Some of us were lucky enough to come of age in an era of rich and varied music. My older siblings played Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and (later) Peter, Paul, and Mary; my parents played Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, and musical scores. Against this backdrop of pop, folk and early rock, my generation listened to pop and soul before, after, and during the British Invasion. To say that the Beatles defined my musical taste is a given. The early Beatles, with songs like “PS, I Love You” and “Roll Over, Beethoven” owed a lot of their style to the Everley Brothers and Elvis. They even gave a nod toward American musical theater (“Till There Was You” from Carousel) which probably reflected their parents taste in music. Other groups, like the Mamas and the Papas had complex and gorgeous harmonies, Simon and Garfunkel had lyrics that epitomized the American experience, and Dylan challenged all of us with obscure, vaguely upsetting songs that mirrored disillusionment. But the Beatles had something for everyone.
There was a time that choosing one Beatle as your favorite said more about your personality than all (or most) of the faddish Facebook quizzes (Which state are you? Which character from Downton Abbey are you? Which rock star are you? Which color are you? Which car are you? Which killer from “Game of Thrones” are you?) If you haven’t been bombarded with these from friends sharing on FB, you must have busier friends than I do. In brief here is what preferring one Beatle meant about you or more accurately about the boys you liked. If you chose George (and most of my friends did), you were drawn to the deep, soulful type of boy who would write you poetry and break your heart lyrically. If you chose Paul, you were a superficial girl going for flashy good looks and obvious charm. If you chose John, you were attracted to the intellectual, moody, self-destructive types. And if you chose Ringo, you had low self esteem. Or you figured you had a better chance with him. I chose John, but that was just to make Paul jealous (Hey, I was eleven).
My Beatles era never really ended because those were the songs I sang when alone in a car and the music I incorporated into various theatrical productions when I was teaching drama (I’m sure there would’ve been copyright infringement if anyone cared). And I know what I loved about their music–it was melodic and I could decipher the lyrics correctly–most of the time. Let’s just say that Eleanor Rigby did not pick up her eyes in the church where her wedding had been. Of course the deceptively clean cut Beatles led on to the excitingly nasty Rolling Stones, the Moody Blues, the Zombies, and more. I segued reluctantly into the so-called hard rock era of endless guitar solos and tediously repetitive lyrics. Because I was fortunate to grow up in the Washington Metropolitan area, I saw many groups: the Jackson Five, the Eagles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf, Jethro Tull (at the opening of a bowling alley in VA), Bread, Tina Turner, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. I list these particular groups, among the many others I saw, to prove my musical experience was wide and varied. I even liked the classical pieces everyone likes (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the Nutcracker Suite, Beethoven’s Fifth, etc.) However, nowhere on this list or in my musical meanderings was country music represented.
When I was a kid and my family made an annual summer trip from Maryland to Michigan (10 hours, no air conditioning, few pit stops) to see my parents’ families, my father would play country music on AM radio as we drove through PA. We kids would groan in protest after being subjected to such classics as “Who Took the Knob off the School Door.” I kid you not. I think these twangy, whiney “tunes” preceded the lonesome – woman left me- took the truck and the dog blues. Regardless, it was torturous listening and inspired in me decades of contempt for country music.
And then a couple of things happened.
I would like to say that the fact my husband had always liked country music and often listened to it when I wasn’t around was a factor but it really wasn’t. The first crack in the embargo came when my sister asked me if I liked the Eagles (of course I did) and then mentioned in the condescending way only a younger sister can muster that what did I think the Eagles were playing if not Rock/Country? Okay, I would have to consider that, especially since I had recently seen the Eagles reunion tour concert. The second thing that happened is that I deliberately listened to a country music channel on FM during a long ride up I-5. I did this because my school had purchased air time on the station and I wanted to see how our commercial sounded. Well, I never heard the commercial, but I kind of liked Rascal Flatts by the end of that ride. Add to that you would have to live on another planet not to be aware of the surge in country music popularity in the last several years. Shows like “American Idol,” which I no longer watch, and “The Voice,” which I never miss, have helped to popularize not only cross-over country but country classics. All of these factors came together just in time for a cross-country road trip that included a visit to Nashville. From CA to TN I listened to country music on Sirius Radio and was ready to embrace my new found love. More recently I spent a couple of months in Houston, and heard both local country musicians and a few of the big names at the famous Houston Rodeo. I bought cowboy boots in Nashville and a cowboy hat in Houston so I’m good to go.
Now, how does all this relate to a past characterized by an exclusive relationship with rock music? First, there’s the fact that all those great concerts impaired my hearing so I can’t understand lyrics unless they are really clear and straightforward (like country music). Then there’s the fact that my favorite music (Beatles and their contemporaries) was very melodic (like country music). Finally, there’s the cute factor: Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, and Keith Urban (Hey, I’m old, not dead). Yes, I really like Maroon Five, Alicia Keys, and Adele. And I listen to the classics (you can call them oldies) including Fleetwood Mac, Bonnie Raitt, and James Taylor. I’m not a fan of rap and hip hop although I’ve always liked Eminem. All of this is to present my credentials as one who has always had eclectic taste in music. And yet, it’s country music that plays in my head every morning.
Every morning I wake up and then tune into the song playing in my head. I have no control over the selection but for the last several months my head has been exclusively playing country music. It doesn’t matter if I’ve listened to music or not the night before. And my head is not necessarily playing my favorite songs or even replaying songs. Every morning it’s a new song that I gradually become aware of, kind of like background music. And then the tune comes to the forefront and I add the lyrics (someone has to) usually under my breath. And then the day goes on and the music fades until the next morning. Through this process I’ve gained an appreciation for the rightness of country music lyrics–the no bullshit take on life in songs like “My Mama’s Broken Heart,” which lays the out the pain of a breakup and the pressure to “hide your crazy.” I love the unapologetic sentimentality of songs like “I Drive Your Truck” and implied sexiness of “Cruise” and “Drunk on You.” Simple expressions of love (“Crazy Girl”) and heartbreaking endings (“I Wake Up Loving You” and “Why Ya Wanna”) are country music themes with a rock twist. Confusing and complicated relationships show up in songs like “Come Over” and “Kiss Tomorrow Good-bye.” Lines like “take off your leavin’ dress” are pure country poetry. And lately irony and social commentary have found their way into songs like “Merry Go-Round” and “Automatic,” and these songs, like most country music songs, are written by the artists who record them. My current favorite lyrics are from David Nail’s “Whatever She’s Got.” “She got the blue jeans painted on tight/That everybody wants on a Saturday night/She got the mood ring, she’s never the same/She’s sun one minute, then she’s pouring down rain.” These words sung over a sexy melody with a bluesy beat could have been written and performed in the 70’s–I see Mick doing nice job or maybe Rod Stewart.
All of these reflections take me back to the Beatles and my contention that what I call the Mid-Baby Boomers (b. 1951-1956-57-ish) are naturally going to like current country music. It’s melodic, catchy, easy to sing along with, heartfelt, and clever–like the Beatles. And to prove my point…I took a break from writing this and went into a small grocery store in Canyonville, OR. While I was there, two songs were played: “Hey, Jude” and “Honeybee.” Thank you, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and Blake Shelton.
It’s been so long since I listened to Eleanor Rigby…that I don’t have a clue what she picked up…but I am sure it was related. The Beatles always made sense to me. I laugh out loud at your transformation. Country Music really ain’t what it used to be.