Just because George Jones is awesome. This is not stated often enough.
Who knew anything good could come from Cincinnati?
Will Wilkinson writes about country music and, as is typical when anyone tries to connect it with politics, it’s pure projection. Bathing it in the kind of pseudo-scientific data points that prove virtually nothing except for wonky writers’ desire to be taken seriously, Wilkinson neither understands country music nor the people who listen to it. His conclusion is basically that country music provides simple upbeat messages for people who want simplicity in their lives. Wilkinson is sure to separate himself from such desires by pointing out, totally gratuitously, that he listens to country music in the car when he drives to the store to buy bok choy. Charles Murray wouldn’t approve of the food choices, but he would approve of the connections between bok choy and not real white people who country music isn’t made for.
Wilkinson goes on:
My conjecture, then, is that country music functions in part to reinforce in low-openness individuals the idea that life’s most powerful, meaningful emotional experiences are precisely those to which conservative personalities living conventional lives are most likely to have access. And it functions as a device to coordinate members of conservative-minded communities on the incomparable emotional weight of traditional milestone experiences.
And what is this country music of which he speaks? For Wilkinson at least, it’s clearly country radio. That’s fine I guess if you want to define it that narrowly.
One problem here is the connections in the minds of a lot of people between country music and rural people. And certainly the roots of country music were in rural America. But that’s long ago. During the recent period of country music history, which could probably be dated from Garth Brooks’ first album in 1989, the genre has marketed itself as suburban music for suburban people. Although the imagery of rural America is in country music videos, the prime market for modern country music is suburban women. The music itself is essentially recycled 70s butt rock with a little fiddle and a twangy voice.
This suburban country music is also reflected in the lyrics. The idea that people see country music as “upbeat” is funny to me. Has there ever been a genre of American music that so reveled in depression and sadness? I’m thinking for instance of Hank Snow’s 1964 album Songs of Tragedy or the many songs about dead soldiers released during and after World War II, most famously “Soldier’s Last Letter,” made famous by Ernest Tubb. Of course, that’s long gone. Rather, today’s country radio provides messages that fit in very well with the modern Republican voter: reinforcing what they see as traditional values based in an idealized rural setting that they see as threatened by B. Hussein Obama and his Weatherman-loving, Derrick Bell-hugging ways with his health care and such.
The conservative movement has been cannibalizing conservative art for years now, to the point where I’d say country music is far from a victory of conservative cultural or artistic success and is instead a mirror image of what conservative politics have become: easy and unthinking. No depth, all surface. Superficial and insular. Maybe I’m wrong, but building an entire genre on the back of the idea that regurgitating the same sound on top of the same basic premise over and over again hardly strikes me as a triumph of cultural conservatism.
Steph at Gang of 12 makes similar observations, noting after posting Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City”:
Basically, it’s a contrast between real experience and made up ones. The Bare song is definitely about missing home and a contrast between an idyllic (even if it wasn’t) remembered past and place that has been lost or left vs. a cold (literally) urban or changing world. In many ways it’s not so different in theme from something like the terrible Luke Bryan or Justin Moore songs that Will cites. But the Bare song reflects reality in a quite different way. It’s not some pretend idea of what the old days were or the country was like in a triumphalist “we are more American than you” kind of culture war. Nor is it pretty much entirely made by people who never experienced the kind of world they are writing about or enjoyed by people who live in suburbs but like to identify with this imagined past or real America. It’s more about the real changes and the underlying reasons why change is seen as scary or destructive to many.
This is also why references to Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard are effectively irrelevant in any discussion of modern country music. It’s not the same genre of music. Hauling out Cash or Willie to say that country music is not necessarily conservative obfuscates the point. Those guys are dead or old and came out of an entirely different culture and musical forms. Moreover, not only would Cash not fit into the country music business in 2012, but he didn’t fit in during the 70s either, when he was pushed aside (not that the music he was making at that time was deserving by and large) for the Barbara Mandrells of the world who were laying the groundwork for Shania Twain, et al.
While I don’t look to my musicians for political leadership (see the constantly wandering and incoherent political leanings of people like Neil Young and Merle Haggard for a couple of good reasons), there’s no question that country music, however we define it, has always more or less bent conservative, with a freak leftist like Kristofferson being the exception that proves the rule. I’m certainly not claiming otherwise. But I have a huge problem when writers who don’t even understand the musical form attempt to draw big conclusions about the culture war or American political life from a corporatized, test-marketed form of music that hasn’t had an original or interesting voice make a commercial splash in two decades.
It is with great sadness that I have to write this obituary for the great Alaskan songwriter Buddy Tabor. It was only with my link to his song “3 Strikes You’re Out,” pointing out the hypocrisy of Rush Limbaugh that commenters notifying me that Tabor died last month of lung cancer at the age of 63.
A man who I believe was one of the 5 greatest living American songwriters in the early 21st century and nearly completely unknown outside of Alaska, I only knew of him because a good friend of mine moved to Skagway and sent me a tape of his amazing album “Abandoned Cars and Broken Hearts.” There are certain times in every music fanatic’s life when you hear something and are instantly arrested by it. This might happen to me every 2 or 3 years. Less than 10 times in my life. This was one of those times. I remember, I popped it on with another friend of mine over and he had the same reaction. I spread his music the best I could to various Albuquerque people, probably not more than a few, but I’m glad I was able to do so. I would have told people to buy his albums, but that wasn’t really possible. He wasn’t online and I never found a way to buy his albums. My friend in Skagway channeled them to me until he left; Buddy may have released another album after that but I have no way of knowing.
I started writing about him when I started blogging at Alterdestiny. Somehow he found out about it and gave me a call out of the blue one night. Occasionally, really cool things happen through blogging. Not very often, but it happens. At that time, I was a complete nobody in the blogging world so it was really great that he called and thanked me for the nice words. It was a short conversation but one that was memorable–Buddy Tabor was a hilariously cranky man. He started talking about how terrible most singer-songwriters were (this is true) and how the music industry was not worth making a living in because the clubs and bars where you were forced to play in front of drunk people was so dispiriting that he wanted to quit (hard to blame him). He wanted me to come up to see him play one of his rare shows in the lower 48, in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. I was living in Santa Fe at that time, but my life was literally falling apart around me and I just couldn’t make it up there. This was the fall of 2005, probably the worst time in my life. I’ll always regret not seeing that show.
Buddy wrote a lot of amazing songs. Unfortunately, the very rare nature of his performances and very low record sales means that I can’t link to many of them. Here’s a couple though.
“Black Crow Night” is off his wonderful album “Earth and the Sky,” of which I wish I could link to the title song. I do want to at least quote some lines from the lyrics from that title song.
“We embrace the unexpected
Of life’s great mystery
Standing in acceptance
Is when we are set free.
Free to love you through our pain
Free to love you through our tears
Free to love you through the passing of our years.
Earth and the Sky, Earth and the Sky
Earth and the Sky, Earth and the Sky
Nothing lasts forever but the Earth and the Sky.”
“Black Crow Night” is one of Buddy’s many quality songs about indigenous people. He was a white guy from Virginia but his wife was Navajo. This was his one attempt I think to make a video of some kind. Say what you will about it, the song is pretty great.
Buddy could also write a mean political song, particularly later in his career as he, like many of us, became more angry at where the nation was heading. “Corporate Domination” is as good a song for Occupy as anything I’ve heard. A classic of the political genre if you ask me.
If I can think of one song for Buddy to leave to, I would choose the song he wrote for his friend Townes Van Zandt after that great songwriter’s death, “New Fallen Snow.” This is a live version that someone recorded and recorded a homemade video for. Those who know me well know that although I have zero musical talent of my own, songs are a very important part of my life. I chose the songs very carefully for my wedding reception and dinner. And I’ve thought, and I realize this is a bit morbid, that if I am ever to suffer a long-term illness where I can truly prepare to leave this world, I would choose a series of songs to play at my funeral. This is one of them.
“Raise your glasses high/with a prayer on your lips
I won’t be back again my friends/no I never shall return here again.”
Buddy Tabor, RIP.
This seems a good time to post this song by the great and utterly unknown songwriter Buddy Tabor, who paints houses in Juneau and writes amazing songs. This is not really one of my favorites, but it does remind that Rush is a horrible person and a shameless hypocrite about drug use as well as women.
