If I'm not listening to Sam Cooke when I'm baking, I'm listening to country. I was listening to country when I made this week's Bourbon Peach Tart, because what else would I listen to when I'm cooking with bourbon?
I love country music. I wouldn't admit that until about four years ago. I know all the words to almost every Trisha Yearwood, Garth Brooks, Patsy Cline, Reba McEntire, Shania Twain song, even the obscure ones because if I didn't have the album, my mom did, or my cousin did, or my mamaw did. Country music, like baking, calms me down. Both of them have a certain order to them, both of them help tell a story. I was raised on country music and the stories that country songs told. I was twenty-four before I embraced my love for the songs and the genre. I'd internalized the white trash stigma that came with loving country music. In country music, people live in trailers. People are poor. Folks drink Bud Light. I didn't think I was allowed to admit those things about myself or my life, and liking country music meant I had to.
For those who think country music is just about heartbreak and drinking, you aren't wrong, but you aren't right either. Listen to Miranda Lambert, the Pistol Annies; listen to McEntire's cover of "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" or Julie Roberts' "Break Down Here." These are songs about resilience, about secrets, about leaving home and returning. In Lambert's recent single "Vice," she croons "If you need me, I'll be where my reputation don't precede me." I don't know how many times I've felt like that in my life. Really good country music artists can weave a story into their songs like no one else. Country music is as much a part of me as my college education, as the stories I write, the people I love. It taught me rhythm, taught me to listen to language, to hear the differences in the way people speak and how that can be beautiful. Country music taught me to be patient and country music let me be a version of myself that for a long time, I didn't feel I could. Country music will break your heart if you'll let it. It'll disappoint you too.
The Backstreet Boys performed with Florida Georgia Line at the ACM Awards on April 2. I didn't watch the show; I didn't know they performed; I don't like Florida Georgia Line. But the next morning, the Backstreet Boys were trending. I'm a good nineties kid, I wanted to know the news. It was all hoorays - Tim McGraw hollering his head off, Carrie Underwood singing every word along with the iconic boy band. It disappointed the hell out of me. I remember a very different reception for a much more relevant and talented artist at the 2016 CMA Awards. The Dixie Chicks (Talk about another country powerhouse. Listen to "Not Ready to Make Nice" anytime you're angry - it really does the trick.) and Beyonce performed "Daddy Lessons" at the awards. The next day, the news was that country music didn't need Beyonce, that she isn't even country (total bull shit, which you can read more about here). Travis Tritt, a 1990s country music legend, went on a Twitter tirade (I'm not going to link it, but it's easy to find if you're interested) about Beyonce's appearance and wanted to know when the BET Awards planned on inviting a country artist (seriously, who gave this jackass a microphone?). Where was all the fury a few months later when the Backstreet Boys performed at another country music award show? It was nowhere to be found. It was never about pop versus country; it was about race and politics. About a powerful, successful, black artist taking a stage occupied predominantly by white artists and about the refusal to acknowledge the impact that artists of color have had on the genre.
It's hard to love something when you see all the flaws. Or to love something when it means admitting something hard about who you are and where you came from. I've been thinking about identity and shutting identity out, denying parts of ourselves. I don't live in eastern Kentucky anymore, I haven't for almost ten years, but that's where I grew up, it's where most of my family still lives, it's why I think most everything will taste better with a bit of bourbon in it, and it's still a big part of who I am. It's the reason I love country music. Kentucky is where I learned to write. It's the setting for a good majority of my work. Denying my love for country music, denying where I grew up, doesn't serve anyone. It doesn't serve the people I meet who won't have a full understanding of my perspective or the opportunity to hear about a culture they may not understand, and it certainly doesn't serve my family and my region by enforcing the idea that my heritage is something to be hidden or ashamed of. The more we hide it, the less we critique it and the less we understand it, which means there's far less potential for growth and change.
Next week I'll post about choux pastry, and even when I'm baking a French-ass pastry, I'll be listening to country, because I am both things. I'm both a woman from Appalachia who spent a lot of her childhood barefoot on a farm, and a baker obsessed with macarons and choux who left home and got a little more perspective on her roots, even the complicated, ugly parts. Thanks for coming along.