When I was eleven years old I moved from New York to Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was quite a different world from the suburbs of New York City where I had spent my childhood years. I was excited because I was finally going to see the city in which I had been born. My family moved to Tulsa just before I was born and moved away from it when I was only two years old. Now at the age of eleven, I had no knowledge and no memories of the place.
Tulsa was a different world from the world that I had known; I quickly adapted, however, to my new home. The temperatures in the summer often went well over 100 degrees F. The food also was different. Chili, barbeque, and fried chicken were served everywhere. I learned to like most everything about my new place of residence, except for the country music I heard everywhere around me. I never listened to it on my transistor radio, preferring instead to listen to the songs of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and others on KAKC “Top Forty Countdown.” Country music, however, seemed to be loved by everyone else except for my parents and all of my peers.
When the football coach of Edison High School in Tulsa prepared our team to play the team from Muskogee High School, he wanted to stir up the emotions of his team toward their upcoming opponent. To do so, he played Merle Haggard’s hit country single “Okie from Muskogee” over and over and over again before, during, and after the practices until the players from Edison couldn’t stand even the mention of the name “Muskogee.” As best I can remember, his plan worked and Edison defeated Muskogee.
Seven years after my graduation from high school, and after my graduation from college and seminary, I moved back to Oklahoma. For a year I worked as a chaplain in Oklahoma City. During that year I first learned to appreciate the music that everyone else there seemed to like. During the Oklahoma State Fair (after the rodeo!), we attended a wonderful concert by Charlie Pride. It was rare then, as it is now to hear an African-American sing country music. His voice was like velvet. This concert did not bring about a sudden conversion to country music. My conversion, if you can call it that, was really more gradual than sudden.
I am sure you have heard the expression “what goes around, comes around.” Maybe that explains, although I doubt it, why a year after our move to Oklahoma City, my bishop placed me in charge of two small Episcopal Churches in Eufaula and Muskogee, Oklahoma.
I might have been born in Tulsa, some 70-80 miles away, but I in no way was a country boy. In the town of Eufaula, however, I stood out like a sore thumb. My tweed coats and khaki pants just did not fit in. I soon bought a cowboy hat and a pair of boots to wear with blue jeans and my clergy shirt so that I didn’t look so out of place.
At the same time my radio listening habits also began to change mostly because the local radio stations played only country music. Within a year, I began to preach regularly on KCES, a local station in Checotah, Oklahoma. If I wanted to sound like the other local preachers, I had to learn to say “Jesus” with three syllables. I still had no intention, however, of becoming an “Okie from Muskogee.”
While continuing to listen to rock music, I began at first to listen to the country music of Waylon Jennings and Don Williams —and later George Strait and Alan Jackson—gradually branching out into bluegrass. It really didn’t take much for me to begin to like the music, once I allowed myself the possibility. The lyrics of country songs often tell a story that emotionally moves the listener. Some songs are happy, others are sad, some are silly, and some tell deep truths about living and loving. That music helps me connect to my own feelings and emotions like no other
What I thought I had to avoid or to get far away from as possible had never really left me. It had grown along with me. What I thought I didn’t like, even hated, had actually become dearer to me than I had ever realized.
My changing attitude towards country music is similar to the way many of us relate to our families. When we are first out on our own we may want to move as far away as we can from our parents or other family members in order to begin a life independent of their influence or control. As we grow older, we begin to realize how dear these same family members are to us and we may want both to be in closer proximity to them and to deepen our emotional ties to with them.
It is important to remember that you may not be fully aware of what really matters to you. We are never too old to change or to learn to appreciate new things. Never assume that what you disliked at the age of eighteen, you must continue to dislike into old age. Our God who creates, redeems, and sanctifies is forever offering new opportunities and new hope to us so that we can live full, abundant, and joyous lives in the present and in the years to come. God often calls us to open our hearts and our minds!