It’s not like we don’t already know that the legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter is amazing. But he’s also super cool for playing a big role in the American Federation of Musicians attempt to get jazz club owners to pay into a retirement fund for aging jazz musicians. Of course the club owners are outraged–they actually claim jazz musicians want to take care of their own retirement!!! Um, right. Anyway, a clip of unionist and bass deity Ron Carter to end the evening.
You know the dilemma, which we may call the Polanski Problem — what do you do when you find out that a gifted artist who has done a lot of a great work you admire is a terrible person? My answer, in general, is to not deny oneself the art while also not exonerating the artist personally.
Anyway, with Chris Brown there’s no talented asshole problem, since he’s just an asshole.
BELL, Calif. — When thieves broke into the high school music room here this week, they cut through the bolts on all the storage lockers and ripped two doors off their frames. But they didn’t touch the computer or the projector or even the trumpets.
“It was strictly a tuba raid,” said Rolph Janssen, an assistant principal.
Bell High School is only the most recent victim in a string of tuba thefts from music departments. In the last few months, dozens of brass sousaphones — tubas often used in marching bands — were taken from schools in Southern California.
Though the police have not made any arrests, music teachers say the thefts are motivated by the growing popularity of banda, a traditional Mexican music form in which tubas play a dominant role.
I don’t want to make light of crime, particularly the theft of valuable instruments from schools that cannot afford replacements.
On the other hand, there is something refreshing about an instrument like the tuba becoming so valued to perform music in this nation that people will resort to crime to acquire one. Could a wave of oboe-based crime be next?
…I suggest we add “conservatives rapping“:
After all, there’s nothing wrong with a “knicker” joke among a room of wealthy white Republicans and that one black guy.
UPDATE II: For the sake of comparison, here’s your modern conservative movement in two images. First, immediately before (1:49) the “knicker” joke:
Second, here’s immediately after (1:57) the “knicker” joke:
That’s where this “rapper” is asking that one black guy “What? I can’t say ‘knickers’?” I’d be indignant too, I suppose, if I wasn’t allowed to proudly be the provocative asshole I am.
I had an interesting twitter exchange (@ErikLoomis) today with Andy Bowen (@andymbowen) about John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. I was listening to Ornette’s “The Shape of Jazz to Come” this morning and we started chatting and a really good question came up. Why exactly is John Coltrane so much more listened to today than Ornette Coleman? The young jazz listener probably enters the genre primarily through Miles Davis and John Coltrane, then maybe into Bill Evans or Duke Ellington or Herbie Hancock, and then may or may not explore in various ways from there. That’s a generalization, but one that seems not too far off based on the many jazz fans I know who are my age, former students, etc. My own experience listening to jazz, beginning when I was maybe 18 or 19, was with Coltrane, then into Miles, and then I found myself more attracted to the wilder stuff, so I began listening to Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Sonny Sharrock and more modern people like Bill Frisell, William Parker, etc. Then later I moved back into the 50s and early 60s. Yet even my knowledge of Ornette’s deeper catalog isn’t all that great.
Anyway, why Coltrane? That’s not to say John Coltrane isn’t amazing. I do think that Coltrane has one huge weakness that Miles didn’t–he’s the jazz version of a ball hog, dominating the music in a way that Miles never did. That’s his strength as well and possibly his ultimate appeal. But rather, why Coltrane and not Coleman? Was Coltrane the clearly more popular bandleader in 1967, when he died? “The Shape of Jazz to Come” is as iconic an album as “Giant Steps” but Ornette seems a clearly secondary figure in the popular history of jazz (as opposed to the real jazz listener’s understanding of the genre).
So to repeat simply–why Coltrane and not Coleman?
All of this is really an attempt to get our valued commenter Howard to answer the question for me, as well as to start whatever kind of jazz conversation people want to have, which we don’t do enough of around here.
There are two types of criticism I find particularly irritating. On the one hand — this was particularly prevalent in Seattle alt-weeklies when I was a grad student — you have criticism that isn’t really about the music/movie purportedly being discussed but about what the critic thinks liking or disliking the art in question will say about your social status. On the other hand, there’s the faux-populist criticism that assumes that if you like any art less popular or more complex than Transformers 2 then you must be some kind of poseur arguing in bad faith. What makes Chuck Kolsterman’s TuneYards piece so special is that it manages to combine both of these angles (with a little Abe Simpson for seasoning.)
