When I was in fifth-grade, my family and I moved to a far away to a foreign land called Texas. Having grown up in the Northeast, being the daughter of two Yankees who “pahked the cah in Hahvahd yahd,” and suddenly being deposited in the land of big skies, cowboys, and boots was a culture shock for my 10-year-old self. I missed my friends, the clothes I wore were different from everyone around me, and I sounded like a total outsider with my Northeastern accent.
My dad, however, immediately fell in love with the Lone Star State. While he never lost his thick Bostonian accent, he adopted Texas as his beloved second home and was delighted in the new experiences it had to offer: authentic Mexican food, gun racks in the back of pick-up trucks, and football as a religion. My father embraced the changes with enthusiasm, and among all the things he discovered he loved about Texas, country music was what he came to love the most.
Now that my father’s gone, country music is what makes me feel closest to him on the days I miss him so much that it hurts.
As we settled into our lives in our new Texas town, my dad assumed the role of driving me to school, which was a considerable distance from our home. On those mornings, we’d listen to the local radio, and the sounds of Patty Loveless, George Strait, and Reba McEntire would fill the car. We each had our favorite singers and songs and, back then, we didn’t have the option of downloading the songs to our phones or listening to CDs in the car.
If we wanted to listen to country music, we had to do it in the car.
And so we did.
Through my tough adolescent years, the silence often brought on by my teenage angst would be lessened as Holly Dunn sang “Daddy’s Hands” or George Straight would croon “Love Without End.” As I’d get out of the car — eager to put distance between my father, who seemingly didn’t understand my teenager troubles — I’d catch a glimpse of my dad driving away, still listening to our common ground, and I’d grudgingly smile, knowing deep down that he cared.
We continued to listen to country music together as I got older, and when I went off to college, which included cross country trips when he drove me to my Northeast college. In the mountains of Tennessee and the hills of Virginia, we talked about life, dreams and current events as Garth Brooks, Randy Travis and Alan Jackson created the soundtrack of what would become my fondest memories. When our favorites came on, we’d turn the radio up, sing along, and laugh at how off-key his voice sounded.
Country music became a language that we could mutually speak, no matter what was going on in our lives. My dad, often gruff and blunt, softened when country music played. Many times, I’d see a side of him that I didn’t see in our day-to-day family chaos.
A deeply religious man, he loved old country hymns and songs that reminded him of his faith. To this day, I can’t listen to Brad Paisley’s duet with Dolly Parton, “When I Get Where I’m Going,” without tears streaming down my face. Country music showed me that my quietly religious father was strong in his convictions.
My father took me to see all the greats in concert, too. My dad was by my side at a rodeo arena as we heard a little known band called The Judds sing their now signature song “Grandpa” just before it hit the airwaves. I’ll never forget my excitement when Reba took the stage in her show stopping number, “Fancy,” red dress and all, and my dad winked at me because he was just as excited as I was. And when I stood next to my dad as Alabama belted out “If You’re Gonna Play In Texas,” I could tell how much the moment mattered to him.
When my dad passed away, I was reminded of a little known song sung by Trisha Yearwood called “The Song Remembers When.” In it, she sings of a time when she and an ex-boyfriend were high in the mountains, singing along to a song together. She details the heartbreak of losing that love and reminds the listener that no matter how far a road takes you away from someone, you will always remember the songs you shared in your relationship. Memories you’d long forgotten are often unearthed when you listen to a song that takes your right back to a special moment.
That is what country music does for me: It helps me remember my dad and the special moments I shared with him as a kid. As the years pass and little details I cherish about him fade, a couple of bars from one of our shared favorites takes me right back to when he was robust and filled with life. There are times when I’m at a stoplight and I’d swear that I can see him sitting next to me in the passenger seat, singing along in his thick Boston accent.
And during those moments, I manage to smile through my tears.
This post originally appeared on LittleThings.com, Fall 2016.