Karma and Country Music

Do you believe in karma? That idea that there is a guiding hand of fate, which can bring the consequences of your actions back to you as a payment or a punishment? Personally, I’ve always been more inclined to believe in chance than karma. I can believe that the sheer size and complexity of the universe has the power to bring things together in an infinite number of infinitely strange ways without an underlying force with a master plan and a taste for revenge. However, a few events in my life have made me wonder about this…

When I was in middle and high school, my little circle of friends had one ground rule: the host picks the music. When you were at someone else’s house (and later, riding in someone else’s car), you kept your hands away from the radio dial. This rule wasn’t something we ever discussed or took a vote on, but all were aware of its presence in our little clique. It started out innocently enough under the guise of simply being polite. But in time it became a necessity. And a major factor in that necessity had to do with me.

During those years several of my closest friends were listening to country music, while I was beginning my descent into the depths of classic rock. Now there is quite a bit of distance between Garth Brooks and The Beatles. This is not a matter of value–although at the time I probably would have said differently–it is merely a confluence of factors, among them time period, geographic location, culture, direct musical influences, and the products of two very different songwriters. But at the age of 16, bridging the gap between them was nearly impossible. My friends quickly grew tired of listening to All You Need Is Love, although all things considered they put up with it pretty well. But this was the height of my music snobbery and I had little to no tolerance for music I didn’t like. I also had (still have) a streak of passive aggressiveness. I couldn’t stand most of what they were listening to, but I kept it to myself… at least, I thought I did. I never touched my friends’ radios. I listened to what felt like tons of songs that I couldn’t stand and rarely asked to listen to something else. I was a perfect angel, right? Wrong.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t very aware of my body in those days and was equally unaware of my facial expressions. I was also blissfully ignorant of my habit of audibly sighing when I was feeling frustrated. The combination of grimace and drawn-out sigh tried their patience more than once and earned me a few terse admonishments from one friend in particular. To my knowledge, those conversations were the only time our little rule was spoken of.

Now I do take full responsibility for my own actions, conscious or unconscious. But I have to say that I do remember more than one occasion where the opening line of Help! was frantically echoed from the backseat of my car. One of my old friends still can’t stand The Beatles to this day and he isn’t shy about telling me so.  And another one was about ready to flog me for putting Here, There, and Everywhere on her wedding reception mix. She only relented because it was actually an appropriate song for the occasion and wasn’t one of the ones played on repeat during our high school years.

About now is the cue for the peanut gallery to pipe up and ask, “What the hell does this have to do with karma?” Well sit tight, kiddos. I promise I’ll get to my point soon.

A few years after graduation, when my friends from high school had scattered across the country to seek their fame, fortune, and bachelor’s degrees, I was offered my first job just a few months before my 21st birthday. My parents had been real big on the idea of school being my job, so I started my resume a few years behind the pack. I was already keeping pretty busy in those days with a full course load and volunteering as a lighting tech for a risqué little amateur stage production (another story, another time), but I was fairly chomping at the bit to earn a bit of money on my own. So when my friend offered me a the chance of a job at the radio station she worked for, I didn’t stop to think about the station’s programming format. It was a job that didn’t involve taking tickets or flipping burgers. I jumped at it.

And just what did I jump at? Well, it turned out that I accepted a job as an overnight sound board operator at… wait for it… a country music station. Okay, you can stop snickering now. Really. I mean it! I signed myself up for a brutal once-a-week shift on Saturday nights from midnight to 6 am, pushing buttons and loading CDs of music that I had been groaning about in my friends’ bedrooms for years. Life is pretty funny sometimes, isn’t it?

For a first job it was interesting, if not glamorous. I was responsible for keeping five different stations going all night, but four of them had used computer programming and previously recorded DJs. I mainly just had to call a grouchy tech guy if a glitch caused one of them to go off air. However, the country station was still on manual, which meant I had to stay in there for the whole shift–all 6 long hours of it. I pulled and played CDs in clear plastic cartridges and commercials on 3.5 inch floppy disks, a process which required just enough of my concentration that I couldn’t focus on much else. I never got a to say a word on air, but I did get to listen to a few *ahem* unique late-night callers. You’d be surprised what people were willing to talk about with a DJ at 4 in the morning. I kept myself awake with a carefully measured liquid diet of 2 cans of Jolt Cola and 1 can of Diet Dr. Pepper. This was calculated to provide just the right amount of caffeine for getting through my shift, driving back across town without hitting a tree, and falling asleep safely in my own bed. This was far from a fine art though and more often than not I fell into bed only to lay there and playback half the songs I’d aired during the night. At first I thought I’d go crazy listening to Toby Keith and Tim McGraw. Thankfully this time no one was there to watch me grimace and whine, turning the volume down as low as I could without risking missing my cue. When it got to be too much, I’d run down the hall and stick my head in the classic rock booth for a little break. I stuck it out there for over a year.

Can you guess what happened? No, I didn’t run screaming into the desert night never to be heard from again. And no, I didn’t take an ax to the sound board one morning. I can’t really say that I grew to like it… more like I made peace with it. When you are stuck by yourself in a radio booth in an empty building (and you happen to have the paranoid imagination of a five-year-old), you do what any sane person would do:  you turn it up and you sing along! You find those songs that don’t make you want to rip your hair out and you get a little into it. I would even sing along with songs I didn’t like, although that was mainly because I knew every single word. An observant stranger walking down the hall and peeping through the window would have probably mistaken me for a fan.

But if my friends could have seen me, I would never have heard the end of it. Just the mental image of me being forced to play and listen to country music for hours on end (for minimum wage, no less) was met with wicked chuckles and several remarks somewhere along the lines of “just desserts.” I can’t even imagine the ribbing I’d have gotten if one of them had walked into that booth in the middle of the night. Even I could feel the irony dripping from the walls and occasionally wore a sheepish grin during my private sing-along sessions.

In the end I left the job not because I reached my limit, but because it was wreaking havoc with my sleep schedule. I needed to focus more on my last year of undergrad and I had found a better job working for an astronomy professor. To this day I do not listen to country music. I do not own any country albums. And I have never purchased a country song. In fact, searching for songs online that I put on the air was a little much for me. But I do credit the experience with teaching me music tolerance and not just for country music, but for a whole slew of other genres I would never have given a listen to before this.

So, do you think it was karma? Did I bring this on myself by groaning every time my friends put on a CD? I don’t know. But I think it is safe to say that a lesson in tolerance is always worth learning. And now in honor of karma  and the validity of my friends’ music choices, I’ll leave you with one of the songs I actually really grew to like during my time in the country music industry. Sometimes I would even play it when it wasn’t on the official song list. Enjoy!

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