I don’t even know if I should be writing this.
And that’s a weird thing for me to feel, or at least to admit. This entire blog is pretty much predicated on me being sure of things and then tearing into them with great and reckless disregard. My whole life is pretty much predicated on that. But I felt a tearing of my soul last night, a discrepancy in my own thought process that I can’t get out of my head.
I am a person who loves music. Not all music but most. Especially good music, played by talented people who care about the music they are playing. That’s inevitably the best kind of music—-that which the performers truly feel. But what if the whole thing is an act? What if the great music they are playing, and really in themselves truly feeling, is just something they’ve created out of thin air? Something wholly and completely inauthentic to their own experiences? Does that negate the talent? The love? The sound?
I should specify: I’m not talking about metal music here, nor am I talking about rock or punk or even ska. Those genres, to me, can exist in a vacuum. You need not be from Providence, Rhode Island to play spazzcore art-rock (though it probably helps). What I am talking about is the kind of music that is born out of a specific culture—-one that resides firmly in a context that cannot (or at least should not) be shifted. I am talking about genres like reggae, blues or Irish balladry. Or, specifically in this case, folk and country.
The overarching name for this kind of music, regardless of its specific sound or historical context, is “roots” music. More often than not, it ends up as a starting point from which other similarly-inspired music branches out. But roots music is the core. It is created with urgency, in response to a time or a place, to a condition of a people. In the specific case of folk and country, you'll find the roots deep in the south, with songs about union strikes and God’s green earth, about whiskey and women and what it means to be poor and down on your luck. Through all the changes country music has gone through over the decades it has existed (changes I’ve railed on before in this blog), some of those core values have remained, though nearly invariably bastardized over the changing eras.
So when a brand new roots country band plays a show, I should be excited. The band that I saw last night was unbelievable. They played the crowd like you’d imagine Johnny Cash to have when he brought the roof down at Folsom State Prison. Their singer and guitarist was perfect: his twang, his antics, his rolled up high-water jeans and shit-kicker boots. He shredded through bluegrass and blues numbers, touching on a little bit of old-school white-soul in between with his organ player, and by the end of it all, had the crowd do-si-do-ing around the floor, stomping their feet and screaming wildly. So where’s he from? What is so deep in his blood to make him holler and jive like that? Memphis? Charleston? Denver, at least? Nope: the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh.
And now I have a problem.
Because he’s never lived on a farm. His friends assured me that it’s his dream to own a farm someday, and I assured them that after a single day of baling hay, he’ll haul his spurs straight back to the suburbs. I don’t know him personally, but I’ll gather that he’s never really had financial hardship in his life, a hard-knock blue-collar job or even cousins from the south. In the case of another local country-folk band, I can say without a doubt that all of these things are true, because I do actually know them personally.
But should that matter? I can’t tell. I have no idea. On one hand, it matters to me more than anything. Last night, knowing what I knew, I just couldn’t fully appreciate or enjoy the music. It smacked of such inauthenticity to me. Each pose the singer struck was out of a handbook; when he took a moment to put down his guitar at the end of the set and introduce each member of the band, it was like watching a parody of so many country bands that toured their way through my little hometown in the sticks of Central Pennsylvania where I actually have baled hay, where I’ve raised chickens and lived, for the first few years of my life, on a pig farm. And I don’t even think I’m real enough to make roots music without a proper sense of self-aware irony. If you’ve ever heard the country band I played with, you’ll quickly notice the lyrics are all matters of fiction—pieces of a mythology we created, not unlike that of Ziggy Stardust. We admitted the fakery, embraced it. We weren’t parodies but simply characters.
On the other hand, the band last night was really good. Is that what matters? It’s just music after all. Should I just take it at face value? I would with metal or rock or techno. But can you imagine a white reggae band that recorded an album without even having visited Jamaica or befriending a black guy? I can: they’re named 311 and are from Omaha, Nebraska, and they deserve to be the butt of any joke that you can think of. It’s hard to take roots music at face value, because it is, by nature of the very music itself, something that must be absorbed much more deeply.
But if the music is good, better than that of the “country” musicians that actually do hail from hard-luck families in the Deep South, which is really worth more? A college kid from Pittsburgh who can wail like Waylon, or a starry-eyed Alabama girl who croons like Christina Aguilera? Does authenticity count? And if it does, who is more authentic? Should this kid be forced to live in a decrepit trailer park outside of Shreveport for ten years before he's allowed to play another show? Would that be enough for me? If I'd heard that story, I'd have called foul even more. He just moved so he could make that music, what a load of hooey! So what would be enough? Would he need to be born into it? Or is just the desire and the love enough?
I’m not leading up to an answer here. Usually in my blog I’ll spit out a bunch of these leading questions to slam home my point in the end. But today there is none. I have no idea how I should feel. I don’t even know how I do feel, whether it’s how I should or not. I can’t form an opinion.
Jeez. What am I becoming?