A new country odyssey: two weeks of listening to nothing but new country music — by someone who detests it.
A Canadian hip-hop recording artist and popular music aficionado chronicles his two-week immersion into new country music and culture — the one genre he doesn’t understand and the antithesis of his beloved rap music.
As journalism students, we’re taught to keep ourselves out of the story. It’s good advice. When the subject of a piece of writing is someone other than its author, a first-person narrative of such a story reads as self-centred and amateurish.
Furthermore, I’m naturally reluctant to talk too much about myself. And I’m definitely reluctant to brag to my readers. Unfortunately in this instance, some background info is needed before we get to the good stuff. So hold your breath for a second while I gloss over the history of my relationship with popular music, how I came to produce some of it myself, and the story which lead me to explore the world of country music.
The first cassette tape I ever picked out was Prince’s 1999. I wasn’t into sports as a child, I was into music. My dad would regularly take me to Shake Records and let the owner, Peter Besserer, pick out a tape for me. I had R.E.M.’s Out of Time long before I was old enough to understand the devastation in Michael Stipe’s lyrics. I took guitar lessons as a fourth grader. My first concert was Neil Young and Pearl Jam at the Toronto Ex the summer before the seventh grade.
I discovered hip-hop just before high school, Beastie Boys were my crossover act. Through them I stumbled upon Cypress Hill and the Pharcyde, then I heard Wu-Tang Clan and it was all over. I started rapping by 16 and I was pretty good by 21. Today at the age of 34, I’ve seen about as much success as a rapper who never left Ottawa could see. With my partner, Bender and our DJ, Calkuta as Flight Distance, I’ve shared the stage with personal heroes like Ghostface Killah and Masta Ace countless times. It’s taken me overseas. I’ve turned on the radio to unexpectedly hear one of my own songs playing—on several occasions. I’ve played Bluesfest twice. I get stopped in the street every once in a while. I love it.
As a hip-hop artist, over the years I’ve collected records to make beats. As someone who grew up on rock and roll, soul and so on, I imagine a handful of country records have passed through my possession. It’s simply a likelihood. But none of them have ever really stood out. Hip-hop producers re-purpose old drum breaks (drums without any other music over them) and melodies to make hip-hop instrumentals. From Led Zeppelin to the score to Thunderball to the Quebec prog rock band Harmonium, the records I dug up from the 20-cent bin all had something of value I could glean from them. As I explored the endless music which had been committed to vinyl I developed a deeper appreciation for pop music.
Consider it needless to say, I’ve always understood music. I’ve loved the music of previous generations from which I would borrow to make my own. I’ve always been a lover of all genres in contemporary music.
But country music has always eluded me.
I’ve only ever sought out and purchased one country-western album. Willie Nelson’s Always On My Mind. The record was one of several albums from across various genres that I had collected as a younger music fan. One summer, a friend of my father’s—let’s call him Jim to save him some embarrassment—befriended a man claiming to be Willie Nelson. The man was an impersonator who was loitering around the Ottawa Exhibition at Lansdowne Park where the real Nelson had a concert and Jim must have thought he’d met the genuine article. Clearly a rotten human being, he proceeded to string the star-struck Jim along for weeks. Jim even even wore a green bandana the fake Willy had given him. As a gullible young man myself, I believed Jim was hanging out with an extended-visiting Willy Nelson and I asked him to have the living legend sign my record. The impersonator did so, rendering it worthless. Jim was later heartbroken when he discovered his new friend was a fraud. I was disillusioned by the idea that someone who dedicates his life to pretending to be another person could respect that other person’s work so little that he would think nothing of defacing an album for little more than a mean-spirited ruse.
Country-western has been the butt of many a joke cracked by the supposedly more sophisticated music fan—in actuality it’s considered by many to be one of the defining genres of the (North) American experience.
“New country,” however, the phenomenon which gained popularity in the 1990s; the nasal-inflected, stadium-geared, low brow pop-influenced blend of traditional country-western and the popular rock of the ’80s and ’90s —has always seemed to be nothing but a joke to the casual observer. “Music for people who don’t actually like music,” I used to call it
To be a fan of new country, in my circle of friends, was completely unheard of. It was unfathomable. But it eventually did come up. In my early 20s, one friend of mine (Exhibit A.) had no driver’s license and had somehow duped another friend (Exhibit B.) into being his damn-near chauffeur. A. would hop into B.’s car day after day and pop his own music into the stereo. Usually something pretty funky. A. had noticed that every time he got into the car, a Seinfeld-esque occurrence would persist: B.’s radio would be on the new country station. One day, B. stood up for himself and told A., “No. I like it, leave it.”
I thought I knew B.
B. had spent years pretending to like rap music. New country was his deep, dark secret. This always stood out to me. My musical taste defines me. To lie about it is to lie about my essence. Of course, B. was no die-hard like me (and today he remains a true-blue friend). I’m not calling him a fraud—but his musical moonlighting has since made me grapple with a few existential conundrums.
Does it really matter what anyone thinks? Do our tastes form because of where we’re from? Do certain sounds and aesthetics appeal to us on a primal level? Or is it simple: do people like the music they like because of convenience?
To find the answers to these questions I decided to immerse myself in the world of new country. For two weeks I listened to nothing but new country music. I blocked out the rap world—which is a major part of my day-to-day life—and indulged in its polar opposite.
The following is my account of the defining moments of my journey.
A new country odyssey
I’d rather listen to no music at all. I listen to CBC Radio One in the car. If any music comes on, I switch the dial to 1310 News. I feel compelled to boot up iTunes when I get home at the end of the day and listen to something. I fight the urge.
