Photo courtesy of Patti McClintic
Driving with my husband through beautiful Leipers Fork, Tennessee, we got on the topic of living in the country. Neither of us has ever lived in the country, but we started talking about what that must be like. Just looking at all the wide open space, horses and rolling hills, we began to become fixated on the subject. Of course, we could only speculate on what it’s really like to live in a rural area, but I felt like I had a bit of an idea. That’s because at Think Country, we often ask people we interview what they think when they “Think County.” It’s a very open-ended question. Sometimes people will shoot a question back. “Do you mean, like, country music?” My answer is always pretty much the same, “That’s up to you.”
Courtesy of thefreedictionary.com
So, with that, the answers come back in all varieties. Some people talk about country music. They’ll name legendary artists such as Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton. If they’re referring to the music genre, they’ll talk about storytelling. Then there are others that will start listing off emotions or traits. Comfortable, honesty, simplicity. Then there are those that dive into the actual landscape and things you would see in rural areas. Dirt roads, barns, tractors, animals. Then there are some answers that don’t seem to fit those three main categories, but they’re rare. These are the big three for sure.
As my husband and I were driving along, I asked him a question. I said, “If someone asked you what you think when you ‘Think Country,’ what would you say?” I had a feeling his answer would be fairly close to my own. He said, “Just what you see out here. Farms, cows, pastures.” Yes. That’s what I would probably say too. Cornfields, chickens, silos and mansions. Mansions? Well, we were in Leipers Fork, so yes, there were several mansions tucked into those beautiful hills, but I realize we weren’t in your average rural area. I doubt mansions would normally come to mind if I were “thinking country.”
We’re two people that have lived in a city or a suburb our entire lives. I thought it was interesting that neither of us immediately think of music. We live in a city that’s drenched in music. He takes photographs of people playing music. I write about people creating and playing music. Yet we both hear the word “country” and our minds race to farmers’ fields and agriculture. I think that may be something that was drilled into us from a very young age. There are so many tools geared toward helping very small children learn about the world around them, and very often farm scenes are used in those tools. Songs for children, like “The Farmer in the Dell.” How often do we find ourselves asking toddlers what sound a cow makes? Do you see what I mean?
Video courtesy of Patti McClintic/Song Credit: William Michael Morgan
I suppose if you were raised in a rural setting, most of those images are real. They’re around you. For city kids, they’re images on TV or in movies. They aren’t something you see all the time. That’s why many years ago, people would take horses into the city. The neighborhood kids would sit on the horse and a photo was taken. It was a real thrill. I’m not saying horses weren’t fun for country kids, I’m sure they were a lot more fun, because they could ride them and spend more time around them. It was a different sort of thrill. If a horse came walking down the street in my suburban subdivision, I’d be a little surprised. I think you see my point.
Photo courtesy of Patti McClintic
The one thing I have observed after asking so many people the question, “When you ‘Think Country,’ what do you think?” is those who have lived out in the country for most of their lives are extremely attached to that lifestyle. Even if they now reside in a city or a suburb, they will often mention living on a farm or “in the middle of nowhere” and refer to it lovingly. Another thing that’s interesting about those people is most of them will say the only music they ever listened to growing up was country music. Their parents and grandparents listened to it and they just sort of fell in line and did the same thing. It’s been a great learning experience for me. While I was listening to rock and pop, throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, many artists were playing nothing but country radio. I’ve had a lot of catching up to do and I’ll never be there all the way because there’s simply way too much music out there, but I think I’m doing okay so far.
Photo courtesy of Patti McClintic
I started listening to country music thanks to my then-teenaged daughter. I would drive her to school and we would have radio wars. She liked country and I liked rock. She was the high school kid and she always won. It was always country on the way to school. As soon as I dropped her off, I’d flip it back to my rock station. For a while. Eventually, I started to learn the songs and the artists she was listening to. I also started to like it. Before too long, I was leaving the country station on, and even playing it when I didn’t have to. Being a lover of history, I wasn’t content to just stick with what was being played on top 40 country radio. I wanted to dig further back. That was the beginning of my love affair with the genre. I was always a fan of songwriters, I just never spent any time on country music songwriters before. That came next and once I realized how incredible they were, there was no pulling me back. I was in. That’s why I’m here today, and that’s why I will never stop learning or listening to something new. Whether it’s brand new or just new to me, hearing something for the first time and discovering I love it is one of the greatest joys I know. Thankfully, I’ll never run out of “new” material.
So, that’s country for me. My quick answer to the “Think Country” question would likely always be something to do with farms or rural landscapes. I think that got pounded into me as a little kid and no matter how much great country music I hear, when I “think country,” I’ll think of the country. That got me wondering about followers of Think Country. What do they think? Do they fall into the “big three” categories like the artists generally do? I decided the only way to ever know was to come out and ask, so I did. I took to our Facebook page and asked. The answers came from all over and I thank those who participated.
