The midwest, where I live, is a land of agriculture. It's a place of fields and grass, corn and hay, barns and animals. It's also home to the people who care for the crops, tend the farms, and feed the animals. We care about our work; we enjoy our work. Part of that enjoyment is the atmosphere inside a barn—and the music we play there.
When I feed my horses their morning grain, it's a noisy time. Animals in general love to make noise when they're being fed, and horses in particular are quite loud when anticipating grain time. There's door pounding, impatient stomping, and—once they are actually eating—noisy bucket-banging. Under it all hums the low tone of the barn radio.
Barns are a rough place for music equipment. A barn is a dusty place. There's no wifi. A stereo might get wet, and there's a constant danger of it being knocked onto a cold concrete floor. This is no place for a fine set of speakers. No, barns are still the domain of the simple AM/FM radio.
My own barn radio is really quite old—it was my grandpa's farmhouse radio, kept at his bedside for those nights when he couldn't sleep (which, according to him, was every night), and later was deemed old enough to qualify as a "barn radio." It's been in my barn, in the same spot on the floor, for over 13 years. There's no antenna; a narrow piece of pipe now serves to pull in reception. Spiders like to build their homes above it; more than one ground squirrel has tried to hide behind it. But it plays music, and that's what counts.
For these noisy times when the horses are eating, country music just fits the atmosphere. You have to have something predictable, a sound with a definite pronounced beat so when the music becomes overwhelmed for a moment by a noisy critter, you can still figure out where you are. These are the times that demand the sounds of classic rural tenors like George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Garth Brooks. Those are the times for steel guitars, fiddles, a drum beat, and lyrics about dust and barns and feeding horses. You can ask anyone in the midwest who works in a barn: country music has woven itself into the fabric of farming so finely that you can't find the seam.
But—there's still room for other music.
After the horses finish eating grain—after they've licked the buckets clean and I've thrown halters on them and taken them to their pastures for the day to graze happily in the sunshine—after all that, something amazing happens.
The once-noisy barn becomes completely silent. The motion stops, and nothing moves...except me. This is the time for cleaning the barn, and it's a time for classical music.
A quick turn of the radio dial snags a public radio station playing Debussy's Claire de Lune, and suddenly, the barn takes on a different feel. Not a night and day difference—in the barn, country and classical music feel more like two sides of the same coin—but it has a pastoral feeling. The sun pours in the doorway, the wind whips the hayfields outside, and inside I clean stalls, while the soft, lazy feel of Claire de Lune fills the barn from a tiny radio speaker that seems inadequate for the task, yet does the job. The gentle violins match the waving grass out the windows; the low woodwinds mimic the light breeze that blows the barn aisle, scattering hay bits.
Different music, different chores. Garth for horses, Debussy for sweeping.
Don't ever let anyone tell you that classical isn't as good as country.
They just haven't found the right moment yet.
Daniel Johnson is a Wisconsin-based photographer, writer, and horseperson. You can see his photography work (he does a lot of farm animals!) at foxhillphoto.com. Nocturne in E-flat Major Op. 9, No. 2 is his all-time favorite piece of classical music, and "Wild Horses" is his all-time favorite country music song.