Wednesday, August 30, 2023

From Zero to Zacholyte: on just liking what you like


Surprising you not a little, a lot of the artists I follow or obsess about, we could say that they are edgy or alternative in some way. Maybe even relatively unknown. There is special pride I have had since high school for liking or following “underground” music. But sometimes these groups crossover to mass popularity. From my high school passions, that happened with U2 and REM. That is certainly true with all iterations of the Dead, who in this last run were selling out large amphitheaters or even stadiums. But it is a bad liability of a music snob when I have to admit I like something that is hugely popular. I know I am already overthinking this. 

I often walk to the classes I teach wearing my headphones, and last Friday morning before our “American Mixtape” session, I sauntered in all-Friday-casual and quickly admitted to the 10am class, that I had already listened to two new albums (Fridays being the big new release day), front-to-back, before that first class. Afterward a student lingered after to talk. That is always amazing and doesn’t happen as much as one might imagine. For the most part, the majority of students are always dashing to the door as soon as class is dismissed. 

But not this student, on this day. She had already introduced herself on the very first day of the semester, to say that she is dating the son of a friend of mine. College town reality, to be sure. Now, she wanted to know what new albums I was streaming; I actually had to pull my brain back from the lecture I had just concluded, to what was most recent in the Spotify queue -- Old Crow Medicine Show and Hiss Golden Messenger. 

“So much good music got released today,” she muttered, and then proceeded to act embarrassed that one record she wanted to hear was an Ariana Grande 10-year-anniversary drop. “It’s pop,” she confessed. “Never apologize for liking what you like,” I prompted, without a moment’s hesitation.

Later, I reflected to myself on how heavily into folk, alt-country, and Americana I had become, that I sort of felt I had become “conservative” in my tastes, in that inner ache for acoustic instruments and a stripped-down sound. Maybe, I am allergic to some pop. But there is more. 

As one might imagine for a person with previously punk rock leanings, even the (alternative) country music scene has brought me face-to-face with populist yearnings so indigenous to my rural region, but perhaps far from the urban sensibilities and rebellious priorities of my youth. One activist likes to talk about an affinity between “the hood and holler,” but most of the time I think that is aspirational. But sometimes music does unravel stereotypes and unite disparate vibes. Maybe Johnny Cash. Maybe John Prine.

My tendencies toward being a forever folk fan were already present when I was a kid, listening to my parents’ folk records: Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel. Blowing in the Wind. Sounds of Silence. But especially John Denver. I can still see the cover to that “Greatest Hits” album that I would listen to over and over again in my suburban bedroom at bedtime. I remember attending a John Denver concert at the Richfield Coliseum and being riveted. Some songs are not real until those songs become a complete, cellular, real, cosmic part of me.

So actually, it’s true, that even though I reject the whole “guilty pleasure” construct with music, I sometimes feel a little guilty for loving something so popular, for liking what other people like, especially if it feels too corny, too cheesy, too ready for an anthemic everyman singalong. Take for example that John Denver obsession, which returned to me as an adult. But why worry? What did you just say: never apologize for liking what you like. Okay. Take Me Home, Country Roads.

Because if it’s good and meaningful and you like it, don’t feel guilty about it, okay? Little did I know that last Friday, that later in the weekend, I would collide with a new musical reality to wreck me, in the best way, and to confront these ideas about some of the more wildly popular music of our time.

When people were ranking their best albums of 2022, the name of some 34-song epic record by a “bro”-sounding upstart kept popping up in some of the music fan groups where I traffic online. American Heartbreak. Late in the year when I was trying to inhale-by-headphone every interesting record I missed earlier in the year, I listened to parts of it on a long walk at the gym. I remember it being better than expected, liking some songs but wondering why it was so long. 

But then last Friday, they were talking about another album by him in the all online Americana groups. Self-titled with a self-portrait of Zach Bryan smoking a cigarette. His entire vibe would only feel more typecast if he had three names like so many of his peers in the sad-dude indie-acoustic world. Okay let me try to listen to this guy again. After a busy Friday afternoon and evening and my Saturday morning radio show, I finally got to my first listen on Saturday afternoon. 

I try to be open to wonder, suspend suspicion, and always seek that feeling when getting into new music. But streaming has spoiled me and oversaturated all of us. I am still chasing the chill-bumps, the stuck-in-throat, fist-in-the-air unkempt emotion of “that feeling,” of falling in love with a record to where it messes up your plans because you cannot *not* listen. But streaming has made it too easy, and it has been this way now for years, of not driving to the record store, of not deciding which disc on which to drop a precious 10 dollars (or 5 or 25, depending), of just having what your ears need, now and not later, only a click away. When the hunt is this easy, sometimes you are convinced that the meat can never taste that sweet.

But I was only three or four songs into this record, and I was stuck in all the feels. I remember the first time I heard *Southeastern* by Jason Isbell or the first Mumfords record with all its swollen emotion or *I and Love and You* by the Avett Brothers, which I recall mainlining on its release day and with intense regularity as the go-to record to help me spiritually navigate the joy of a new relationship. 

Sometimes I can hype a very good record in my mind, and while I still appreciate and even love it, those feelings of falling and sober intoxication are lost, sometimes due over-familiarity with the artist and sometimes due a season of extended expectations that no first listen on Friday-release day can ever live up to. Between my resistance to Bryan’s Swiftian popularity to my familiarity being limited to one rushed listen through American Heartbreak a year ago, all this made the experience of being swept into the undertow that more exhilarating and ecstatic.  

The hair stood on my arms, I felt that easy queasy where an ugly cry could bust out at any moment. Let me make sure this isn’t just my imagination, pinch me am I dreaming. I switched from bluetooth headphones to Alexa, who is hooked up to my amplifier and powerful speakers. My spouse Jeannie would be my judge, as she never holds back if a song is just “meh” or worse. Sometimes I defy her judgment and hide under the headphones, and sometimes I wear her down with repeated listens until she comes on board. Thanks to the inevitable, irresistible, and enduring goodness of “Sugaree,” she no longer says she hates all Grateful Dead songs. “Tennessee Jed” has seeped into the marital canon too, for all the righteous regional reasons. 

We didn’t even finish one song, “Hey Driver” with added vocals from Michael and Tanya Trotter, better known as The War and Treaty, before Jeannie confirmed my hunches. Every lyric was so personal yet universal, so everyday relatable to just about everyone, from the sweet tea to the Klonopin, from the bottles to the Bibles to the cheating spouse and a fight with God. And the sounds were infectious. One minute my wife is “wow this is good” and the next minute, she is already singing along. 

Unless you are totally cynical, the backstory has its inherent beauty. A regular Oklahoma guy is finishing his term in the Navy and keeps dropping dusty demo tapes and backyard cellphone videos on places like Soundcloud, Twitter, and YouTube; then, he is suddenly an underground sensation in the so-called heartland. I didn’t get sunk by the earlier listens because I rushed them at the end of 2022, just wondering what others saw in that triple album. I never went and tried to listen to its rugged predecessors. 

Due to his popularity and voluminous and dedicated fandom that I am certain is too “something” for me, I wanted to resist but just tripped over myself, even as I fell hard. A couple of listens into the self-titled, and I am a goner for good. From zero to Zacholyte is what I need to say. This album moved into my heart without complete consent, pitched its tent, tugged at all my feelings, and now refuses to leave. This album will be on repeat until the tracklist and lyrics are internalized forever like the John Denver repeats in my old bedroom at bedtime. 

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