My Pang for Twang: Reflections & Ruminations on America’s Beautiful Contradictions from an Alt-country Fan
By Andrew William Smith
prepared for a talk at “Out on the Highway: An Evening of Americana”
27 March 2008
The theme of tonight’s event “Out on the Highway” is taken from the everybodyfields song that closes the absolutely amazing Nothing is Okay; the lyrics to this song, printed on the back of your program, could easily stand in for this music critic’s chatter as poetic definition of Americana.
(I am wearing many hats tonight—fan, scholar, writer, speaker. But a warning and disclaimer about us music critics—beware. Be forever suspicious of the music critic because we are pencial and typewriter and word-processing prose people, penning essays about something we love but do not practice.)
My appreciation for
“Out on the Highway,” then, fits our definition of American mythopoetics and touches on a larger metaphor of mystery and magic: the American road. As Sam sings, “the smell of liquor and gasoline.” Think about the stories of Jack Kerouac o r the songs of Ramblin’ Jack Eliot. Conjure images from movies like Easy Rider, Thelma and Louise, or Into the Wild. Imagine truck drivers watching the sunrise from the roadside to members of the RV set setting out for
More than 100 years ago, poet Walt Whitman wrote
O highway I travel, do you say to me, Do not leave me?
Do you say, Venture not—if you leave me you are lost?
Do you say, I am already prepared, I am well-beaten and undenied, adhere to me?
O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you,
You express me better than I can express myself,
You shall be more to me than my poem. (112)
While I wish to speak about the musical genre on which this evening’s festivities are focused, I cannot do that in any traditionally textbook sense. Rather, I approach
In this sense, we face genre as an impossible and necessary beast—building boundaries around that which cannot be bound.
The hosts of an
The webzine Americana Homeplace recognizes that “there is really no consistent use of the term,” but writers there take an admirable stab at carving out a definition of the musical genre.
This interpretation of “What is
· traditional American music styles such as traditional folk music and bluegrass
· bluegrass, folk music, blues, zydeco, country rock, and alternative country
· Another common characteristic of
· First, all of these styles exist to some extent outside of the commercial mainstream of popular music. In fact, to many fans,
Scott Greenberg, host of the “Debts No Honest Man Can Pay” program on WGWG in North Carolina takes some exception to the non-commercial position, claiming, “Americana is a marketing term that kinda bugs me...I prefer to refer to it as roots music.”
Apparently, there may be some basis to this assertion if we were to look at the website of the “professional trade organization” known as the Americana Music Association. In the video presentation “how to deliver new dollars and demos,” we see the marketing mix in its most stripped down and shameless form; according to the sales-pitch, Americana fans are predominately white, male, upper-middle-class, college-educated, and more affluent as a group than any other mainstream music fan base. “Whatever,” I thought, as I heard that.
Like the deejays at the
Within the “alt-country” camp of this cultural music,
In The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, Marcus expounds: “
In Mystery Train, Marcus describes popular music as a “democratic art” and continued to break it down this way: “[O]
Speaking of contradictions, my arrival to
No, I felt about my new neighbors in the backwoods the way writer Henry Miller did when he visited
The early years of transition were hard, and falling in love with our regional musical traditions eased the bumpier parts of the ride.
Hearing the echoes of the past in this present, perhaps “old really is the new new.” I know that I have always loved music that predates not only the iPod but the phonograph, and this is music that will outlast all flavors of potential and predicted catastrophe. As much as I appreciate experimental electronic dance music composed on a laptop, it frankly lacks the elegance and endurance of banjo, fiddle, and guitar.
For me, getting this music is like getting religion, getting the holy spirit with some occasional help from the home-made spirits, like the moonshine mentioned in the lyric to “Out on the Highway.” However we name it, this music makes meaningful modern myths about our home (and has made me feel more at home in my adopted home).
Our pang for twang is in our bodies as it is in our spirits as it is in the ground, in the sleepy hollows and
Abbey, Edward. Confessions of a Barbarian: Selections from the Journals of Edward
Marcus, Greil. Mystery Train: Images of
——. The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice.
Miller, Henry. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.
“What is ‘
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. The Deathbed Edition. 1892.
Month Club, 1992.