Country music: who needs it, who wants it? In the mind of the stereotypical East Coast liberal, country music is the domain of rednecks and racists; it is primarily concerned with sweet tea, fried chicken and biscuits. Who could deal with all those carbs, all those fats? And country music, in addition to being about all the delightful delectables outlined previously, always seems to revolve around a woman or a truck or a woman in a truck. For the city-slicking, anti-racist, feminist, vegan “Numtots” among us, it seems like country music has little to offer.
But I was born and raised in Texas. Regardless of how many issues of The New Yorker I read, how many times I ride Metro-North, how many kale smoothies I drink, I can’t erase the fact that I was brought up listening to Brooks & Dunn, Nanci Griffith, George Strait, Brad Paisley, Zac Brown and Toby Keith. There will just always be something about a fiddle and a steel guitar that gets me.
Indeed, I got “got” recently after a very long day and night of hard work. Job applications were due, readings had to be done, friends were around for the cherishing — remember to factor in the usual dollop of existential dread, and you’ll understand why I was awake, full steam ahead, for around 27 hours straight last Wednesday and Thursday.
By midnight on Thursday, I had run out my tank and needed to crash. In the short moments spent between the waking world and the world of dreams, I felt, for not the first time this year, the raw tension pent up in my shoulders and upper body.
It hit me — for not the first time this year — that I was a senior. I realized that I would, in a few months, leave the place I now consider home, that I would soon have before me a vast horizon of opportunity and that beyond that horizon, however distant it might seem now, lay oblivion.
For not the first time this year, I shot up from my prone position, felt the adrenaline coursing through my veins and ran around in circles in my room, groaning — I’m much too young to feel this damn old, I thought.
“I’m much too young to feel this damn old,” sings Garth Brooks in a song named for the same line. Of course, the circumstances are different for the speaker in the song. “That ol’ highway’s getting longer / seems there’s no end in sight / to sleep would be best, but I just can’t afford to rest / I’ve got to ride in Denver tomorrow night,” the speaker sings, a wrangler on the way to the next rodeo. The speaker continues his lament: there’s younger competition, a cold saddle, tougher broncos. For the speaker, there ain’t much to look forward to. All he can do is fixate on the sad, simple fact that he’s much too young to feel this damn old. He’s old before his time.
On the surface, Yale is a youthful place. It’s relatively free of real responsibilities. But for a lot of students, Yale comes with responsibilities before they’ve even set foot on campus. How could they come to Yale and not leave with a job that earns them six figures, with a job to support them and their families back home? How could they come to Yale and not make the most of every single opportunity placed before them?
And if attending Yale comes with prior responsibilities for some people, shouldn’t it come with built-in responsibilities for all of us? With all the privilege and power surrounding us, shouldn’t we be constantly thinking about how we spend our time here and whether that time is spent in service of something meaningful, of something worthy? Maybe I’m taking an education from a place like Yale too seriously; we all have obligations that require us to think about how we spend our time.
I think Yale, in reality, is a profoundly un-youthful place. There are so many forces — social, cultural, personal, economic — in our midst that conspire to make us all feel old. They do a really good job, I think. Moments spent partying, drinking, tripping are merely a rejection of the overarching ethos the school seeks to project, an ethos of work: in the name of yourself, your firm, your country.
Country music, for all of its superificially trivial subjects, actually operates in a similar way. A song about fried chicken, sweet tea, pecan pie and homemade wine is never just about greasy food, flavored water, diabetes or alcohol you make yourself. It’s about choosing these things, these stupidly simple things, over the things the world would have us believe are truly important.
Country music wants us to spend our time differently because time is all we have. In the words of Annie Dillard, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Time: who needs it, who wants it. I bet we both know the answer to that question.
What to make of all this. Country songs, even ones about experiences far removed from most of our own, are about pace, time or the lack thereof — I think we can all relate to that. Songs about food or trucks or old town roads urge us to take notice, to value what we’d so soon discount, what we’d so soon consider beneath us.
Country songs urge us to slow down. They tell us that despite death, despite the maelstrom of national politics, of our personal lives, of the forces that pull and push us prematurely into the headspace of a crotchety old geezer, it’s enough to pause and appreciate the beauty of a piece of fried chicken, of a truck, of an old town road, of anything and everything you want — well, almost anything and everything you want.
It’s enough to pause. It’s enough to be.
But don’t just take my word for it. Rather than read a column on breakups, listen to “Neon Moon” by Brooks & Dunn and Kacey Musgraves. Didn’t apply for that fellowship? Queue up Toby Keith’s “I Should’ve Been a Cowboy.” Life got you down? “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive” by Travis Tritt. Eager to hear what you think — maybe even over a glass of sweet tea.
ADRIAN J. RIVERA is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs every other week. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .