genre. Are they only interested in what funds they can ring out of country music? Do they doubt the audience’s motives and intellect? Or am I just being nostalgic for a sound that was changing even as I was falling for it? Or is this a reflection of a broader audience who wants their country music decaffeinated?

When I was growing up, we lived in a beach house every summer in Delaware. During the seventies, we could only get three radio stations: an all news station, a pop station, and a country station. On weekend nights, after midnight, I would put my earplug into the radio and listen to bluegrass music on the country station. It kind of scared me, which was exciting within itself. The fiddles and the mandolins played against voices that sounded like a mixture of high, lonesome cries and rare elation. Bluegrass music sounded the way I felt when I heard country music. I still get that feeling when I hear country music, whether modern or old. I am still shocked that in my world I would be introduced to a sound that would stay with me all my life. I am honored by country music‘s integrity and dignity. I get to carry that sound around wherever I go. I know many of you feel the same way. And I hope that my story connects to yours, and is good enough to be a country song.

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  1. Where is the modern day Randy Travis who will save country music from itself?

    I’m not sure, but I assume they have been reclassified as Americana. :)

  2. For me, country music, growing up here in Southern California, was one of many things to hear on the radio in the late 70s. This was before the days of media outlets (radio; TV; newspapers) being bought out by big, faceless corporations. We had two major C&W stations here in Los Angeles during this period: KLAC on the AM dial, and KZLA on the FM. Each of them played a really wide variety of country, from the 1950s to the Nashville Sound of the early 1960s, and then the Outlaw and California country-rock movements of the contemporary period, though by and large, until it went first to an all-pop-standards format in 1996, and then all-sports a couple of years later, KLAC retained its diversity of country, while KZLA became pretty much exclusively a haven for the artists of the post-Garth era.

    Personally, I really appreciate the older veterans like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard when it comes to the men of the country genre. They each sort of defined what jazz legend Miles Davis said he himself liked about country music–“the stories, man, the stories.” The same goes for the womenfolk too, though, because of the classic country-rock of both Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, I really prefer a more left-of-center approach that is embodied in folks like Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams, Allison Moorer, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Trisha Yearwood (in the mainstream), and, more recently, Tift Merritt.

    I would hope at some point the fine art of storytelling will once again trump the arena-rock-with-twang theatrics that most modern country has become. It can’t be all about girls who think a guy’s tractor’s sexy, or honky-tonk badonkadonks (whatever the h**l that is), or any of that nonsense. It has to get back to the stories and themes that made it what it is to begin with, and not cater to the lowest common denominator (IMO).

  3. I’m with CMW – this was an excellent read. And I totally agree about the current crop of new singers. None of them seem to have any love (or even knowledge) for the traditions – and don’t even know the history of what came before them. I bet if you asked Kenny Chesney, Billy Currington, Blake Shelton, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift (or any number of artists who’ve had a #1 hit in the past year) about Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, you’d get nothing but puzzled looks.

    it’s actually kind of frightening to think about. Country music has almost become a parody of itself. And when an art form becomes a parody of itself, that art form is all but dead already.

  4. Just wanted to say publicly (though you already know from our email communications) that I loved this piece. It was a fascinating read, indeed. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  5. Nice article. I was always into Country Music but from 1960 to 1965 I lived in an area without a full-time country music station . In 1966 we moved back to the Norfolk,VA area where WCMS AM-1050 (“Where Country Music Swings”) and WTID (“Top Gun Country”) both broadcast country music 24 hours daily.

    I keep hoping for the next Randy Travis to appear but thus far, such a person has yet to emerge

  6. Fantastic piece, Craig. I wish I could articulate why country music speaks to me personally as beautifully as you have here.

  7. Thank you for all your kind remarks- I have been home with the flu for the past few days and this my first chance to read my post online. Thank you again for the chance to speak my mind. And thanks to Razor X. That is the station – and you are right that bluegrass was raw and real.

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