The thing has, at least, occasioned plenty of excellent writing that also actually tells you something about the band. Scott Creney, among many excellent points, notes Klosterman’s sexism (“At the top of Chuck’s list of relevant facts: Is she hot or not? One can assume this was not one of Chuck’s primary concerns when he started listening to LCD Soundsystem.” See also Jen Girdish.) Maura Johnston is excellent on Klosterman’s critical incompetence. And by critical incompetence, I don’t mean that his evaluation is wrong (he claims unconvincingly to like the album and it would be perfectly reasonable not to in any case) but that there’s no evidence he’s listened to it carefully even once. (The lyrics aren’t “indecipherable” and they really aren’t “asexual”; you’d think “my man likes me from behind” wouldn’t be too subtle even for a Brett Michaels fan.) Anyway, while Creney is also good on this point, my minor contribution is to point out that the entire premise of the article — to summarize it is to make it seem more coherent than it is, but roughly that people will be embarrassed to have liked whokill if Garbus doesn’t make a lot of better records that are also popular — is built on a foundation of 100% pure bullshit:
This happens all the time. It now seems super-funny that so many people once believed Arrested Development was among the most important bands of the early 1990s. The idea of anyone advocating the merits of Fischerspooner now seems totally ridiculous. It somehow seems crazy that Cornershop was previously viewed as luminous, even though their songs still sound good to me. It’s just an impossible problem: We always want to reward art for being innovative, but most artistic innovations are not designed to hold up over time. They exist as temporary reactions to other things happening within the culture. And that means they will seem goofy and dated when the culture changes again.
Let’s take these one at a time. I suppose very few people would strongly defend the merits of Fischerspooner now, but then very few people did at the time if their grand total of zero top 40 (let alone top 10) Pazz&Jop finishes is any indication. With respect to Cornershop, what happened seems clear — it took Singh five years to come up with a follow-up to When I Was Born for the Seventh Time, and while Handcream for a Generation was also a very good record it lacked another “Brimful of Asha” that could grab public or extensive critical attention. But, anyway, since Klosterman doesn’t cite anyone (including himself) who’s embarrassed for having liked Cornershop, and since if you liked When I Was Born at the time I’ll bet you still will even if you haven’t thought about the band lately, I have no idea what this this has to do with anything. The band is “somewhat unfairly ignored,” not “routinely mocked.”
Then there’s Arrested Development. Here, at least we have a band that most would consider retrospectively overrated; I’m certainly pretty confident that if critics were polled about 1992 again their debut wouldn’t be the winner and I doubt it would be in the Top 10 of what was actually a pretty good year. (I’ll even throw a bone to Klosterman by speculating that some indie purists irrationally upset about Mould’s pop move and/or SY’s major label move may have underrated what strike me as two of the year’s great records, Copper Blue and Dirty.) But, again, what happened here seems pretty straightforward — sometimes a killer single puts an uneven record over (and not just in the pre-iTunes era: cf. Oracular Spectacular), and I’m sure some critics also overrated AD because most of the other critical and commercial hip-hop successes of the year were the work of misogynist assholes. So it’s not surprising that their reputation faded over time, especially since they disbanded after one real follow-up. But leaving aside that AD are more ignored than a punchline, there’s the issue that 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of . . . was utterly mainstream music, expensively promoted by a major label, that went quadruple platinum. So what does this tell us about the “perils of indie stardom” that await Garbus after her weak-selling succès d’estime? Beats the hell out of me, and presumably Klosterman is hoping that an audience that hasn’t heard of most or any of these bands won’t notice.
I had been waiting for the Voice‘s annual Pazz&Jop poll to come out so I could complain about the fact that in a year when I’m having trouble winnowing down to just a top 20 a sonically undistinguished singer-songwriter album with atrocious lyrics had won it. But funny thing — not only did the inexplicable (or, perhaps, all-too-explicable) Pitchfork winner drop all the way to a distant ninth, I love 4 of top 5 and like the other. (And Watch the Throne left me a little cold only because these vastly-more-accomplished-than-Justin-Vernon artists have each made several solo albums I’d rather hear.) I must be getting less contrarian in my old age.