“Three chords and the truth. I found as I was growing up, country music touched every part of my life and I could listen to a song and think, ‘That’s me, that’s my situation right now!’ I don’t know of any other genre that does that to me.” ~ Lisa Brannan, Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland
“Music that you listen to because you can understand the lyrics and it helps you get through anything in life, both happy and sad. I listen to country music for the stories.” ~ Lisa Menear, Dilliner, Pennsylvania
“My answer is simple. Fiddlers and steel guitars.” ~ Steve Basic, Oradell, New Jersey
“Country music to me is understanding the lyrics and it touching you to your very soul. It’s a song that can bring you to tears because you have lived or survived it. It can make you happy and laugh. Country music makes me feel whole. I can go from Patsy Cline to Ashley McBryde. I love being introduced to artists like Cheley Tackett and Erin Enderlin. Music is my medicine!” ~ Amy Tyler, Nashville, Arkansas
“Instruments and lots of them, harmonicas, steel guitar, fiddles, piano, acoustic guitars. Gentle music, whether it be uplifting or a little sad.” ~ Becky Zwyghuizen Garvelink, Hudsonville, Michigan
“When I ‘think country,’ I think of songs that reveal the music in our everyday folks and our lives. The hardworking blue and grey-collared people that love their spouse, family and nation. The love songs that remind us of our history, hardships and hope for a little downtime to relax after a hard day’s work. I also hear the heartbreak and heartache with the loss of someone we’ve loved. I hear the simple pleasures in life that remind us to slow down and take stock of what matters and the beauty of what we have.” ~ Alicia Mitchell, Dennis Port, Massachusetts
“Proper live music with a band, and the importance of lyrics.” ~ Queenie Blans
“When ‘country’ comes to mind, I think of hardworking men and women who aren’t afraid of a ‘lil blood or sweat and will shed a tear every once in a while. It’s having pride in yourself and others, as well as believing in making the impossible a possibility. The spirit of country and country music is that of determination and perseverance. You know when the artist created that song, they left a little piece of their heart behind. ~ Laura Martin, Cramerton, North Carolina
“I think of a community of storytellers. Country artists are just as normal as you and me. They just have extra ordinary jobs. They write songs about heartbreak, losing a loved one and partying, which are things we all do. When I ‘think country,’ I think country nation.” ~ Caitlyn Marie Cook, Cinnaminson, New Jersey
What I learned from these country music fans is they’re very much the same as the artists we speak with. Each one of these answers easily fits into those three main categories, but even more interesting is every one of these people mentioned country music. That was the common theme. Country fans are passionate about the genre. They hear the word, “country” and they think about the songs, stories, writers and the instruments that create the melodies they love.
Photo courtesy of Patti McClintic
In addition to the comments made by our followers, I’ve also included a few quotes from artists I’ve interviewed. I chose two independent artists and two signed to major labels. Notice the similarity in the quotes from the first two artists. What’s interesting about them is I interviewed those two people on the same day at different times. It took me aback during the actual Zoom call when I heard the second artist’s answer. It was that similar.
“Well, for me, personally, I truly think of home. I think of a couple things. It makes me think of a place, like home. I did grow up in very southern Missouri on a farm. I actually still live on one now. It was what you think of when you think of a farm. You know, you had cows, horses and we had a goat at one time and all that, so I do think of home and the houses I actually grew up in. Also, I always think of the word, ‘comfort,’ or ‘peace,’ because for me, growing up, country music was basically all I listened to. Back then we didn’t really have Spotify and all that, it’s just what was on the radio and that’s all my parents played. Country music has also gotten me through a lot of hard times in life, just listening to certain songs over and over to help me get through something. So, I think it is like a comfort to me. It just reminds me of when I was a kid listening to it in the car with my parents or whatever it might be. Or just being on the farm. So, yeah, comfort and home.” ~ Chelsey James, Country Music Artist
“Maybe it’s kind of a feeling that I get, that it’s hard to describe. It’s like a comfort. It’s like something old that makes me feel good. Reminds me of growing up and a bit of independence to think just the things I’ve been able to do on my own because of country. Stories. Probably the story. Yeah, something like that, probably a bunch of different stuff mashed up that I can’t quite explain.” ~ Justin Biltonen, Country Music Artist
A feeling, comfort. A place, or a perhaps a mindset, home. The day of those interviews, I really stepped back and started thinking about writing this piece because those two answers were almost shouting at me to do it. Taking a ride out to Leipers Fork simply solidified how I would approach it. It also led me to another question. Does it matter where you’re from?
