Sunday, March 30, 2008

My Pang for Twang

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”

Backdoor Playouse, Tennessee Tech, Cookeville, TN

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 Americana is less about American myth in the baseball and apple pie sense and more about an American mythopoetics, a conscious construction of new stories to shed new light on old topics. (The term mythopoetics has its etymology grounded in Tolkien, who coined the term in his poem “mythopoeia,” which he wrote to CS Lewis—then an atheist—in 1931).

“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 Florida or a national forest. Or even consider the unwashed masses, from hitchhiking hobos to hippies on summer tour. Whatever picture we paint to accompany this sound, roots music is often rooted in the rootless seduction of the road.

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 Americana inspired by the great American rock writer and cultural historian Greil Marcus and his approach to rock and roll in Mystery Train and punk rock in Lipstick Traces. This work, as Marcus suggests in Mystery Train, is to “broaden the context in which music is heard” (4).

In this sense, we face genre as an impossible and necessary beast—building boundaries around that which cannot be bound.

The hosts of an Americana radio program on the Rice University station in Houston, Texas grapple with this thorny dilemma directly and eloquently. They write, “To define Americana music as a genre is to take a very narrow view.” This evasive but impressive stance guards against the nitpicking, hairsplitting, and internet turf wars that serious music fans too often get trapped in.

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 Americana” offers the following helpful markers (and these are quotes):

· 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 Americana is its rural roots. Most Americana styles originated or developed in rural America. Whether it was the Appalachian home of bluegrass, the Mississippi home of the delta blues, or the Louisiana bayou home of cajun and zydeco, all of these styles share a common rural ancestry.

· First, all of these styles exist to some extent outside of the commercial mainstream of popular music. In fact, to many fans, Americana is synonymous with "non-commercial."

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 Texas radio station, I am more sympathetic to umbrella definitions of “American cultural music” and “American popular culture”—as imprecise as these may be.

Within the “alt-country” camp of this cultural music, Americana emerged as a reaction against mainstream country—or as a friend recently described it to me, it is country music “if country music were what it meant to be.”

Americana is like America. America boasts beautiful and scary contradictions. Is alternative country perhaps more inclined than mainstream country to embrace the contradictions rather than erase the contradictions?

In The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, Marcus expounds: “America is a place and a story, made up of exuberance and suspicion, crime and liberation, lynch mobs and escapes; its greatest testaments are made of portents and warnings, biblical allusions that lose all certainty in the American air.”

In Mystery Train, Marcus describes popular music as a “democratic art” and continued to break it down this way: “[O]ur democracy is nothing if not a contradiction: the creed of every man and woman for themselves, and thus the loneliness of separation, and thus the yearning for harmony, and for community.”

Speaking of contradictions, my arrival to Americana and alt-country fandom is an awkward tale at best—because, “Mr. Andy, yer not from around here are you?” A Yankabilly with urban, rust-belt roots, I’ve resided in the hills of Tennessee for more than a decade. Just as some locals had their own stereotypical impressions of a book-smart, lacking-in-horse-sense, fast-talking Midwesterner like me, I had to reassure my friends back home that I had not moved to a foreign country called Redneckistan.

No, I felt about my new neighbors in the backwoods the way writer Henry Miller did when he visited Tennessee in the 1940s and wrote this of the people working the land in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare: “I saw the shacks they live in and wondered if it were possible to put together anything more primitive. But I can’t say that I felt sorry for them. No, they are not the sort of people to inspire pity. On the contrary, one has to admire them. If they represent the ‘backward’ people of America then we need more backward people” (34).

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 Dixie dirt. This is a different kind of American pride, described by the late great maverick nature writer Edward Abbey as “immense and inordinate with a profound and swelling love of the physical land, of the towns and farms, of the many folks I know” (11). The groups playing tonight offer a vast emotional vocabulary of a similar swelling and intoxicating immensity. And I know you really came to hear Jill, Sam, Josh, and Tom, so I will leave the stage for them.

Works Consulted

Abbey, Edward. Confessions of a Barbarian: Selections from the Journals of Edward

Abbey, 1951-1989. Boston: Back Bay, 1994.

Greenburg, Scott. Facebook message. 23 March 1998.

Marcus, Greil. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music. 1975. 4th rev.

ed. New York: Plume, 1997.

——. The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice. New York,

Picador, 2006.

Miller, Henry. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. New York: New Directions, 1945.

“What is ‘Americana’ music?” KTRU Americana Show. 2006. 26 March 2008.

“What Is Americana Music?” Americana Homeplace. 2008. 26 March 2008.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. The Deathbed Edition. 1892. New York: Book of the

Month Club, 1992.

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