Oh Yeah, I’m a Country Girl
I spent part of last month in Nashville. I’m pretty sure I need to go back. I had been there once before, but this time I realized that I am most comfortable in a place that isn’t ashamed about being truly country. But what exactly is country?
During one of the sessions at the International Country Music conference that I attended, a chorus of chortles arose when someone suggested there might actually be people present who did not carry a Roy Rogers lunchbox to school. Okay, so that wasn’t me (sorry, I’m only in my 30s), but the comment was telling. Little references and in-jokes build up around any subculture to establish who belongs and who doesn’t, and what you better do if you want to try to be a member.
Nevertheless, I grew up in Calgary, a city where going home from school at lunchtime and seeing this on TV was not out of the ordinary:
I never once thought the song was quirky or strange until I listened to it a few months ago, separated from its original context. Buckshot was our friendly local cowboy, guiding generations of Calgarian children through their lunch hours. I think I appeared on the show at least three times.
My point is, his attire, the show’s format, the omnipresence of country music in our youth—none of it seemed out of the ordinary. Yet, as we grew older and started to form individualized teenage tastes, many of us realized we did not have to embrace a country identity, despite where we lived.
So, I turned away from it, deriding my friends who wholeheartedly, uncritically listened to country music. They made several attempts to change my mind, culminating in buying me a ticket to see John Michael Montgomery and Reba McEntire at the Saddledome sometime around 1993. Now, I admit I had fairly ridiculous taste in music at this time, but nevertheless it was a struggle to change over to country. Creating a musical identity in your teenage years is hard work and often requires sitting through songs you can never imagine enjoying, simply for the sake of gaining membership in a certain social group. This was something both my husband and I talked about recently after reading this interesting piece in The Onion about youth and pop music taste. It’s not always an easy or natural process to accept (or love) the music you decide to identify with.
Now I have a Ph.D. in country music. I certainly could not have predicted that at 15. And I am a country girl in many respects, but not all—I have yet to buy a pair of cowboy boots. I honestly tried in Nashville, but my feet are size 11, and there are very few nice options for girls like me. I do have a hat, squished somewhere in my closet. I wore it on the day I moved to Toronto, then realized I better put it away and keep it there.
A common theme I noticed at this year’s conference was the attempt to define, or argue why an artist was, country music. And by extension, country identity. The conclusion that I think we came to was that it is a continually evolving idea, sound, feeling—it can adapt to the modern world, and has—but country also always references tradition. If you don’t know that tradition and why it matters, you can quickly get left behind.
I’ve never lived in a rural area, or even a city smaller than 800,000. I’ve never ridden a horse. I don’t really know how I can call myself country, except for some kind of urban form of country where it’s okay drink a lot during the Stampede, know how to two-step well, and always be sure to put your hat down upside down so the luck doesn’t run out. I don’t really identify with the lyrics of “Redneck Woman,” but I know that you keep the brim of your hat down on your forehead, don’t tip it up. I know that a wide open sky and a steel guitar are things I want to in my life on a regular basis. Somehow, I don’t really know how, I think I can call myself country.