Country music—real American folk music—is something special. That’s one idea I always had a hard time admitting. Sometimes I wonder how country music (or country and western, as it was once called) could have had an impact on my life. I grew up in upstate New York, coming of age during the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. I was transfixed when Elvis and the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. I tried to comb my hair like Dion in 1960, then like John Lennon on the cover of Rubber Soul and always dressed the part. I played in the mud at Woodstocks I and II. So how do I explain the country connection?
It goes back to my formative years. My father played in a band for about 40 years, ‘til he couldn’t carry his accordion any longer. He tried to teach me how to play the saw (yes, the saw) but I just couldn’t get it. The band played, as I often teased, “the Top 10 of 1920,” but they also played square dances. His best friends and bandmates played mandolin, guitar, and banjo. Sometimes I’d go along for the ride, sit at the edge of the stage and try—unsuccessfully—to yodel.
Then there were the old 78s. I listened to Hank sing “Your Cheating Heart” over and over. It made an impression. And I loved the flip side, “Kaw-Liga.” There was a song by some group whose name I can’t remember, “Don’t ‘Tetch It.” I think I wore that record out. Those songs were as much a part of my life as Doris Day, the Four Lads and Johnny Ray, in the days before rock ‘n’ roll.
As much as I tried, in my younger days, to ignore the influence country music always had on me, the foundations were there: Elvis was a country boy; Jerry Lee was a country boy; even Ray Charles was a country boy. Today I realize just how much country music has impacted my life. Yup, it has. Sometimes I can even revel in that knowledge because it’s part of who I am today. I think I started to figure it out when I heard the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, some Gram Parsons, and Poco.
These days I can play my Garth Brooks CDs along with Little Richard, Jackson Browne, and REM. I can sing along to Alabama, “Oh play me some mountain music like Grandma and Grandpa used to play.” I’m both thrilled and mystified to realize that bluegrass is an amazing art form. I can bond with the past and breathe in the sweet freedom of knowing that I can listen to Buck Owens sing “Together Again” with the windows rolled down and the sunroof open. And I can understand why Hank III can play his grandfather’s country songs as well as thrash metal. It’s all music. I have to thank my father for showing me that…. and maybe give Patsy Cline and Dwight Yoakam a little credit too.