Like most kids, I wished I’d been born anywhere but where I was. Bored on hushed Sunday afternoons and pushing myself on the tire swing in our backyard, I constructed elaborate daydreams about my life when I could leave my two-stoplight Deep Southern town behind. I scrubbed my voice clean of its syrupy accent. Dressing in preppy khaki skirts and polos or “artsy” chokers and all black everything, I internally rolled my eyes at dumb hicks who wore cowboy boots and listened to country music. I kept my boyfriends’ hands from traveling south of my Fossil leather belt and applied to colleges up north. I took the good life I had in my sweet town for granted. Like most kids, I was an asshole.
Because irony is God’s favorite literary device, I ended up going to a university in Mississippi. Still, I managed to keep distance between myself and my heritage. I did plenty of living and experimenting in college, but not with music. The farthest I ventured away from rap was the few months a friend gave me lessons in Phish. And then I started seeing Connie.
Con was magnetic, the most charismatic non-celebrity I’ve known to this day. And he was a country boy–a multiple boot-owning, Wrangler-wearing, molasses-voiced country boy.
Our courtship was old-fashioned and consisted of lots of cruising around in his truck. We’d wake up early and take mugs of cinnamon-spiked coffee out to the lake, where we’d try and fail to catch fish, or sip iced teas and watch the sun set. He’d found out early that I hated country music and taken it on himself to show me what I’d been missing, so the soundtracks for those drives tended to be country. He knew better than to throw me headfirst into Merle, instead easing me in with Johnny Cash’s Unchained. I was surprised that I liked it. Still, it was crossover country. Even (especially) the hipsters, a new phenomenon back then, loved it.
Slowly, he introduced other songs by Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, all classic country that he’d grown up listening to and loving. I grew tolerant of it, but there wasn’t anything I requested.
Until the Judds’ “Why Not Me.”
“Why Not Me” was released in 1984, the title track off Naomi and Wynonna Judds’ first studio album. It won the mama-daughter team a Grammy in 1986, and it’s easy to see why. The melody is sweet, and, like almost all of those old country songs, there’s a strong plot. In “Why Not Me,” a Kentucky girl implores the ramblin’ man who’s come back to town to finally kick the dust off his boots and settle down with her.
I loved it. Loved how simple the plucked-out melody was, how that little whine gave it unexpected dimension and a bit of sadness. How the sound of the hand keeping time by slapping the guitar’s body made me feel like I was in the room. I loved the belted “still free,” loved how effortless Naomi and Wynonna’s voices were as they hummed the lalas. How they weren’t obnoxiously twangy like so many posers who move to Nashville and slather on an accent so thick, it gives us real Southerners a bad name. The Judds’ voices sounded like fresh air and hay and sweet tea and sunshine bouncing off a lake and front porch swings. They sounded like home. They sounded like me.
“You’ve been searching from here to Singapore, ain’t it time that you noticed the girl next door baby? You had to see if the world was round…”
I knew I was the rambler in this equation. I’d spent 21 years running from who I was, and looking at my man with his caramel curls and jeans that were sunbleached honestly, from working on the farm, I realized I didn’t want to run anymore. There was–still is–nothing better than driving down some country back road in a ’69 Chevy with the windows down and the Judds on the radio. Nothing better than sitting on the front porch visiting until the lightning bugs come out and you have to go inside before you get et’ up with mosquitoes. Nothing better than the soft, slow way a Southerner speaks or fried chicken and good biscuits or men who open doors for me. All the things I’d disowned about myself and where I was from were things other people were dying to possess.
So I stopped looking for love in the wrong places. I loosened my grip on my accent and bought some red cowboy boots. I had someone who understood everything about me without me having to say a word, from saying hi to anybody I pass in the street to why I feel suffocated if I can’t see the sky. Why not it, indeed?
Though the South has my heart, my body is still roaming. But I’m not worried. The South won’t stop waiting for me to come back home. It’s saving a rocking chair for me.
This is one of more than 50 posts that make up our musical map of the United States, published by region—the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast—by writers who have strongly associated a song with a state.