Hey Country Music, I still love you but let's get real
Country Music has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. But on the heels of leaving Nashville, there were so many things in my life that I had to look at harder. Somehow, Country Music became something I had to take a beat from.
That doesn’t mean that I stopped listening to it. I checked my Spotify playlists once a week, went searching for albums I really wanted to hear, and for the most part, knew what was happening in that world. But what I came to find in all those months was that the lack of opinion and accountability in the songs that most people hear no longer spoke to who I was as a person.
I hold myself accountable. I have an opinion. Now, more than ever, I think those are attributes we all need to exhibit. To open ourselves up to having honest discussions, whether we agree or disagree, is the only thing that will make this country (and this world) better.
I started thinking about this after listening to the new Carrie Underwood album, “Cry Pretty.” On a record that is mostly filler songs and summer party fodder, there are a few moments where you almost feel like Underwood has an opinion.
“Bullet” is a painful look at how one life taken reverberates throughout a family. It impacts not only that generation but the ones that follow. Daughters who don’t get to walk down the aisle with their father. Mothers that never see their son graduate. It’s a painful cycle that continues going. It’s a beautiful song.
But it still lacks the one thing I wanted to hear most; where Carrie stands. You can almost sense what that is, but she’s still hiding behind her fanbase. The same fanbase out in Alabama burning Nikes instead of donating a product they no longer support to people in need. And the same fanbase that refuses to let any outwardly homosexual musicians take the spotlight on any of the country music stages.
There’s another quiet moment on the Underwood album that looks at addiction and alcoholism (“Spinning Bottles”) and the painful effect it has on loved ones and families. But again, it’s as if she’s painting a picture when she’s never seen the landscape. It’s not that you can’t write a song without experiencing something, it’s that if you really felt that pain you would have a more defined stance.
The single, “Love Wins,” is a “lets just all get along” anthem that again bypasses the heart of the matter. Right now, in the political environment we live in, love isn’t winning. We’re all fighting and disagreeing and insulting each other.
I’m all for escapism through music. Honestly, it’s a huge part of the reason I fell in love with many of the country artists I followed for so long. But I came to music because it made me feel something. It moved me, and it changed my mind. It made me look at life through a different lens. It made me question things.
You take this Underwood record and put it next to the new Ruston Kelly, and there’s a remarkable difference in what is being done. Kelly’s is his life story up until this point. No sugar coating, no toning down, just a full throttle look at addiction.
It makes me cry. It makes want to pick up the phone and scream at some people in my life. It makes me look deeper into myself to find compassion and forgiveness (though I’m not quite there yet). It’s honest, and it’s real.
In a world that’s made me question everything I knew about even some of the people I love the most, I need songwriters to be real with me. I need to know where someone stands and how someone feels. Whether they’re writing about the political turmoil or writing about life experiences.
If more of country music went the way of artists like Hailey Whitters, Ruston Kelly, Kacey Musgraves, or The Lone Bellow, I might not have needed to walk away from it. Even Sugarland’s new record takes a moment on “Tuesday’s Broken” to get serious and ask how we might take some responsibility for ignoring the signs around us that someone is hurting.
If the artists who honestly have a platform to stand on had the guts to speak up, in an educated and thoughtful way, I’d probably find myself listening to a whole lot more of Country Music
But for now, I pick and choose the things I want to hear, and I’m prouder than ever of the artists who want to use their voice to say something. I know how hard that is as a writer. The idea of putting yourself out there and letting people tear you down, pick you apart, or decide to stop listening or engaging with you is terrifying.
But, as they say, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.
I love you country music, but you’re a community of storytellers. It’s time to start telling those stories again.