As you saw in the comments above, country music touches the lives of people everywhere. From everything I’ve experienced, it doesn’t matter at all where you were born and raised. Your old stomping grounds or your current location have nothing to do with how much you can relate to country music. There are some that will argue if you aren’t from the southern United States, or at the very least, born and raised in a rural community, you’ll never understand it. While I disagree with those people, I can kind of see why they feel that way. It’s a stereotype and it’s been around forever. Natives of the south are proud of their roots. Make no mistake about that. Don’t get me wrong, on the whole, they’re friendly and welcoming, but those of us that weren’t born on southern ground need to know one thing. We will never be southern. We might live in the south, but where we place ourselves geographically after we’re living and breathing doesn’t seem to count for much. We’ll always be outsiders in some respect. That’s fine with me. I’m proud of where I’m from too, but oddly, you don’t hear many songs talking about the wonders of being northern. At least not in vast numbers like southern songs. The world is absolutely crawling with those.
Even though songs like “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd or “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” from The Charlie Daniels Band are favorites of music fans from all over, it doesn’t matter. If you really want a “south card,” you’ll need to have taken your first breath here. At least that’s how it looks from where I sit. That being said, I love Tennessee and I love the people here. They can remind me in a million different ways how I’m just a “yankee,” as long as they welcome me and my family, I’m fine with that, and most do. While I’m barely touching this topic right now, I do plan on writing a follow up that delves deeper into it at some point. Until then, I’ll listen to all the southern anthems they can come up with, and I’ll be blasting them loud and proud, I don’t care how northern I happen to be. I love that stuff and I know I’m not the only one. I also believe the artists that create these songs appreciate anyone that loves and plays their music.
Video courtesy of Patti McClintic/Song Credit: The Cadillac Three
Moving on, I also asked two major label artists what they think when they “Think Country.”
“When I think country, I think of songwriting. I think of stripping it down and listening to a story. That’s what I grew up on. Songwriters like (John) Prine, (Kris) Kristofferson and Don Williams. So, when I think of country music, I think of a story and a lyric.” ~ Jordan Davis, Country Music Artist
“I think that it’s the most authentic piece of who I am as a human being. I really don’t know what I’d do without it. It’s all I know.” ~ Carly Pearce, Country Music Artist
The stories, the lyrics. The legendary songwriters who crafted them. Or simply a component of oneself, something that’s almost beyond flowery descriptions. The idea that country is something that’s within you. It isn’t a song, a trait, a feeling or something you see on a drive through the outskirts of town. It’s something deeper. I’ve heard artists try to describe it many times, but I think Carly Pearce came closest to conveying it with simplicity and honesty.
I’ll never be able to make a statement like Carly Pearce. I enjoy country music. I write for a country music outlet. I live in a city teeming with country music songwriters and artists, but if I’m being honest, I could never say (and I’ve heard artists actually make this statement), “I’m country.” I’m not. I would feel all wrong saying something like that. I wasn’t born with “it.” It’s adopted me in some ways, but I don’t have it flowing through my veins like so many others do. At times I wish I did, but I’m content just soaking up whatever it is that “country” is supposed to be, and I’m happy that I can do that via the music genre. I should add that some of the best people on the planet are fellow fans and those working in the business. I know I’m fortunate to have these human beings in my life, and I never would have met them without country music.
I spent a good deal of time writing an article last year that attempted to put an end to the constant debates over what is and what isn’t country music. I did my homework. While I barely scratched the surface of all the information out there, I feel confident it was a good starting line for people that were willing to hear the facts about the genre and its history. They could use what I presented as food for thought. The best arguments are made by people who have factual information first. Naturally, we all enjoy different types of music, and emotion will be a large factor in someone’s personal opinion, but maybe they can see why some of the songs they don’t personally care to listen to still have a rightful place in the genre itself. That article can be viewed here When I Think Country, I Think…
Video courtesy of Patti McClintic/Song Credit: Hannah Dasher
Traveling the backroads and places that songwriters talk about, seeing the natural beauty of rural towns and continuing to learn about the history of country music, that’s what I can do to feel a part of whatever “country” is. It will never be who I am, but I can enjoy trying to figure it all out. Listening to new music and watching the genre evolve. Staying current and never being afraid to take a chance on something that doesn’t “seem” like my usual choice of music. That’s vital to me if I’m going to do this. I don’t have to love everything, but I can’t put up an invisible barrier to things like that. It’s as though I have a big front porch in my mind, and I have to do the neighborly thing and invite the new and unfamiliar to sit down there with me. I need to sit back and listen. “Let me hear your story.” That, to me, is “country.”
Photo courtesy of Patti McClintic
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*Featured photo courtesy of Patti McClintic