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Why I love country music

I've listened to country music all my life. My mom likes it, and my dad plays it. Real country music, old-timey music. Plus bluegrass and assorted just-plain good singer/songwriters from that general tradition.

My dad played in an old-time band that toured when I was a child. The other players were a married couple and the woman my dad lived with most of my early childhood. I knew all the songs by heart and often sang them to myself from an early age; I'm not sure when. It's always been there, on stages, in parks, in coffeshops and halls and tucked into every corner of people's houses, at festivals and contests, and in my head.

My mother had more traditional country music in her collection, and I was exposed to everyone important. Performances by Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstandt float uppermost in my memories. I could listen to them for hours and memorized everything. I haven't heard those albums for almost two decades, and I can sing dozens of their songs from memory at any moment.

When I moved out of the house, I didn't form my own collection of country music. I could still go to my parents' houses any time I wanted, and I still went to see my dad and his friends perform from time to time. I explored popular music and developed a respectable collection of chic 80s and 90s CDs, a project I embarked on with a gift from my dad of one of the early portable CD players and $100 to start me up.

My parents changed, too. My dad focused on work for a long time, and most of the music in their house was the traditional, instrumental Celtic music favored by his wife. My mom slipped into jazz, and there was a lot of jazz around just in general. Even one of the players in my dad's old band became a jazz vocalist. I joined my dad at a party at their house one evening, and it was as different as it could have been from the sprawling bluegrass jams I remembered from childhood: well-dressed people in small groups, mostly talking, nibbling on elegant little snacks, someone occasionally sitting at the piano. It was easy to feel left out by all the "high-class jazz people," as my dad called them.

I listened to various kinds of jazz (with vocals) and standards all my life as well, and I know the Rodgers and Hart songbook as well as I know Emmylou. That's the music I sing to myself nowadays, and I've contemplated vocal techniques classes, which I'll get to one day, maybe this year, maybe next, maybe five years from now. I sing around the house, not just in shower, sometimes pretending that my cat is listening.

I ran into a friend recently who reminded me of the way my last cat listened. I had managed to forget this, and in retrospect, I can't imagine how. The City of New Orleans could not stand to listen to me sing "Crazy" (I emulated the Patsy Cline performance). She became visibly distressed when I sang it, and if I persisted, she made terrible sounds and bit me. There is no evidence to suggest that this was a response to my ability. I've sung regularly since childhood, with musical family and friends to reinforce and guide me.

I sing often around The Streamlined Cannonball, and he seems pretty relaxed about it. Today, I thought I'd give him a try on "Crazy." His neck went rigid, his eyes watchful. He peeled his lips back and made a distressing sound, a sort of hunting sound. It was suggested that I try "I Fall to Pieces," and it got the same reaction. I tried an Emmylou favorite, "Luxury Liner," and this seemed less distressing, but he put some distance between us. He came back when I stopped singing. I started up with "The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia," and he gave me a doleful look and trotted away again.

Was he just tired of singing? I sang a couple of verses from "The Lady Is a Tramp," which he's heard many times without incident, and this was apparently perfectly acceptable. I was relieved. I want to feel like I can sing in my own apartment as much as I want, even if I defer to my neighbors by closing my windows.

Some sadness remains. What is it about country music? A trial of "Pancho and Lefty" produced the same distress, the same flight, although "I Fall to Pieces" and "Crazy" appear alone in their ability to provoke overt hostility. I knew my new pet had a personality of his own, but I confess this is a disappointment, that something I have loved for so long is so much not to his taste. I guess our honeymoon was bound to end.

September 11, 2002