Country roads, stuck at home

I returned from Nashville in time for lockdown — and with a country fever

Sarah Sweeney in Robert’s Western World. Nashville, TN. March 2020
Listening to Sarah Gayle Meech and backing band in Robert’s Western World. Nashville TN. March 2020.

rowing up, I spent reluctant summers in the backwoods of North Carolina while my father was hospitalized for Crohn’s disease and my mother worked full-time. Out in the country, my brother and I became the city outliers who knew nothing of the Judds or Reba or Alabama or Randy Travis, who we were now inundated with, thanks to our new caretaker, Aunt June.

No more than 8 years old, I thought Aunt June—with her bouffant of red hair, a molasses-thick drawl, and false teeth she’d remove on command—was terrifying.

“Redneck,” was the word my mother used when she dropped us off, a word I instinctively knew meant uncultured, and which my mother hadn’t meant so much as an insult, but merely fact. Standing there in Aunt June’s dusty gravel driveway feeling trapped, I decided country music was redneck, too.

I clung to that belief for the bulk of my life until just this past February, before the end of life as we knew it. My friends Jack and Tessa went to Mexico then, and I got to borrow Tessa’s car. The thrill of suddenly having a vehicle in Boston felt like a small miracle, a mini vacation from a life where there was nothing ostensibly wrong, save for the lack of convenience owning a car provided and the feeling of freedom it incited.

It helped that Tessa’s car radio was pre-programmed to one of Boston’s contemporary country stations, a station I never would’ve listened to on my own. But it was unseasonably warm in the city and so I rolled the windows down and cranked it — a sound all at once familiar and yet so foreign to me.

Behind the wheel, the world suddenly seemed filled with possibility. And yet my April trip to Italy seemed unlikelier by the day as coronavirus spread through Europe, eventually making its way to the U.S., where the orders soon came to stay home.

I feared this inevitable retreat into my home because I suffer from chronic wanderlust and a smidge of claustrophobia.

I’m always planning my next escape, and quarantine meant being stuck, indefinitely, like those countless summer days at Aunt June’s: riding shotgun in her windowless truck all the way to the flea market where she pushed counterfeit Avon products.

But I wanted my life back. I wanted to be selfish. I wanted to eat and sunbathe in Italy. I wanted to feel the onset of spring on my lunch break in Boston. I wanted to wear cute outfits and march around town like I was in a shampoo commercial. I wanted to be free, which meant the ability to be transported away from reality.

And that’s how I started listening to country.

just so happened that the last “vacation” I took was to visit my friend Abby in Nashville.

I was right at the beginning of my country music fever, and though I’d booked the trip in late 2019, my visit happened just days after a category 4 tornado ravaged the eastern part of the city on March 3, 2020.

Abby’s neighborhood had been rendered to rubble and hundreds of neighbors were displaced. A tree had fallen on her house and she’d lost power, so my first night in town we gulped two glasses of wine by kitchen candlelight and slept shivering, without heat, side-by-side.

I knew my vacation was not to be the minute Abby gave me the option to bail and I still agreed to go. I’d planned the trip for months and even though Nashville was a disaster site, my friend needed rescuing and so did I. And with my hopes of going to Italy dashed, I knew Nashville was the last chance I’d have to escape for a while.

In country music, someone is always escaping — from a small town, from a cheatin’ woman or an abuser named Earl, from the law. Today’s country music may sound nothing like the genre I incessantly heard as a kid in North Carolina, but there’s something anodyne, almost goofy, and comfortably predictable about it. Even decades after my first introduction to country music, its themes have largely remained the same: Women, whiskey, fishing, freedom, cars, and summer.

While legends like Dolly, Loretta, Waylon, Willie, Cash, Kristofferson sung of work and labor and real hardship, today’s country is largely frothy, male-dominated, and blithely tuned out.

With the exception of The Chicks’s triumphant comeback album, Gaslighter — and kudos to them for making an anthem out of the word gaslighter altogether — hardship or political statements aren’t what I’m after when I tune into country.

What I’m after is an illusion that things will be OK with a little grit, a nighttime ride down country roads with the farmer’s daughter, and one last beer before doing it all again tomorrow. It’s why we watch Hallmark movies and Nancy Meyers rom-coms. They’re facile and warm; pleasing in their familiarity. So, who better to be the spokesperson for pandemic relief than some earnest crooner in a cowboy hat?

My favorite country subgenre is the one I’ve created myself and dubbed Aspirational Country. It’s a little more self-reflective and includes songs like Travis Tritt’s “A Good Day to Be Alive”:

Yeah, I think I’ll make me some home-made soup

Feeling pretty good and that’s the truth

It’s neither drink nor drug induced, no,

I’m just doing alright

And it’s a great day to be alive

I know the sun’s still shining

When I close my eyes

There’s some hard times in the neighborhood

But why can’t every day be just this good

And Kenny Chesney’s “Get Along,” which, if only world peace could be this easy:

Get along, on down the road

We’ve got a long long way to go

Scared to live, scared to die

We ain’t perfect but we try

Get along while we can

Always give love the upper hand

Paint a wall, learn to dance

Call your mom, buy a boat

Drink a beer, sing a song

Make a friend, can’t we all get along?

