As many avid music fans know, country is a divisive genre — most people either love it or hate it. When asked about their music preferences, one in every handful of music listeners will utter that age-old phrase — “I like all music except country.”
Of course, everyone is entitled to their preferences. It is a reasonable take — when most people think of country music, they think of raucous anthems that celebrate trucks, beer and women in bikinis. However, once you scratch the surface, the genre is filled with diverse music that represents all kinds of lived experiences.
If you are ready to see what this rich, vibrant genre really has to offer, give these honky-tonk tracks a spin.
“Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” by Chet Atkins and Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton — America’s blonde, sharp-witted sweetheart — has more than made her mark on country music. Having assembled an entertainment empire over her decades-long career, hits like “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” have ingratiated Dolly with country fans and detractors alike.
However, many listeners may be unfamiliar with this 1976 duet with famed guitarist Chet Atkins. Written by Parton herself, the tune is a bittersweet reminiscence of an old love. As the singer walks through a stunning meadow, she is struck by the memories the scene conjures up — she reflects that the flowers “don’t smell as sweet / as they did when you picked them for me.” Addressing her old flame, Parton wonders, “Do you ever think back on old memories like that, / or do I ever cross your mind?”
Parton’s lyrical yearning is complemented by a sentimental bluegrass instrumentation — one that feels nostalgic, even when one has never heard the song. Parton’s soft, saccharine voice pairs beautifully with Atkins’s warm, bright guitar plucks. With each wistful verse, it feels as if the song is folding you into its “two loving arms.”
“C’mon Baby, Cry” by Orville Peck
Released in 2022, “C’mon Baby, Cry” features all the makings of an excellent pop-country fusion song — a marching drum beat, zesty percussion from clappers and soulful steel guitar riffs. However, the real star of this track is the singer’s powerful, versatile vocals. Peck produces dense bass notes followed by soaring falsetto lines, each line more powerful than the last.
At once delightful and emotional, the track illustrates Peck urging his lover to be vulnerable. He identifies the subject as “a sad boy just like me,” and instructs the other person to “bat your eyes, baby, let me feel the pain / I don’t want you to be afraid.” The singer’s moving words illustrate how Peck is following a long, storied tradition — one in which male country singers of the 20th century were vulnerable in their music, exploring everything from heartbreak to loneliness to loss.
Despite this fact, Peck certainly does not resemble the typical country music singer of recent years — in more ways than one. He is gay, and often references his sexuality in lyrics and in interviews. On top of that, Peck was born in South Africa and raised in Canada — unlike most country artists, who hail from the American south. Peck’s career illustrates how country music can be accessible to audiences of all genders, sexualities or origins.
“Rhinestone Cowboy” by Glen Campbell
Another oldie, Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” showcases the lush, glamorous production and lyrical content that characterizes country music of the 1970’s. Originally released in 1974 by songwriter Larry Weiss, Campbell released a cover the following year that quickly rose to prominence.
The song opens with a few bright notes plucked out on the piano, followed by a jubilant rush of strings. Campbell’s voice — accompanied by some classic western guitar strums — glides in to tell the listener that he has “been walkin’ these streets so long / singin’ the same old song”
As its snazzy title suggests, “Rhinestone Cowboy” is a reflection on the search for success in the entertainment industry. Campbell’s deep, resonant voice tells of his ragged experience — “there’s been a load of compromisin’ / on the road to my horizon.” However, he assures the listener that he is soon “gonna be where the lights are shining on me / like a rhinestone cowboy.”
Thanks to some vivid, extravagant imagery, listeners can clearly picture the singer “riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo.” Though not everyone dreams about becoming a country music star, both country folk and city dwellers can relate to the narrator’s noble determination to fulfill his wildest ambitions.
“Always Alright” by Alabama Shakes
Okay, perhaps putting a band like Alabama Shakes on this list is cheating. The southern band does not quite fit neatly into the country genre — in fact, their music does not really fit into any genre. In many of their songs, they utilize elements of anything from southern rock to indie-alternative to soul — and, of course, country music.
Nowhere is this country influence clearer than their 2012 track “Always Alright.” Backed by a bleating guitar riff and guided by lead singer Brittany Howard’s twangy, growling vocals, the song has a clear rockabilly influence.
Howard’s lyrics tell of a dispute with another person at a party — perhaps a current or former love interest. The impassioned vocalist roars at her subject, “I don’t care, can’t pay attention / And I don’t give a f—k about your intentions at all.” A pumping bassline, an assertive drum beat and punchy guitars fill the atmosphere as the song swells to its climax. As the listener is engulfed by the flourishing, overwhelming instrumentation, Howard makes a shift towards a surprisingly comforting message — she repeats, “We’re alright / We’re always alright.”
“Always Alright” does not fit neatly into most people’s definition of a country song. However, this makes it a perfect representation of what country music looks like today — complicated, diverse and unable to be confined.
While not everyone has to love the generic macho hits that populate today’s country music stations, the most popular songs represent only a fraction of the vast mosaic that makes up the genre. Country music has something to offer everyone — from heartfelt oldies to dazzling contemporary numbers — if one only knows where to look.