Through Ella’s Eyes: In defense of country music


Ella Adams, Managing Editor

Country music gets a lot of hate. Songs about trucks, beer, cut-offs and dirt roads have taken over the genre. “Bro-country,” a term referring to the hyper-masculinity of country pop, dominates country radio stations. I get it. It gets old hearing lazy writing over pre-recorded trap beats sung by some guy in a cowboy hat. As annoying as overproduced country pop can be, it shouldn’t define the genre.

Country music is misunderstood. It is a uniquely American genre founded by the working class and passed down from generations on front porches across the nation. When it comes down to it, country music is about musicianship and storytelling, homegrown and real. As the saying goes, all you need in country is three chords and the truth. There’s more to country music than beer, trucks and blue jeans. 

To understand the heritage of country music, we have to go back to the very beginning. Country music originated in folk songs and ballads from the British Isles brought to the U.S. by immigrants who settled in Appalachia and the South. The genre was heavily inspired by the blues, a genre developed by Black Americans living in the postwar South. Even the banjo, a very common instrument in country music, came from West Africa. Country is American folk music, and that’s something we should be proud of.

Early country music was mostly folk ballads, including the ever-infamous Appalachian murder ballads. Most Appalachian history was passed down through oral tradition in the form of songs. Country’s reputation as “musical storytelling” began in Appalachia. 

Country may be known for its songs about heartbreak, but it also has an unexpected history with progressive politics and labor organizing. Beginning in the 1920s, musicians used their craft to popularize the politics of working people. Legendary folk/country songwriter Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land Is Your Land” as a protest anthem of American capitalism. The version we hear today is often heavily redacted, cutting out lyrics like “As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking Is this land made for you and me?” 

Country music’s relationship with political activism reaches further than labor organizing. Johnny Cash’s famous song “Man in Black” is about poverty, greedy politicians, mass incarceration and the Vietnam War. One musician who used her music for activism is the ever-lovable Dolly Parton. Arguably, her most controversial song, “Down From Dover,” is about a pregnant teenager considering suicide after she is exiled from her community and abandoned by her lover. As dark as the song is, it is a stark reminder of the treatment and status of women in America at the time. Written in 1968, five years before Roe v. Wade, “Down From Dover” was barred from radio stations for its content. 

One of the most admirable characteristics about country music is its stone cold honesty. Kentucky born singer-songwriter Tyler Childers writes very frankly about addiction, poverty and the struggle of growing up in Appalachian mining towns with songs like “Whitehouse Road” and “Nose On The Grindstone.” Country star Mickey Guyton wrote “Black Like Me,” a candid and vulnerable song about being Black in America. 

Above all, country music is about telling stories. Holly Williams, the granddaughter of Hank Williams Sr. and daughter of Hank Williams Jr., is a remarkable example of raw talent, musicianship and phenomenal songwriting. Her song “Waiting on June” is without a doubt one of the best country songs ever written and the definition of bittersweet. Hailey Whitters’ recently released album “Raised,” about her life and upbringing on the plains of Iowa, is yet another example of good, relevant country music. Cole Chaney, Kacey Musgraves, Rhiannon Giddens, Ashley McBryde and Drayton Farley are all amazing examples of gifted storytellers and exceptional musicians unappreciated or unsigned by Nashville. Regardless, they are keeping genuine country music alive. 

Sometimes the music we hear on the radio can put listeners off and give country music a bad rap. But that doesn’t mean top 40 country artists are all bad musicians. For example, former Mountaineer Luke Combs does country pop right and creates hit after hit with no tacky pre-recorded beats, no overproduction and completely authentic lyrics. 

Even within the genre of country, there are sub-genres, so if country pop isn’t your thing try Americana, red dirt, outlaw, bluegrass or indie. Give country music a chance. You just might like it.