Monday, September 24, 2007

NYT: "Nashville's Band of Outsiders"

Ann Patchett's article for the New York Times Travel Magazine, "Band Of Outsiders", is a lazy piece of writing that irritated my crotchety side enough to write this overlong response. The article profiles the neighborhood of East Nashville, where alt-country/Americana artists like Todd Snider and Gillian Welch have made their homes. A fine subject for a travel magazine, but the danger signs of solipsism appear early. In the first paragraph she claims, "Carrie Underwood's album has sold over six million copies, and yet I don't know a single person who owns it." How is this relevant to anything, aside from her own socio-economic status? Bizarrely, she uses this observation to lead into her disappointment with contemporary country. Perhaps I'm being old-fashioned, but I prefer to actually listen to albums before I make critical judgments, not depend upon my friends' I-Pod playlist.

She continues, "Of course I like the old country music - Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Hank Sr. But I cannot connect the dots, in fact I believe there are no dots, between Patsy and Carrie." This sentence is enraging on many levels, but lets start with the first phrase, "of course". It's indicative of a general attitude toward the genre among my generation - it's expected that you listen to and revere Cash, Hag, and Hank, and expected to revile any popular country coming out today. It's not necessary to listen to any of it, or come to an independent conclusion. There's a pre-sold mythology around the old guys, and that's what's sold - that outlaw aura. So of course she likes them - she's supposed to. The second half of the sentence is equally baffling, a connect-the-dots straw man argument. Sure, you might not be able to connect the dots from Patsy to Carrie, but what about to Miranda Lambert, Chely Wright, Julie Roberts, Lee Ann Womack, Sara Evans, Pam Tillis, Dolly Parton, Sunny Sweeney, et. al. It's like saying you can't see the connection beween Bach and Andrew Lloyd Webber. And even with all that said, I rather like Carrie Underwood. But fine, she's no Patsy.

Here's another nugget, desribing singer/songwriter Todd Snider: "The man is the troubador for our times, an inventive cross of Dylan and Kristofferson with just the right dash of Tom Petty thrown in." I'd like to know what the "right dash" of Tom Petty would be. His hair? And does our time need a troubador? The worst line comes later though, in her description of duo Jeff Burke and Vida Wakeman: "Theirs are the songs you long to hear late at night on the interstate, in pool halls and smoky whiskey bars." This is the worst kind of romanticization, falling in love with the myth surrounding the music rather than the music itself. How many pool halls and smoky whiskey bars have her non-Carrie Underwood listening friends been to? Who do you think truckers are listening to late at night on the interstate, Toby Keith or Todd Snider? What's more authentic? She romanticizes the working class lifestyle without actually engaging with why that class adores mainstream Nashville music (the big reason: it's good).

I feel bad for the artists she profiles, all of whom deserve better. She asks members of the Old Crow Medicine Show where they like to play the most, and they respond with the Grand Ole Opry House. Ann replies: "It surprises me that it would be his kind of place." Surprising, because in her head, the Opry is equivalent with a giant corporate arts-devouring entity, while in reality it's a national treasure, an 82 year old repository of American hillbilly music - one of the greatest gifts the U.S. has given the world.

All of this is not to say that Nashville doesn't have problems, far from it. There are plenty of established veterans who have had to move on to independent labels (Hag, Tillis) because of corporate intransigence, but that doesn't mean there are no great popular country artists anymore. Just listen to some Brad Paisley, Miranda Lambert, or Julie Roberts. They can tell stories, and tell them well. It's a rare skill.


Blogger Jesse said...

Isn't it dangerous to just casually toss off that the main reason mainstream country is popular with its audience is because it's good? If you don't think so, I have a jillion lame Chuck Klosterman essays to recommend to you. Doesn't that kind of pseudo-populism indulge in a similar kind of romanticizing of the working class? Implying that nothing they like could be boring or manipulative?

I don't really have an opinion about mainstream country music except that the mainstream country music I heard when working at a Holiday Inn was 90% awful and the mainstream country music that friends have put on mix CDs has been 90% awful -- and I do tire of the hipster "I like real country music" attitude that really means "I am familiar with Johnny Cash." So I'm not defending what sounds like a perfectly naive and myopic Times article. But I would have a hard time believing that country music is that elusive field of art that is mostly a meritocracy.

5:10 PM  
Blogger P.L. Kerpius said...

Well, thanks for bringing this to my attention. Haven't read the NYTimes article, but I don't have to to know how much people want to hate Carrie Underwood. I don't listen to country music much, and don't know any Underwood songs, but it's impossible to deny that she has an amazing voice (obviously her record stats are proving this too.)

I actually kind of hated Carrie during AmIdol, but "hated" in a "I'm more into Bo Bice" sort of way. Friendly competition really. But that's neither here nor there.

Newsweek had a profile of Evan Rachel Wood the other week, and she bluntly said how terrible the public can be for "waiting for you to fail." 'Rachel Wood and Underwood are obviously in different realms here, but it means the same thing to me--that any new artist that's legitimately good (and of course "Hollywood Pretty") is automatically disliked because they don't have a long history behind them. Nevermind that they have the integrity and gumption to aim for one in the first place.

Typical hater.

8:51 PM  
Blogger R. Emmet Sweeney said...

Jesse -

I don't think my aside was dangerous. Cheap, maybe, but not dangerous. It was a vast generalization, one intended to get people to actually listen to the music instead of dismiss it out of hand. So sure, not all of mainstream country music is superb (what genre can claim that?)- but a lot of it is at least worth listening to and engaging with , and the level of craft in the songwriting is incredible. I'm just asking people to listen to the songs.

And if respecting the intelligence of the public is "pseudo-populism" or romantic, then I'm guilty many times over.

And I never stated that Nashville is a meritocracy. The last paragraph in my post clearly states this. It's big business, and what sells takes precedence. I have no problem with this.

12:10 AM  

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