I am not a country music fan. When I was a child, it was called country western and there was a lot of twang in it. The men’s voices all seemed to have gotten stuck in adolescence as they semi-yodeled mournful words. There was that old joke that if you played country music backwards you got your job, your woman and your dog back. Since I didn’t hear Patsy Cline until I was an adult, my view of country wasn’t balanced. Fortunately, my parents weren’t country music fans either and so my musical torture only manifested when Grandma visited and we had to listen to Lawrence Welk.
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My husband isn’t a country music fan either. His parents listened to the Grand Old Opry when he grew up and he didn’t want any flashbacks. When we decided to go to Nashville to support some friends running in the Rock and Roll marathon, we were a little concerned about going to the country music capital of the world, but we figured we’d just suck it up and concentrate on great barbecue.
About 30 minutes after checking into our hotel, we were in downtown Nashville, paying $25 for parking and right smack in the middle of hundreds of honky-tonks. Our friends, who do love country music, couldn’t wait to sample them all. It was looking to be a long night, but Nashville was so alive and colorful, we tamely followed them into one honky-tonk after another.
Here’s what I learned: Nashville is loud — you can hear the music from two blocks away even if you have a hearing problem; honky-tonks play all kinds of music and most of it is great; always eat something before you go honky-tonking because they serve drinks, not food; most of the bands don’t get paid, so they pass around a jar for the patrons to contribute; everyone in the honky-tonk is a would-be singer and most of them are pretty good. I’m not counting the patrons in this— just the bartenders, wait persons and bouncers. They’re all musicians.
We did the tourist thing and went to the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Old Opry. I liked them both. What struck me about the Grand Old Opry was that it was fun and the long-time Opry performers seemed to be having fun too. The young performers with current hits who were sprinkled among the acts weren’t as relaxed and fun as the seasoned players.
After the Rock and Roll marathon, the runners were treated to a concert with Chase Rice and some of the stars from the television show, “Nashville.” Our friends made us go with them. During a break in the performance, I texted my son, who despite being raised on Fleetwood Mac and Elton John, is a country music fan. I listed the performers we were listening to, being clueless as to whether we were being exposed to someone well-known or not. He was quite envious of the lineup. It was like the time our runner friends made us go to a Brooks and Dunn concert. The opening act was Keith Urban, followed by Toby Keith. They were both still in their early days and we were, as usual, clueless about country. We liked Toby Keith, were perplexed as to why an Australian was doing country and impatient to hear “My Maria,” the only country song we knew.
Here’s what I learned about modern country: They’ve turned up the volume — way, way up; it’s actually better not to sit closer at a concert because you can understand the music better from farther away; none of it sounds like country except “Jolene” which we heard at least eight times — everyone has their own interpretation; there is no twang and, as always, country has the wittiest lyrics.
My mind has been opened. I would go back to Nashville in a heartbeat and I would even listen to country music, as long as it isn’t country western music. I discovered I love bluegrass music and collard greens with or without vinegar. And I would bring earplugs to go honky-tonking.
Wendy Schultz is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. Her column appears bi-weekly.