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Zen and the Art of Country Music Appreciation

How reflecting on a memory from the past can bring about hope and healing

Photo by Sam Rios on Unsplash
Photo by Sam Rios on Unsplash

I take off time to time
With those crazy friends of mine
Head out on steel horses
With wheels and we ride

The lyrics being broadcasted from the local country station to my car radio felt eerily familiar for a song I was sure I had never heard. Country music was still new for me, and why I took to listening at midlife is a story for another day. But there I sat in the dark garage across the street from my downtown office, lost in thought over a song about riding motorcycles through Mexico.

I googled the lyrics to find out the name of the artist capable of pouring so much soul into a song. “Cowboys Like Us,” I read, was written by Anthony Smith and Bob Dipierio, and reached the number 2 spot on the music charts when George Strait released it in 2003. Finally getting the greatness of the “King of Country” gave me a rush of satisfaction. Discovering I had decent taste in country music was a nice bonus.

Then the deluge. Memories came flooding back as it dawned on me that the song was familiar because I had lived the events that seeded it, if only partially and vicariously. Unearthing that memory felt like finding a time capsule that I had buried 25 summers ago as a shy girl in a strange land, wondering what the future held in store.

We burn up that road to old Mexico
Blend in with the desert
Just we amigos
And we roll

Sitting alone in my car, parked in the underworld of an urban jungle, I time-traveled back to that night in Old Mexico. The American doctors we met in Guanajuato had been a welcome sight for us college girls during the summer of ’93. We could tell they were special by the enormous truck that hauled their Harleys when they grew tired of burning up the road on their “steel horses.” But they had behaved like gentleman, and I was finally beginning to relax when my roommate jabbed me with her elbow and whispered, “Do you know who’s standing next to you? It’s George Strait.”

George seemed unremarkable at first, except for the reaction he evoked from his admirers. I wasn’t one of them back then, but I was dumbstruck by celebrity and completely clammed up, unable to speak to the man who stood quietly beside me in his black leather jacket. Although he was easygoing during the meal we shared, letting his amigos carry the conversation, I spent that surreal evening wishing I could disappear. The extreme shyness I had suffered from kept me stuck in a cage, trapped in the walls of my own mind.

Cowboys like us sure do have fun
Racin’ the wind, chasin’ the sun
Take the long way around back to square one
Today we’re just outlaws out on the run

Listening to George’s rendition of this experience pushed me deeper into my own memories. I opened up the time capsule and pulled out another memory, closing my eyes and brushing my fingertips across it to feel its contours. I allowed it to sink in and penetrate the corners of my mind, and from that place of seeing, the surface recollection of George was eclipsed by the power of the raw energy he had exuded. The ineffable quality that I had perceived that night was the same one he radiates today in his performances in front of thousands of people.

It would take a lot more life experience for me to appreciate what makes George the star that he is. Now that I do, I regret those missed moments. How I would have enjoyed thanking him for the sense of freedom “Amarillo by Morning” brings to my daily commute, or the enchantment he conveys in “Marina del Rey.” How I wish I had had the presence of mind to tell him that I appreciate the nobility he sees in broken people. But it was impossible to have made those observations back then because I hadn’t understood them or him, or even myself.

There’ll be no regrets, no worries and such
For cowboys like us

George’s voice blew my mind when it triggered the memory of the magnitude of my inner turmoil during those awkward years. I can see now that I hadn’t given him the cold shoulder that night to play games or act demure. I had ignored him because I had been scared of him and everyone else. Trying to shed the box I felt stuck in was the reason I had traveled abroad in the first place. I had hoped to break free, only to discover that I had carted that same box along with me, and to many places afterwards. There’s truth in the axiom, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

Confronting that time of emotional confinement felt like waking up to find myself trapped in a dark chamber with a skeleton I thought was dead and buried, who suddenly turns to me smiling with a sick grin. In that moment, I came face to face with the sad fact that I had spent too many years keeping my distance from people and things I didn’t understand when I could have been relating to them instead.

Take, for example, my early aversion to country music. In assuming it was too common to be any good, I had denied a part of my own Texan heritage. Rather than taking pride in our openness, fiery spirit and unabashed independence, I had dreamed of getting out of Texas. This lack of affection for my home state’s culture can be dismissed as youthful arrogance, but the same blindness afflicts us as grown adults when we let unconscious bias prevent us from seeing the worth of another. After all, it’s impossible to bond with someone when all can you think of is how much you want to get away, even if you have no idea why.

I’ve traveled a long road since then, and the ups and downs have expanded my consciousness and improved the quality of my relationships. I now have the capacity to appreciate the present as a gift, at least some of the time. But the sheer brunt of my epiphany in the parking garage brought me to an even higher level of awareness. As George sings in another song, “Life’s not the breaths you take, but the moments that take your breath away.”

We talk about livin’, babies, and women

All that we’ve lost and all we’ve been givin’

George’s music, it turned out, was anything but “common.” Rather, it reveals the secret of a true artist: the ability to turn the mundane into something magical. Underneath the clichés about women and whiskey, honkytonks and cowboys, he gives voice to the grit of the everyman and the hunger within the human spirit that is common to us all.

Labeling is a human tendency that helps us make efficient decisions, yet hinders our ability to appreciate the fullness of a subject in all of its facets. As Soren Kirerkegaard, father of existentialism, wrote, “By giving me a name, a label, you negate all the other things I could possibly be.” Only by transcending the label, and delving into the grey area between black and white, are we able to perceive the unique blend of dark and light that constitutes the nature of each individual, a one-of-a-kind creation.

In every encounter, we have a choice. We can label, objectify, ignore or otherwise negate the other, or we can invest the effort to see them. Practicing that kind of appreciation has the capacity to create joy out of everyday moments with the people in our lives. Contemplating the originality and value of each soul can transform a regular Joe into a superstar, just as it can help you see the star on the stage as a real person. And if we allow this level of appreciation to flourish in our daily lives, more of us could be living George’s music rather than escaping through it.

We sing about true love, lie about things we ain’t done

Drink one more cold one, come mornin’ get up

And we roll

I know how missed moments can happen because I have let them pass me by. And I believe George understands this better than anyone, as much of his music expresses that same longing for what might have been, if only. It takes my breath away to learn that meditating on one memory and one work of art could open the portal to the potential hidden within every moment. What other wonders, I wonder, will I discover at the end of this country road?

Credit: Lyrics.com, STANDS4 LLC, 2019. “Cowboys Like Us Lyrics.” Accessed September 1, 2019. https://www.lyrics.com/lyric/31105523/George+Strait.

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