Why Is Country Music So Polarising?

Over the last few decades, mainstream country has become more and more influenced by mainstream rock and pop music – to paraphrase Tom Petty, today’s country stars sound like “bad rock bands with fiddles”. Yet it remains as popular as ever in rural America, even with those old enough to remember when country singers didn’t rap. This, I believe, is in large part because country music explicitly identifies itself with the lifestyle and values of rural listeners. But I don’t think rural audiences are unique in this regard – I’d wager that, for most people, identity plays a huge part in the cultivation and expression of music taste.

To someone who doesn’t identify in the least with a small town or a southern state, country music seems inane and corny. However, one sentiment I’ve heard just as much, if not more than “I like everything except country” is “I hate country, except Johnny Cash”. This, I believe, is for two reasons: Cash’s best known work sounds as much like rock’n’roll as it does country, and because of his place in popular culture.

Though Johnny Cash was already a crossover hit-maker in the fifties, it was his American series in the nineties that really cemented his popularity with those who wouldn’t otherwise listen to country. The modest acoustic arrangements, Cash’s baritone (as opposed to a nasally, twangy tenor), and the numerous covers of contemporary, non-country songs made Cash’s later work much more palatable to ears otherwise accustomed to alternative rock bands. Altogether, these elements gave Johnny Cash an undeniable air of authenticity, which was especially appealing in the nineties. He didn’t sing about trucks and guns and cold beers on hot summer nights; his lyrics either came from an older folk/blues tradition or, in the case of his popular cover songs, modern rock bands.

Johnny Cash wasn’t the only country singer to hang up the country stereotypes and hokey rural pandering, but he’s by a long shot the most famous one. People say they “hate country, except Johnny Cash” because the only other country they’ve heard was never meant for them.

When we’ve already decided that we don’t like a genre of music, we’re not going to try to enjoy it – we’re instead predisposed to dismiss it. We define a genre based on what we’ve heard that we can identify with it, and anyone who has only been exposed to modern mainstream country can’t be blamed for regarding it along those lines. I’ve known many people who “hate country except Johnny Cash”, and I’ve failed in most of my attempts to warm them up to other country artists. When they hear steel guitars, fiddles, nasally accented singing and pastoral references to rural living, they’re reminded of the same hokey hillbilly bullshit that ruined the genre for them in the first place.

But I also have to admit that any variation of “I like everything” is a major pet peeve of mine. Most people who claim to like “everything (except…)” aren’t remotely aware of what “everything” includes, because they’re not all that into music in the first place. They’re only familiar with the most popular categories of music, and while most varieties of pop and rock are inoffensive to them at worst, the “country” they’re familiar with is alien and annoying. People who are truly passionate about music and love to discuss it aren’t going to claim to like “everything” followed by one or two genres they don’t like; they’re going to name the artists and styles that they love.

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