I was in the market for a gas mask last summer. I had no time to order it. There was nothing good at the Ace Hardware in Arcata. Nothing at the local auto shops or paint stores. I knew I needed to check the Ace Hardware in McKinleyville. It was unfortunate, but no matter what went on in the McKinleyville Ace, it was better than being tear-gassed.
I braved the store. I found some useful tat, but no gas mask. The man in front of me in line wore a thin-blue-line face mask, but I supposed it was better than no mask. One of the worst songs I have ever endured assaulted me from the radio. It was a country piece about the singer’s “big black jacked up truck.” I left the hardware store with no protection against tear gas but a few new truck descriptors.
I am honestly unsure if the tear gas ended up being worse.
“I listen to everything except for country” goes the common refrain. I get it.
At a protest last September, I saw someone in a large black truck run over a protestor. Any of the protestors at the scene could have been the one hit. It was just their luck. The protester went under the truck, but they suffered only minor injuries, largely because of how jacked the big black truck was.
I pulled into a McKinleyville gas station a few days later. I cringed as I parked by a large, lifted black truck. I left my car and eyed the back of the truck, noting a punisher symbol with a thin-blue-line worked into the skull. I bought a cup of burnt coffee from the gas station market and walked back out toward my car. Now there were two additional large black trucks. One truck bore a small confederate battle flag sticker.
I left the gas station with a sick feeling in my stomach. I could hear the song again, exalting these ridiculous trucks. They weren’t even good at killing people.
Country music feels like tear gas. Like the thud of a body meeting black painted sheet metal. It smells like gasoline fumes and tastes like burnt coffee.
“I listen to everything except for country” makes sense. But I still listen to it.
I can’t help that country music also sounds like home. It feels like grease between my fingers and dust beneath my nails. Like the crunch of gravel beneath the tires of my dad’s old truck.
Months later, I went back to an old playlist cleverly named “I Don’t Like Country” sitting in my Spotify library. The playlist holds all the songs that used to sound like home. None of it carries overt authoritarian themes or culture-war messaging. The artists are diverse, and the sounds range from modern americana to gospel.
Now the music sounds like everything my home is not. It sounds like a home I could have had if the people on the wrong end of a big black jacked up truck had what they wanted.
Everyone who says they “listen to everything but country” might want to try again. You don’t have to enjoy it. It’s a hard genre to navigate, but for me, it’s worth digging. Much of it describes the pain and joy of working-class experiences. It talks about the gruesome consequences of American Protestant ideology. It digs into American sickness and finds a version of America I could abide.
It feels like my home and tear gas at the same time. These days home may as well be where the tear gas is. Country music is both the weapon used against protesters and the protest song. It’s complex and deeply American. Authoritarian and populist. It’s a map of the American condition. It contains a path to a better home that I wish more people like me could see.
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