Constantly Hating: I still don’t get country

Not even Beyoncé could fix Eli.

Art by Tyler Farmer

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Country is possibly the biggest it’s ever been, even compared to the megastar 90s of Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Shania Twain, with Morgan Wallen, Luke Combs, Lainey Wilson and Zach Bryan all landing multiple singles on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2023. In its adherence to traditionalism, it remains one of the few genres lots of people can agree on compared to the ever-fluctuating trends of pop and rap.

That’s not to say that country is a monolith; Zach Bryan is bringing back the spirit of outlaw country to the mainstream, and online country singers have blown up off “bedroom country” songs in a vein akin to bedroom pop. But its overall success still stems from traditional formats. Radio still matters. Off the strength of its own culture and history, for 70 years, Nashville has controlled the industry in a way that few genres can claim to even have seen.

It seems as though this is why Beyoncé is muscling herself into the genre with her upcoming record Act II. Despite the inherent bigotry of country music radio and the business at-large, her imperial ambition cannot be stopped, and what better time than now to claim a piece of the money-making pie that is country in 2024? “Daddy Lessons” was the test run, and now she is coming for the throne with two singles: the mediocre, Lumineers-esque stomp-clap “TEXAS HOLD EM’” and the maudlin, plodding “16 CARRIAGES.” Neither song does anything for me, and they have me wondering: Why does country leave me so dry?

I moved past my “anything but rap and country” phase a decade and a half ago, but while rap has become my favorite genre, it’s very rare for me to love a country song from the past 10 years that’s not a novelty, like the unimpeachable “Dicked Down in Dallas,” or a prior favorite artist dabbling in the genre, like Alex G on “Bobby.” It’s impossible to be into everything but it’s hard to reconcile finding such a huge part of the music landscape impenetrable as a music writer. In an era where country is more culturally acceptable than ever, is there a place for the non-believers?

Part of this probably has to do with me being a yankee. The furthest south I’ve lived was Athens, Ohio for college, right next to West Virginia. I never mudded, I didn’t have bonfires all the time, I was not fitted with a ten-gallon hat. To some extent, it’s hard to connect with a genre when you’ve never lived the lifestyle it represents. But I’ve never trapped, or worshiped Satan, or beat up cops, and I love rap, metal and punk all the same. So why don’t I like country?

Maybe it’s because despite its populism, country still represents the culture of an in-group, one that is still predicated on whiteness and a longing for What Has Been. This tracks with how white kids—even the ones who didn’t grow up redneck-adjacent and might just be from the ‘burbs—seem more likely to get down with country than black kids. While media class types like myself obsess over observing newness and uniqueness within popular music now, country feels almost impenetrable in its commitment to its deep history and formalism. It’s a genre that’s wide-appealing yet rewards immersion, not easily subsumed by outsiders.

You can blame me for being close-minded toward a staple genre of American art, but there’s no denying that country is cloistered off from the rest of popular music in a way that can be off-putting for people of color. Country pushes a kind of authenticity built on a white southern affectation. Even country-rap crossovers like Jelly Roll feel fake, like some marketing executive decided that this must be the maneuver to sell a crossover act to the public. The genre wields American symbolism to feign authenticity, prizing image as substance. Queen Bey sees untapped potential in this realm, but can she adapt to the parochial nature of country as pop royalty? She’s not seriously suggesting she “cook, clean, but still won’t fold,” right? What happens when blue-collar sincerity meets the most powerful pop machine this side of Taylor Swift?

Maybe you like the new Beyoncé singles; as I hear them, no amount of Black/queer reclamation can save the genre from limp, Bible Belt moodboarding. I’ll still jam to “Should’ve Been A Cowboy” though. 

1 thought on “Constantly Hating: I still don’t get country”

  1. imo very little good country has even been made since like pre-reagan…not a coincidence, i don’t think. read something like peter guralnick’s lost highway or anything by colin escott to get a feel for that time. the type of people who used to make country music don’t exist anymore. you could say something similar about jazz.