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Field Notes from the Digital Prairie

Saturday, May 14, 2011

An Alt.Country Critique

I have recently been reading Old Roots, New Routes, a collection of academic essays about the cultural politics of the musical genre known as alt.country. While I have read dozens (maybe hundreds) of such studies of (sub)cultures from Bombay's Zoroastrians to Wicker Park's hipsters, this is the first such work I've read that turned the critical eye on a cultural community with which I feel a close affinity.

The party line among alt.country fans and (slightly less so, I think) musicians is that they are hearkening back to, as Jay Farrar puts it, a "a truer sound," an authentic country music free of the corrupting market influences of the Nashville industry, though necessarily performed with a knowing wink of irony. The essays in Old Roots New Routes, while ranging in focus (and, alas, coherence) rightly point out that country music has always been market-driven, and they question alt.country's notions of authenticity, suggesting that a music based originally in working-class life, performed by over-educated, liberal, urbanites not raised on country music smacks of appropriation and minstrelsy. I would argue that the authors largely fail to interrogate the notion of what "working-class" means (does being working-class require undertaking manual labor? Is it a matter of income, or education? After all, many of those over-educated urbanites hold decidedly working-class day jobs in the food industry while pursuing musical careers), but overall the book is a refreshing reminder of the value of critically examining any and all cultural assumptions -- particularly those we hold dear.

As I mentioned, I feel a close affinity to alt.country. While I would not consider myself a full-on scenester, it is the genre of music within which I tend to write and perform, and it makes up a large portion of the music that I purchase and to which I listen. Understandably, then, reading these essays has led me to interrogate my own involvement and investment in this cultural community. I grew up in a rural area, though in the Northeast, rather than the South or Appalachia. The rented house where I grew up had no running water in the winter, but I went to excellent schools, including a private high school (on scholarship), a well-regarded liberal arts college and a world-class graduate school. My mother worked at auto parts stores when I was little, then became a landscape gardener (is that a working-class job? I have no idea) and a partner in a landscaping business, while my stepfather worked for much of my childhood as a freelance illustrator (perhaps the working-class job of the art world, but unlikely to be counted as such by most observers), and later in advertising and higher education. Both had only briefly attended college, and though neither earned degrees until my stepfather did so many years later, books were everywhere in our house. My father, who held the undeniably "working-class" jobs of machinist and truck driver, and whom I visited in the summers, had actually come from a well-off family (my grandfather was an engineer and the son of a doctor).

I did not grow up listening to country music, though my father did own a lot of what are now considered precursors to alt.country, such as 1960s and 70s country-rock and outlaw country (I much preferred to listen to his Huey Lewis tapes), and my mother and stepfather were avid listeners to Prairie Home Companion (I loved the stories, hated the music). It wasn't until I moved to a large metropolitan area that happened to be home to one of alt.country's premier record labels that I started paying any attention to country music, whether alt or otherwise, and looking back I see the roots of my interest in it being a logical extension of previous musical interests, namely delta and '50s Chicago blues and traditional Irish music (country, of course, is in many ways the offspring of African-American blues and Scottish/Irish balladry).

Where would all of that leave me in the eyes of Old Roots, New Routes' critics? I'm not sure. Even mentioning the above facts sounds like an embarrassing bid for a type of working-class identity that I would never consider claiming, as I far more closely identify as an over-educated liberal urbanite.  But when I ask myself what drew me to this music, my answer has very little to do with a longing for an idealized rural past in which men were men, singers were always sincere, and people made everything they owned with their own two hands; hell, I hate manual labor. Rather, what I see in alt.country is a commitment to narrative songcraft and lyrical wordplay that is today really only matched in one other genre of American popular music, namely hip-hop (and one can imagine the cultural negotiation that would have been involved in my becoming a hip-hop artist). It's a genre where words matter, and words were what got me hooked on music in the first place. Perhaps the critics' points might be taken closer to heart by the people who need to hear them if they were put in a song.

1 comment:

Joel G Goodman said...

I think the class argument has to be reshaped. The lines aren't as clearly defined as they once were, and I think you are accurate in your questioning of whether economic or education points make the bigger difference in the class gaps.

I, also, love alt.country for many of the reasons it's made in the first place. From Ryan Adams to Son Volt to Jayhawks to The Be Good Tanyas... and neo-alt.country like Limbeck - it's the authentic, rootsy (not meant to be ironic, but literal) messaging and sound resonates deeply into my own wishes and desires. But I'm not sure it's at all because of my own "working class" past... Mostly because I don't have that past.

This might be a really great counter-study after my graduate thesis is done...