As far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a cowboy.
When I was 14 years old, I received money from my hometown to reopen a recently closed music venue using otherwise unspent city funds budgeted for entertainment. With the help of the venue owners, their twenty-something son who understood how everything worked, and a grant worth less than $3,000, I brought The Apocalypse to the farming town of Constantine, MI, delivering a series of concerts featuring local and regional talent. It was the kind of thing that made the local papers back when local papers still existed.
From that moment until now, roughly twenty years later, I've devoted most of my time and headspace to alternative music. I've written thousands of articles covering countless artists from all corners of the planet, including reviews, profiles, and everything in between. I've managed bands, traveled with Vans Warped Tour, ran a record label releasing more than three dozen releases, and produced well over one-thousand hours of audio and video content, all in the name of alternative music.
I cannot think of a single time between now and then that I have questioned my pursuit. That is—until last year.
Blame it on the pandemic or the damage done by pursuing one thing for two decades, but 2021 was the most burned-out I've felt in my professional life. I had no idea, no interest, and virtually no alternative release we connecting with me. I spoke with my thirty-something friends in alt, many of whom are musicians themselves, and a common thread emerged: They don't primarily listen to alternative music.
As one person told me, "I make cupcakes for a living. What makes you think I want to enjoy other people's cupcakes when I'm off the clock?"
My pursuit of something new led me back to the beginning, to the genre that gave me my first real taste of music's awesome power: Country music.
It began with a 90s country playlist on Spotify. I don't know how I ended up there, but I know it's still recommended to me almost daily as of April 28, 2022. Each song took me back to a specific chapter of my childhood that I'd otherwise forgotten, and I found myself easily recalling almost every lyric. I may not be able to tell you my mother's cell phone number, but I can still recite John Michael Montgomery's "Grundy County Auction" as if its scripture. I can recall every line to "John Deere Green" as though it's a guide for winning over your crush. That's probably not good, right? Nobody needs that.
When Laura and I went to Nashville last July, we became obsessed with billboards we spotted around town for Parker McCollum's debut album. Coming from the rock world, we were shocked to see any label spending money on at least half a dozen billboards in the modern age. We were so transfixed that we had to give Parker a spin, and we still listen to him today. That one campaign was enough to fully pull the two of us back into the country genre, and we've been sinking deeper together ever since.
The first fandom I knew of was that of Billy Ray Cyrus. People born in the 90s or later know him as the old man sitting passenger side with Lil Nas X on "Old Town Road" or perhaps as the dad from Hannah Montana. Back in the 90s, however, he was the newborn king of country music.
My mother may not admit it today, but she loved Billy Ray Cyrus. My parents had me shortly after high school, and the only time I think of my mother as being young is in reference to her Billy Ray fandom. We had posters, albums, shirts, stickers, and even an official fan club denim jacket (autographed, no less).
A blurry memory sits in the furthest corner of my mind where I'm sitting on my father's lap in the grandstands of an Ohio county fair while my mother runs to the stage for her shot at locking eyes with Billy Ray Cyrus. I don't know if it was the way his perfectly-styled mullet swayed opposite his body as he danced on stage or the way his skintight denim jeans stuck to his legs like glue, but something had my mother HOOKED.
My father, meanwhile, preferred cowboy country. He would listen to the radio and explain how every great male artist was doing their best to sound like their genre heroes. Most, he claimed, wanted to be George Jones, Merle Haggard, or Jonny Cash, but not my father. He saw himself akin to Garth Brooks, which is a long way of saying he dreamed of being Chris Ledoux.
Ledoux embodied the modern American country spirit in the most literal sense. A champion bareback bull rider who successfully turned songs about his life in rodeo into an influential country career, Ledoux paved the path that people like Cody Johnson still walk today. His music spoke to a lifestyle that many assumed was ancient history, where cowboys rode across sprawling plains, and the worries of the world at large drifted into the ether. He sang of love, hope, and faith as if they were the bedrock of humanity and used the violence of man's endless battle with nature to draw comparisons to life's daily troubles.
All great country songwriters are masters of short-form storytelling. From the early days of the genre through the modern era, where fans constantly bicker over what constitutes "real country," the best songs tell stories of love, life, and loss that drive home the futility of our daily worries. Even the simplest radio fodder has a story to tell, and it's one anyone listening can follow and make their own. When a country is at its best, the songs feel tailor-made for everyone and nobody at the same time. Much like life itself, it's what you make of it.
If you've been following me for any length of time, then you know storytelling is my one passion. It's one of our oldest traditions, and its unending ability to bring people together from all walks of life is something I never tire of discussing. The entire reason I write is to capture the songs that make us feel connected and the power that connection wields. I want to understand how it all works, from inspiration to fanatical obsession, and I want to talk about it as much as anyone is willing to listen.
The more I listen to country music today, the more I feel my passion for the industry grow. What was a dying flame is suddenly rekindled, bringing that electric feeling writers sense in their fingertips when the words are just begging to get out. Browsing The Nashville Briefing's weekly recommendations gives me a similar rush of serotonin that I once felt reaching for the latest Victory Records sampler, and that's an excitement I haven't felt as an alternative music writer in years.
But there's a problem. The music industry may be a small community, but the barriers between genres can be great. Most people in country music know nothing about me or my work because I've never done anything they have any reason to see. The team at Warner Nashville probably didn't spend much time browsing Under The Gun Review (RIP) back in the day, and I heavily doubt the Big Loud team is filled with fans of High Notes. Try as I might to work with these teams; they have no idea who I am.
For the next twelve months, and hopefully longer, The Wampus is pivoting to country music and its many branches. At the risk of embodying the 1994 Alan Jackson hit "Gone Country," I'm embarking on what we're calling my 'Yee-Haw Year' around the house. I'll be delivering the same style of essays and playlists you've come to expect, only now with the addition of album reviews, industry news, and other insights. There will also be a lot of ~merch~ opportunities.
The goal is to win the hearts and attention of country music at large while gaining a deeper appreciation for the genre I love. It's also to keep me sane and to help me keep my passion for my craft alive.
If you're reading this now and you're worried I won't be promoting other genres anymore—fear not. I have opportunities to contribute to other blogs and sites as needed to cover those subjects. In the last month alone, I've interviewed Undeath, Simple Plan, and black metal hotshots I Am The Night. I'll continue to share links to that content in this newsletter, but you should probably follow me on Twitter as well.
Lastly, I want to thank all of you for your patience over these last few months. There were many days I thought the burnout had won and my time with music was over, but this morning I woke up feeling optimistic for the first time in weeks. That doesn't solve my problems or permanently erase my worries, but it does tell me I'm on the right path. That's enough for today.
The first edition of the new Wampus arrives on Tuesday, May 3. There will be an essay on Chris Janson, a review of Miranda Lambert's new album, and the first Wampus-curated playlist in nearly two full months!
Until then, here's a song befitting the theme of this newsletter: