I just finished watching the final of eight episodes of the Ken Burns' country music documentary. Last week, I wrote of how country music was the soundtrack of my life. Every country song up until a specific date in my life triggers a memory for me. As is life, some memories are happy and others not, but in almost every moment of my life until 1983, a country song was playing in the background.
My dad was a devoted country music fan. His favorite artists were Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills and many others — but Haggard topped his list. He knew all the words and after a beer or two on a Saturday night, he’d begin singing them.
My sisters and I idolized our father for many reasons. He was always there for us regardless of the problem. He always had a kind and encouraging word and could make us laugh at the drop of a hat. We loved country music because he did.
I can name the specific moment that I pushed country music out my life. It was 6:15 p.m. May 13, 1983. My dad died suddenly and unexpectedly of a massive heart attack and for me, country music died with him. The music I grew up listening to became representative of the loss of the pillar of our family. I shut it off. Every musical memory included my father and he was now gone.
Ken Burns brought me back to the music of my youth and I am grateful.
And I have a lot of catching up to do. So many new artists came after that date and I missed them all. I find myself especially attracted to the music and sound of Dwight Yoakam. To me, he’s a country music newcomer even though he’s been around for 30 years. It’s as if I turned off the radio and fell asleep for more than three decades and I’m hearing many of the stars and their music for the first time … and loving it.
None among us is perfect. Not one.
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What is it about this enduring musical genre that captivates millions around the globe? I think that country music finds beauty in our imperfections. Death, addiction, divorce, pain, loss, failure — it doesn’t matter which of life’s problems are featured, country finds a way of creating acceptance. It lets us know we are not alone, and others have experienced the same and suffered with us. It shares that as bad as things may be, "the music" understands and will stay by our side as it helps us sort through the pain and find a way to overcome. Country music is more than notes on a page or organized sounds, it is a friend when you need one the most.
Country music is also respect. I’ve never heard of a country star trashing his or her hotel room or cursing at fans. I have not seen a country star give his fans the finger or walking off stage during a temper tantrum. Country music stars genuinely seem to understand they are nothing without the people who buy tickets or download their songs. I always am touched by their respect.
Arlene and I were at a business meeting in Branson, Missouri, in 1993 and was having breakfast on our last day. I looked over after we were seated, and I saw Merle Haggard sitting at a table talking to a younger band member. He was telling the younger that it is OK to make mistakes if you learn from them. He was coaching a younger musician about something that had happened. I remember the kindness in his voice.
I asked our server to please give me his check, which she did. After a while, Haggard stood and asked his server for his check and she pointed over to our table and said we had paid it. He walked over and thanked us then asked, “Why’d you want to buy our breakfast?”
“My dad loved your music and you made him happy for many years. He died in 1983 and he never got the chance to thank you himself. So, this is his son’s way of thanking you on his behalf.” He responded, “Thank you. I’m sorry I never had the opportunity to meet him.” We exchanged a few other pleasantries and he turned to leave the restaurant, then he stopped, turned back and laughed. “Where will you be for lunch?”
It was a beautiful experience for me to be able to thank Merle Haggard for his music and I was genuinely touched by his kindness.
I think most importantly for me, country music is forgiving. I dropped it without notice and left 35 years ago and didn’t look back. But now that I have returned, country music has welcomed me back with opened arms and only responded with the title of the Kathy Mattea hit song “Where’ve you been?”