Column: Country Music is Not Just Beer and Trucks

Opinion editor Aidan Cahill expresses his love for country music — despite it’s flaws.

One of the first things I ask people when getting to know them is what their favorite type of music is. Everyone has a different answer — some love K-pop, others are hard-core rock fans, while others love R&B and rap. But there is one answer I hear far more than anything else.

“I listen to everything but country.” 

While I may nod and ask about what the person does listen to, part of me will always feel like they’re missing out. Country music is just as diverse as any other genre and shouldn’t be dismissed so easily. Even if you don’t like the top of the charts, there’s still a lot to love about the genre. 

Numerically speaking, country is the fourth most popular genre in the U.S., accounting for 8.4% of total music sales in 2023 so far, according to Luminate. While Luminate notes artists like Luke Combs, Morgan Wallen and Zach Bryan becoming popular among Generation Z listeners, it still points out the average country music consumer is a boomer listening on the radio. 

Truth be told, despite living in a small town, I hated country music growing up. On one hand, I found many songs to be preachy, filled with over-the-top Christian themes and patriotism. On the other hand, much of it was too bro-y with an emphasis on beer, hunting and blatant sexism. Both were equally insufferable. Only making it worse, I had no choice but to listen to it because that’s the radio station the bus driver picked. To this day, I still can’t stand this over-the-top brand of country. 

Things changed when I started listening to Johnny Cash. Cash didn’t pull punches with his songs. He showed empathy to the incarcerated with “San Quentin” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” made listeners laugh with “A Boy Named Sue” and proved his versatility by taking an alt-rock song by Nine Inch Nails and turning it into a beautiful reflection on the end of his life with “Hurt.

Listening to Cash showed me there was more to country music than I previously thought. It wasn’t just about Jesus and trucks — it could be about so much more.

I fell in love with the sound of a singer with a guitar letting their emotions flow through the lyrics. The lyrics and themes aren’t always pretty, but they’re authentic. Through these songs, country music tells both sides of the small town story. The “bro-country” narrative that rural life is some kind of paradise is met by a counternarrative that says otherwise. 

Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” points out how small towns often don’t step up to protect women, while Lorretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” is very upfront about the hard work needed to get by in Appalachia. My favorite country album — Kat Hasty’s “Drowning in Dreams” is full of lyrics about the toxic people you’ll run into and the struggles of living in a rural area. 

This struggle is something I saw growing up in rural Pennsylvania. Issues like violence and drug addiction impacting many Chicago neighborhoods are the same ones impacting the small towns of Adams County where I grew up — the only difference is that no one talks about problems in small towns the way they decry those same problems in the cities. I started to explore the genre after hearing artists being honest about the ugly side of rural life while not trying to portray it as “almost heaven,” as John Denver would put it.

After my initial discovery, western songs, murder ballads and even some bro-country became a lot more palatable. The genre has gone from yee-haw noise I was forced to listen to when my iPod died to music I can use to connect with my small town roots.

Even if you’re not from a rural area, there’s bound to be some corner of the genre you can relate to and enjoy. 

Want to kick back and have a good time? Listen to bro-country, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Going through a nasty break up? I direct you to Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” and Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” Swiftie? A lot of Taylor Swift’ early, country-inspired discography is worth listening to even for those who aren’t fans.

While I can’t fault anyone for not enjoying the genre on first listen, my hope is that people won’t judge music just because it’s a different style than what you’re used to. Country is just like any other genre — you’re not going to like every song, but that doesn’t mean every song is bad.

Feature Image by Aidan Cahill / The Phoenix

Aidan Cahill

Aidan Cahill