Same as day one. This isn’t immersion into new country, it’s rap detox. I watch TV instead of listening to music. When will Dr. Dre’s long-awaited album Detox come out, by the way? Google it. Not going to be called Detox any more. Listen to The Chronic. That’s not new country. First strike. Start tomorrow.
[Please note: at the risk of coming across sanctimonious, which I constantly fear, I’d like to mention that this piece was written before Dr. Dre’s latest album, Compton, was released. I never ended up listening to that. I sort of wrote Dre off on account of the allegations of violence against women. I have plenty of artists to listen to, there’s no room in my library for someone who hits women.]
I’m tired. I’m still hungover. It’s Monday, doesn’t count. Start tomorrow.
It begins. Miranda Lambert’s “Little Red Wagon” stands out. It’s catchy. It sounds like she’s using auto-tune. Her voice isn’t as nasal as I’d expected. Switch radio from New Country 94 back to CBC. I’m a journalism student, staying abreast of current events is more important.
Try out New Country 94 again. Tim Hicks’ “Here Comes the Thunder” plays. He played at Algonquin recently. Not bad. The song slowly builds to a crescendo, sort of like an old Bon Jovi song. I like it. Blake Shelton’s “Lonely Tonight” is on next, he’s a likeable guy. I don’t like this song, the lyrics are asinine.
Today is worse. This is the true test of my willpower. I’m missing the Ghostface Killah concert. He’s one of my favourites. We (Flight Distance) opened for him two nights in a row a few years back. This time he’s bringing Cappadonna, the most underrated MC in the Wu-Tang family, I’ve always believed he should have been a core member.
This a big sacrifice. I listen to no music on this day.
I heard that Ghostface didn’t take the stage last night until 1:30 a.m., that’s late even by rap-show standards.
Days eight and nine:
Brad Paisley’s “Crushin’ It” stands out. I don’t like it at all. This is the stuff I had dreaded when I began this endeavour. He borrows slang from the hip-hop world and, in my assessment, is doing so tongue-in-cheek. That’s fair. But it doesn’t make for good music. The melody seems contrary to my sensibilities. Where’s the emotion? As for other songs, I can tell when one is a ballad – but if these emotions they sing of are sincere, then why do they seem so contrived? I’m discouraged. These are a bad couple of days.
Days 10 through 13:
Not much to report. I toe the line. I avoid the music I like and listen to a bit of country music here-and-there. On day 11, my friend, the hip-hop artist Ceschi puts out his new album. I can’t listen to it until the two weeks are up.
But here’s a cut for you to check out.
I’m an anthropologist.
This evening I attend a Kacey Musgraves concert. I decide to live-tweet my experience at the sold-out Centrepointe Theatre. The concert begins at 8 p.m. sharp. The openers have a classic sound. I haven’t encountered a retro act of this calibre thus far. Kacey Musgraves puts on a great show. I’m surrounded by happy couples who don’t move much to the music. One woman claps off-beat. It’s all very tame.
Two weeks are up. One thing is clear, this was not long enough. I’ll need the help of some experts. My Twitter notifications are on fire from last night’s play-by-play. In my Facebook inbox, I discover a note from an old friend.
“How did you like Kacey Musgraves? I like her,” writes Cal Cheney, a local musician with whom I’ve collaborated long in the past. “I also like new country, it takes me to another place.”
Here’s a guy who I don’t see or hear from very often, who has gone out of his way to come to the defence of my recent subject of ridicule. I feel sort of silly as I read the open-minded, honest note from an electronic artist I admire.
Next, I choose to enlist the help of a fellow Algonquin student and independent musician, folk-country singer, Heather Janssen.
“It’s a small music scene in Ottawa,” says Janssen, “I find everyone knows everyone. But the musicians who are really trying to make it are networking with anyone and everyone they know, regardless of which genre.”
Why have I been so exclusionary in my own networking? I look at her Facebook page and discover many mutual friends, many of whom are connections through the local hip-hop scene.
Finally, I speak to Colin Mills, coordinator of the music industry arts program at Algonquin for some insight into the demographics of students who are clearly interested in music. The new country fans who enroll must care deeply about their chosen genre of interest.
“I think most of our country fans are fairly strict to country, but same with most of our hip-hop fans,” says Mills. “Crossing over for fans will be hard, but I think with a lot of the country songs, you could turn a lot of that into a hip-hop song.”
It seems, when I speak to those who know better, that the differences between country musicians and hip-hop artists are fewer than the similarities.
If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that perhaps I’m shallow and judgmental. I judged my dad’s friend Jim when he fell for the Nelson impersonator; I judged the impersonator for not having his own identity; I judged my friend B. for being interested in something I didn’t understand; I judged the people at the Musgraves concert for the way they chose to take in their entertainment.
If new country is the genre of convenience and easy accessibility, who am I to judge?
I’m no closer to understanding why the music I love resonates with me. The rhythms and aesthetic are naturally appealing, I believe it’s that simple.
I do know that it’s safe. Of the two possibilities at hand, it takes no real bravery for me to be defined by the more-popularly accepted as “cool”.
It was brave of B. to go against the norm and tell his friends he was into the music they mocked. I love hip-hop more than anything and I missed it during those two weeks—but I don’t love it in spite of the alternative.
Here’s a Flight Distance song so any Brad Paisley fans can criticize it mercilessly, I’m the guy in the army jacket. It seems the comments section has been disabled. I assure you, I didn’t do that.