“I’d like to check you for ticks.”

I was taking three days to drive from Florida to upstate New York last week when I heard that line coming out of the radio on the second day. On the first day I had done the respectable thing and searched the dial for NPR and classical music; but they were nowhere to be found after I left Savannah behind, and I was free to go where I always wanted to go anyway – to a country music station. You’re not going to come across a line like “I’d like to check you for ticks” anywhere else, and the same goes for an earlier line in the same Brad Paisley song, “You press that bottle to your lips and I wish I was your beer.”

At first I had an academic thought: this is Petrarchanism updated, a modern day turn on the convention – perfected by Francis Petrarch and passed on to John Donne and many others – of putting yourself in the place of an inanimate object that enjoys an envied proximity to your beloved. But I shook off the pseudo-intellectualism (at least for the moment) and surrendered to a pleasure that gets along quite nicely without the support of hallowed antecedents.

What is the pleasure? First of all, there is the sheer delight – self-indulgent, but earned – in the cleverness of the lyrics: “If I said you have a beautiful body, will you hold it against me? (It’s hard to imagine a neater instance of a purposefully ambiguous pronoun.) Where I’d like to be is “sitting next to you sitting next to me.” (The repetitions and alliterations mime the closeness the singer desires.) “I turn your picture to the wall when I’m lying next to her.” (Lying and lying.)

The lyrics, arresting as they are, do not stand alone. Usually they anchor a story – the motto of one station I had on was “A story in every song” – and that story typically unfolds in a three act drama marked at the end of each act by a refrain that changes meaning with every repetition. A recent example is Emerson Drive’s “Moments.”

In Act 1, the speaker tells us that at the end of a long walk, he was about to cross a bridge when an old homeless man asks him for change. He complies – he wouldn’t need it anyway, he remarks in an aside – and, clearly ashamed, the recipient of his charity declares, “I haven’t always been this way/ I’ve had my moments” — some of which he then recalls in a longish verse.

In Act 2, it becomes clear (although it is never explicitly stated) that our narrator wasn’t going to cross the bridge; he intended to jump. But the homeless man, recognizing “that look in my eyes” just “kept hanging around”; and it is now the singer’s turn to be ashamed and to say, “You know I haven’t always felt this way / I’ve had my moments.”

In Act 3, the singer, who has obviously lived to tell his tale, imagines the old man sitting “‘round a trash can fire” and once again rehearsing his moments … to which has now been added the moment “When a young man almost ended it / I was right there, wasn’t scared a bit / And I helped him to pull through / … I’ve had my moments.”

Not startlingly original, and a bit O. Henryish, but nicely satisfying. After all, where else can you get wordplay, narrative structure, pathos, morality and a small dose of social consciousness in three minutes or less?

You also get an entire culture or, rather, two. There is the culture of the country music industry itself, complete with a capital city (Nashville), a famous venue (the Grand Ole Opry), a roster of legends, several dynasties, celebrity marriages, nasty divorces, innumerable rags to riches stories, ostentatious displays of wealth – clothes, cars, jewels, mansions, theme parks. Then there is the culture country music describes and from which its stars all claim to have emerged – hardscrabble, hard-drinking, hard-playing and hard-praying.

The emphasis is on family values and also on the many ways family values are eroded – by neglect, cheating, crime, poverty, illness, death. The dominant tone is an unapologetic celebration of country - life virtues (honesty, loyalty, friendship, piety) in the company of a nostalgia for the days, now vanished, when those virtues really flourished: She’s gone, “gone like a ‘59 Cadillac, like all the good things that ain’t never coming back.” (You could say, if you were of a mind, that country music is a version of pastoral, a genre that foregrounds a landscape that is understood no longer to exist.)

But if you enter, if only vicariously, into the country music culture, you have to swallow along with your enjoyment some stances and attitudes that might give you pause (or might not, depending on who you are).

It’s a man’s world, even though a large number of the stars and superstars are women. In this world it is men who have the responsibilities and therefore the opportunities to default on them and then write a song about it. In those songs women, especially wives and mothers, are venerated, but it is the kind of veneration reserved for forms of behavior – patience, forbearance, steadfastness, chastity – the singer can’t quite get the hang of. Songs sung from the perspective of a woman are often angry; they are about betrayal and the hard road every woman will inevitably travel: “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman” (Tammy Wynette); “Here’s to the liars and the cheaters and the cold mistreaters” (Danielle Peck).

It’s a Christian world (and for “Christian” read “low Church Protestant”), where invocations of Jesus come as naturally as waking up in the morning. Think of it as Christian radio with all the sin left in. The religion is fierce and deep, and its consolations acknowledge the pain and trouble to which they are a not always adequate response: “God is great, but sometimes life ain’t good.”

It’s a white world. Not racist; there is no minority bashing; there are just no minorities. (Yes, I know about Charlie Pride and Cowboy Troy. Point made.)

It’s a patriotic world, given to flag-waving militarism, and distrustful of foreigners and their ways of life.

It’s a world without ethnicity (except for the southern trailer-trash kind), and everyone’s name sounds like two or three bitten-off anglo-saxon syllables: George Strait, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, Johnny Cash, Randy Travis, Vince Gill, Trent Tomlinson. Many of the names could be reversed and they’d still work fine: Travis Randy, Tritt Travis, Paisley Brad, Gill Vince, Tomlinson Trent.

It’s a “classist” world, with the favored class being lower middle, and the disfavored class being any with pretensions. “They raised her up a lady / But there’s one thing they couldn’t avoid, / Ladies love country boys” (Trace Adkins, or is it Adkins Trace?).

And it is a world that knows everything I have just said about it, revels in it, and puts it all into the songs. Never has a popular music scene been so self-referential. The singers caress the history they spring from, rehearsing the litany of the great singers – Hank, Dolly, Patsy, Waylon, Loretta, Willie, Tammy – whose ranks they hope to join. (Another link to the pastoral; a pastoral poet always begins by invoking a long list of predecessors.)

Of course, I wasn’t thinking about any of this while I was driving. I was listening to the music and accepting its pleasures, one of which was hearing Vince Gill and Dolly Parton sing Parton’s gloriously sentimental “I Will Always Love You” just as I crossed the Mason-Dixon line.