This New Yorker Grew to Love Country Music — In the Last Place You'd Ever Think
Growing up in New York in the 1960s, I was vaguely aware of the music of my era. Mega-hits like Petula Clark's “Downtown” were on my radar, but just barely. Yes, there were a few new songs I liked, and I even bought the occasional single. In 1968, the year I turned twelve, I purchased at least three: “Hey Jude,” “Mrs. Robinson,” and Mama Cass's version of “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” In school band, we played the theme from Shaft (1971) and a medley of hits by the band Chicago.
But mostly the musical world of my childhood was focused on songs written before I was born. I must have listened to my parents' original cast LPs of Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun, and other shows a thousand times. For an hour or two every day, I sat at the piano playing songs from our massive library of sheet music – some of it my dad's, some of it my mom's – that dated back to their youth. I played those tunes so often – written by people like Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, and the Gershwins – that the lyrics of hundreds of them are still burned into my mind.
Along the way I also developed a degree of acquaintanceship with the classics, and went through periods of being preoccupied with (and trying to play) Chopin or Beethoven. Later, as an undergraduate in the 1970s, thanks to friends in my dorm, each of whom seemed to be obsessed with a different pop star – one loved Queen; another, Joni Mitchell; a third, Bob Dylan – I became familiar with a wide range of contemporary music and came to like much of it. (Joni, yes; Dylan, no.)
Gradually I came to think of myself as having a pretty broad knowledge – and appreciation – of music. I was wrong. On my first day of grad school, I met two fellow first-year students, a married couple from Kansas. They asked about my musical tastes, and I asked about theirs. They said they loved country music. I laughed. I thought they were kidding. They weren't. Oops.
Younger readers may require an explanation of my response. At the time, country music hadn't yet made serious inroads in places like New York City. Without ever having really thought about it at all, I thought of it as a genre whose fans you just didn't run into in university graduate programs.
Embarrassed though I was by my faux pas, I didn't do anything about it. Over the succeeding years, however, I did continue to extend my musical awareness. For a while my radio was constantly tuned to classical radio; one year I listened religiously to Top 40. Living in Manhattan after grad school, I became exposed – thanks to generous friends with subscriptions to the Met and the New York City Ballet – to some of the world's greatest opera and modern dance. Attending an Episcopal church, I became deeply acquainted with (and enamored of) a wide range of church music, especially in the Anglican tradition.