Several years ago, Country Stampede might have been my worst nightmare.
I didn’t like country music at all growing up. Maybe it’s because it was so pervasive in rural Kansas. My area of the state didn’t have many of the latest tunes playing on the airwaves. We were still playing Shania on a more than regular basis long after her biggest wave of success in the ‘90s.
Bits and pieces country were OK, but I always objected when my mom decided to play it on the car radio. I objected because if I fell asleep to country, I would wake up with a headache from too much twang. Somehow, headaches never occurred with any other genre.
My distaste for country held strong until the middle of my college years. I noticed intense cravings to listen to it in the summer, when it seemed appropriate. If country had a designated season it would be summer because of all those fishing references.
Something changed when I started planting my roots in Manhattan. Last summer, I interviewed for this position during Country Stampede weekend.
It was Stampede Friday and I didn’t do a good job of avoiding the traffic at Bluemont Avenue and Tuttle Creek Boulevard when I went to Walmart, another non-safe place to be during Stampede.
Either the light at that intersection wasn’t working, or it was intentionally turned off. I was surrounded by Stampedians, no way out.
At Walmart, I walked in the store (for what I can’t remember), and hundreds of Budweiser-carrying, real and faux “rednecks” were walking around.
This must have been an official beerrun time, sounded off with a gunshot.
Right then, I forgot that Stampede was going on and for a minute thought Manhattan was normally like this. Since Manhattan has a reputation across Kansas as a country and agricultural center, the notion wasn’t unfounded.
The Walmart experience was a culture shock until I realized this was the once-ayear deal that people from all over flocked to.
Though different, Stampedians gave the place a positive and lively (if drunken) energy, and it was quite nice.
These people were happy to be camping for days, watching a huge lineup of some of the most famous country artists.
I officially moved to Manhattan and found Topeka’s classic country station, 106.9. It was the gateway drug.
I started secretly listening to it while I was making trips to Manhattan before I moved, enjoying Reba McEntire’s “Fancy” and George Strait’s “All My Exes Live in Texas.”
But then I started working at The Mercury, and months into my first year, I ended up at the country-est place there could be in this town: Dirty Dawg Saloon.
I blame my co-workers Josh Kinder and Megan Moser.
As I know it, the saloon was Josh’s thing, with Megan going on occasion. I joined and kept going. Some other Mercury folk go as well on once in awhile.
Going to Dirty Dawg’s was an escape from normal life. It was atypical for me, which is why I think it stuck.
The enjoyment was being able to sit or stand around the dance floor and watch young people in cowboy boots do seemingly dangerous country swing dance moves. I’m talking flips and lifts.
It’s fair to say I have a slight obsession with watching country swing dancing now (so does Megan). There is an appeal I can’t quite put my finger on.
After a solid three months of going to the saloon, country wasn’t something that annoyed me. It was something I liked.
I was converted.
My newfound country fandom extends through any decade, popular or lesser known. I enjoy George Jones’s beautiful tone and I’m a big fan of the banjo, stretching my tastes to bluegrass. Whenever my cousin plays her violin, the song I always want to hear is “Orange Blossom Special.”
I’m also watching the show “Nashville,” which makes me desperately want to visit the city.
The signs were all there. I just hadn’t realized that I was a country music fan. I’ve come to accept it and embrace it. I live in the state’s country music mecca after all.
God bless Country Stampede.