Wednesday, December 26, 2007

What's to Like about Country Music?

It’s good to have an open mind, but one thing that many people don’t give a second chance is Country music. Like most prejudices, this one, I believe, stems from ignorance. I’m going to try to crack open the door just a little in the hopes that you might give it another listen.

Why do people hate country music?

Several reasons. First, it’s working class music, and many of us have been taught to disdain anything that involves truck drivers, cowboys and people who speak English REAL BAD. There’s no use arguing with the facts, but I would ask you to ask yourself, isn’t bad English a small price to pay for having truck drivers and cowboys? Furthermore, I’ll bet some of your emails ain’t that pretty, either, on a bad day.

So, when you hear Country music, try thinking “unpretentious,” rather than “redneck.” Of course, some country music is redneck—a catchy little tune about lynching comes to mind--and some is pretentiously unpretentious, and I’m not defending that.

Second, the lyrics are dumb. Well, the lyrics aren’t any dumber than a lot of pop music lyrics or rock and roll lyrics. There is a range of quality with country music as with any other style of music. And unlike rock and roll, which takes itself so seriously, country music is often intentionally funny. Let me direct your attention to I Feel Lucky (Mary Chapin Carpenter) and Sin Wagon (Dixie Chicks), for two examples.

The main thing that makes song lyrics good is the way they fit everyday language to music. There are a lot of country songs that do it awfully well. A few rock and roll writers do that—Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and Bob Dylan. But it’s pretty common in Country lyrics. Baton Rouge (George Strait) as an example.

A third reason people dislike country music is that they think the beat is simplistic. But here’s the essential fact about country music that a lot of people don’t get: it’s dancing music. Country music fans are passionate, compulsive dancers. That is the only excuse for Shania Twain.

I want to explain just a little about what’s known as the Texas two-step, because until I tried it, I could not believe people out here in the American West did it for real.

Once those annoying Indians and Mexicans were pushed back, Texas was re-settled by German immigrants. They brought with them a love of the Polka. The Polka has an 8/8 beat. It’s good to dance to, and there are all kinds of fancy turns and interlacing arm moves that are fun to do and pretty to watch.

Somewhere between 1935 and 1990, what’s called 6-count (or East Coast) swing got mixed up with a version of the Polka and you got what is now, in Colorado anyway, called the two-step. You dance it to six counts, but you dance it to music with an 8/8 beat, so you get ¾ of the way through the first measure and start the step over again, that takes you half-way through the next measure, and so on. You sort of rotate through the music that way. And that’s part of what makes it “swing.” It also makes it conveniently easy to start dancing anywhere in the song. No need to wait for a new measure to start.

You can use most of those pretty Polka moves that the Germans brought over, and you can use some of the fun 6-count swing moves, too. The thing is, though, it’s hot in the West. And cowboys are too cool to do the energetic hopping of the Polka, so the two-step is more of a sliding step, or a “mosey” as I heard one dance teacher call it. This emphasis on dancing explains why so many Country songs are written to an 8/8 beat. There are also a lot of waltzes and some cha-chas.

Well, there it is. I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind, because there’s really no excuse for all that twang, and classism is deeply engrained in our culture, but maybe next time you hear a Country song, you’ll secretly listen to the lyrics? I won’t tell.

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