It’s not cantankerous punk rock. It’s not about the downfall of the monarchy. These songs tout a philosophy about not needing much and implore us to reach for a better world from the comfort of the easy chair. It’s Jimmy Buffet with a cowboy hat.

White men born with unfair advantage telling us how to live. The audacity! But, really, it’s hard to be mad at these silly little ditties that are trying to do the most. If they can momentarily pacify me, imagine what a country “We Are the World” moment could do to convince idiotic whites to wear masks?

After that first night in Nashville, Abby and I learned that folks impacted by the tornado could stay in local hotels for a deep discount, so we hunkered down at the sprawling Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, just steps from the legendary Grand Ole Opry.

Cruising around Nashville, where just days earlier 26 people had perished in the tornado, I felt crushed by the unmistakable knowing that life everywhere was about to change, and I couldn’t yet fathom how much.

This was my vacation and yet it felt almost verboten to have fun. I mean, how can you really enjoy yourself when the world is ending?

Still, I wanted just a moment of ecstatic delirium to hold onto. We were just a week or so from the opening surge of virus cases in the U.S., so Abby led me to Robert’s Western World, one of Nashville’s most revered honky tonks, to get day-drunk on tequila shots and live music by a starlet named Sarah Gayle Meech and her backing band.

The place was packed, which seems inconceivable to me now. But I was rapt, watching an older couple line-dance for hours as though our world was not shifting. They were both unnaturally tanned; the man in a sturdy cowboy hat and his wife in a sexy white miniskirt.

Sarah Gayle Meech was hooting Tammy Wynette talking about your good girl’s gonna go bad and I signaled the server for another round. Abby and I slipped the band a $20 for a couple Judds’ covers. People of all ages poured in, smiling.

The old couple got up again and again and for a minute there, I forgot. For a minute there, I was transported.

ountry music was also made for summer. And in a season that was like no other this year, I happily clutched onto country’s seasonal promises of backyard mischief, fleeting flirtations, and moonlit drives.

“You know I like my chicken fried, and cold beer on a Friday night. A pair of jeans that fit just right, and the radio on,” croons Zac Brown in the song “Chicken Fried.”

In “The One that Got Away” (a personal favorite), Jake Owen remembers an impactful beach fling of his youth: “Well she kissed my lips down on Ocean Drive. She set my world on fire on the fourth of July.”

These are but a few examples of the idyll and ludicrous songs of mostly young white men whose musical genius is surely debatable and whose experience with adversity seems limited to losing a low-stakes billiards game in front of the homecoming queen.

But we’re living in the upside down now, and what I love most about country, and what makes these otherwise unexceptional tracks so palatable, so addictive, is their propensity for nostalgia.

Making it feel, “like yesterday,” to quote a poem by Toby Keith, “even though that was fifteen hundred and sixty-two beers ago.”

These nostalgic songs frequently feature or take place in cars, one of the most potent symbols in the American imagination, and where my own love for country took root.

In his song “In the Car That Night,” Chase Rice croons: “Two kids, one old Corolla, a mixtape you made for me. Blackjack and a Coca Cola, parked way back ‘neath the trees.” When it comes to “When It Rains It Pours” by Luke Combs, a break-up and a car ride lead to convenience store miracles:

Then I won a hundred bucks on a scratch-off ticket
Bought two twelve-packs and a tank of gas with it
She swore they were a waste of time, oh, but she was wrong
I was caller number five on a radio station
Won a four-day, three-night beach vacation
Deep sea, senorita, fishing down in Panama
And I ain’t gotta see my ex-future-mother-in-law anymore

Even with most travel at a standstill, I’ve been all sorts of places lately. But this moment is really the last place I thought I’d ever be — a newfound country music devotee in the middle of a pandemic.

It’s true that I once believed I was better than country music. That it was redneck. But this year it became my escape, my freedom, my transportation that linked me to the people and places and feelings I couldn’t otherwise experience for myself.

So much about our lives has changed, but I can still turn on Dwight Yoakam and remember burning down the highway to visit a college boyfriend. I play Mary Chapin Carpenter and I’m back in my mother’s bedroom, dizzy from her Youth Dew perfume. I hear “Chattahoochee” by Alan Jackson and I’m 10, fishing with my brother, our bare feet slapping hot pavement as we race home for dinner. Randy Travis cuts in with “Forever and Ever, Amen” and suddenly it’s summer, I’m back in the country at Aunt June’s, which in hindsight doesn’t seem so bad, after all.

Writer, traveler & sometimes journalist. My essay collection “Tell Me If You’re Lying” debuted from Barrelhouse Books in 2016. Visit me at sarah-sweeney.com

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