Country Music

It was a dark Friday night, a long drive home from a high school basketball game on the outskirts of Kansas City, and I began to fiddle with the radio. It’s strange. In Kansas City, the radio formats change so often, with so much predictability (and yet, no creativity), that sometimes it’s hard to figure out what station is playing what.

Wait? Is that a top-40 station now? Wait, classic rock? Another one? Aren’t there like six of those? And must they all have “Bad to the Bone” in rotation at all times?

One of the latest to change — a station called 99.7 The Point — purports to play “Today’s Best Music.” This is, of course, a pretty vague description. And considering the station was playing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” a few minutes ago, it’s not even really all that accurate. And yet, there’s one thing that doesn’t change in Kansas City radio: the country stations.

We have KBEQ-FM 104.3, which has been playing country music since 1993, when it was birthed as “Young Country* 104.3.” Nearly 20 years later, still going strong. Here’s an even better example: KFKF-FM 94.1 has been playing country music since its inception in 1963.

*A little Kansas City trivia/history: In 1993, when Joe Montana was quarterbacking at Arrowhead, the Chiefs played Steve Young and the 49ers, and the station went by “Montana Country 104.3” for a week. This was around the same time that the Chiefs played the Oilers in the playoffs and the old restaurant Houston’s covered up their sign for a week. THIS is Kansas City, for better or worse.

So, yes, it’s not hard for a country music radio station to survive in Kansas City. Which brings us back to Friday, and my seek-seek-seek adventure on the radio dial. As I prepared to move past 94.1, I stopped. I heard a sound. A song that felt familiar. But not quite. This was country music.

***

I have always had a strange relationship with country music. And for the purposes of the rest of this post, let’s define country music as mainstream country — Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, George Strait, Shania Twain, Chesney, Tim and Faith, on and on and on.

On one hand, I’ve never been a big fan. But I have been tolerant. My mom likes this type of country. So do my sisters. I could handle it.

On the other hand, I’ve always been fascinated by the country-music ethos.  Yes, the country-music ethos. The idea that every song is more or less about the same thing. Big City vs. Small Town. American-made cars. Tractors. Honky-Ton Bars. Cattle. Amazing Grace. Cold Beer. And so on.

You know, Us vs. Them.

The beauty of the country-music ethos, I think, is that it can work for almost anyone. I grew up in affluent suburbia. Strip malls. Box stores. Parking lots. Nice medium-sized beige houses. Mega-theaters. A metro area of close to 2 million.

And yet, this is still Kansas, still the Midwest, still flyover country. And if you’re comparing Kansas City to, say New York, Kenny Chesney’s “Back Where I Come From” makes a little bit of sense.

It’s like: Yes, we live in an area with a bit of an inferiority complex. But, damn, this place is pretty sweet. Don’t you outsiders tell us any different.

This, I believe, is part of the country-music ethos. And it can work for anything. A kid in Lone Jack, Mo., can sit in his pickup truck late at night, listen to Kenny Chesney, and I bet he thinks those city folk in Kansas City have no idea. And you know what? I’m sure there are ranch hands in Cross Timbers, a tiny little speck of a ranching town near the Ozarks, that think those rich boys in Lone Jack have no idea, either.

Which brings us back to Friday. The song was by something or someone named “Montgomery Gentry.” Which, believe it or not, is actually two different people. Montgomery AND Genry. (I know, I figured it was one. I had to look it up.) Well, they’ve apparently been around for a while, won awards, the whole thing.

Anyway. The song was called, “Where I Come From.” Which, if you didn’t notice, is relatively similar to Kenny Chesney’s “Back Where I Come From.”

*Next, somebody needs to write a song called “I Come From” or, hell, maybe just: “From”.

On Friday night, none of this mattered. At that moment, I was hooked. I drove down that highway, out in the boonies, and I blared that damn song. This, my friends, was the country-music ethos at work.

And as I listened, gazing out toward the darkened hills along the highway, I took stock of the lyrics:

“Don’t you dare go running down
My little town where I grew up
And I won’t cuss your city lights.”

Me: Damn straight. You outsiders! You don’t know a damn thing about my town.

“If you ain’t ever took a ride around
And cruised right through the heart of my town
Anything you say would be a lie.”

Me: That’s right, baby. Kansas City is the best town in the world!  You people on the coast just can’t understand. Can’t under-stand!

“We may live our lives a little slow
But that don’t mean I wouldn’t be proud to show ya.”

Me: Yes. Show them this shit … They need to see this.

“Where I come from
There’s an old plow boy out turning up dirt…”

Me: OK. We don’t have that. But whatever… keep going.

“Where I come from
There’s a preacher man in a cowboy shirt…”

Me: OK. Not totally. But maybe. Keep rocking, Montgomery Gentry…

“Where I come from
When a couple boys fight in the parking lot
No, nobody’s gonna call the cops
Where I come from.”

Me: Yes. This is just like my town. I know this this place. Back on track. Except when people do get beat up, or worse. And people definitely call the cops.

“See that door right there, man I swear
It ain’t never been locked
And I can guarantee that it never will.”

Me: So true! This place is simple. But it’s good simple. Hell yea. (Although, I do lock my door quite a bit. You know, just in case.)

“That old man right there in the rocking chair
At the courthouse square I’ll tell you now
He could buy your fancy car with hundred dollar bills.”

Me: To be honest, we don’t have anything that even remotely resembles this scene. But, whatever, let’s keep going.

“Don’t let those faded overalls fool ya
He made his millons without one day schoolin…

Where I come from
There’s a pickup truck with the tailgate down
Where I come from
The pine trees are singing a song of the south…

Me: Pine trees? No. Song of the South? Eww…. Yea. This isn’t KC.

“Where I come from
That little white church is gonna have a crowd yeah
I’m pretty damn proud
Where I come from.”

Me: OK, yea. Sorry M&G, you’re losing me.

And this is when I change the station, back to album-oriented rock, back to top-40, and I exit off the interstate. I look left — a small downtown, big buildings, lights, arenas, an arts center; I look right — more highways, off into the distance, miles and miles of highways.

And up head, again the darkened horizon, I can see strip malls.

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