We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the jury summons disguised as refund checks is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, a search for entry points to country-music fandom.
Emily Carol Schmidt writes via Facebook: "I'm not super into country, but I now live in a place with 50+ country stations, so I'm giving it a second chance. But how? Do you just listen to it for a couple hours? Get recommendations? Go to a concert?"
You've already won half the battle: You've decided to give the music a second chance. When I first found myself immersed in country — back when I was 15 and started working at a grocery store in rural Wisconsin — youthful snobbery dictated that I act like a wad and sneer at every second of it. Then, through some combination of Stockholm Syndrome and the development of critical discernment, I began to realize: Some of this stuff is fantastic.
The process for me began in 1987-88, which happened to be a bit of a golden era for country. As a complement to mainstream stars like George Strait, Reba McEntire and Randy Travis, the industry had begun to make room for boundary-pushers like Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, k.d. lang, Dwight Yoakam and others. Getting into them made it easier to appreciate not only gifted traditionalists like Keith Whitley — and, of course, legends like Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and George Jones — but also mainstream singer-songwriters like Skip Ewing and Michael Johnson, whose straight-ahead ballads worked on me, too. I went from treating the genre with smug disdain to buying a lot of country records. (Never fear: I found plenty of other uses for all that smug disdain.)
Now, on one hand, I can't very well recommend you spend three years as a stock boy at a grocery store — which, for me at least, necessitated far too much urinal-cake replacement — but I do recommend giving self-administered immersion a try. As with every genre, there's good and bad in country music, and you'll learn to view some artists so negatively, it'll be like you're incubating entirely new mutations of contempt. But you'll also learn to separate the diamonds from the dirt, and it'll happen because you spotted them yourself rather than having someone else do the curation for you. (Not that there's anything wrong with leaning on tastemakers, as I suggested in a column that touched on country music back in April.)
That said, you've picked an excellent time to embark on a search for great new country. As I mentioned in that column from April — and as Ann Powers has been saying for ages, most recently in a story on Morning Edition — we're experiencing a wave of remarkable young country singers, particularly women. Every couple months this year, a new one has popped up and floored me; it started with Kacey Musgraves (whose Same Trailer Different Park is my favorite album of 2013 so far), continued with Ashley Monroe (who's also in a terrific band called The Pistol Annies) and, for me, culminated in a recent obsession with Holly Williams, whose tear-jerking ballads "Giving Up" and "Waitin' on June" rank among my favorite songs of this year.
If you don't want to spend a few days marinating in what one of your local country stations has to offer, then by all means start with Musgraves, Monroe and Williams. But your own methods may vary, and that's half the fun.