(This short piece was originally attached to the March 2013 playlist.) This month I went to Nashville for the first time. Besides a near-spiritual experience looking at (literally right next to each other) Bill Monroe's mandolin, Maybelle Carter's guitar, and Jimmie Rodgers' guitar, it was moving to be in a city focused on and centered around music. In most other places, the gist of peoples' reaction to hearing that you are a musician is "Oh, that's really cool." While that's a positive thing, there's a distinct difference to the quality of the reaction one gets in Nashville, which is more along the lines of "Oh, welcome home." Less "We are different" and more "We are the same."
I can remember a time in my life when "country music" was on the list of music I supposed I didn't like. I've heard so many people utter what must by now be hackneyed cliché - "I like all types of music except country and opera." The logical errors and ethnocentric assumptions contained in this short statement are numerous, including the incredibly small amount of music being classified as "all types of music." I doubt that most utterers are taking into account Javanese gamelan, avant-garde electronica, barbershop quartets, or traditional Irish fiddle tunes. There's no way they are familiar with "all types of music," and there's no way that they like every artist falling under the types of music they do know. Making sweeping assumptions, I'm guessing that, like me back then, most of them either haven't heard good "country music" or have and don't think of it as Country.
My vacillation between "country" and Country isn't simply typographical confusion. It embodies a deeper existential conflict about the music, a conflict that was perfectly manifested on my visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Essentially, there are two (or more) diametrically opposed cultural phenomena at battle in this museum, and since the museum is organized chronologically, their relationship to each other (and to our culture generally) is pretty clear. On the first floor of the museum are artifacts and odes to the incredibly diverse group of people who contributed to the creation of American music - immigrants, slaves and ex-slaves, laborers, migrant workers, preachers, etc. You know, the folk. What is meant by "country music" at this point in the museum is pretty broad. By necessity, choices are being made about which music gets included and which doesn't (kind of skating over the fact that except for the color of the performer's skin blues and country during the early years are often virtually indistinguishable), but by and large the curatorial decisions make sense. As the museum progresses, you witness the culture around the music accruing and solidifying as the music itself begins to take on a kaleidoscopic variety. One would be hard-pressed to prove that the Louvin Brothers and Wanda Jackson make the same kind of music, but both are absolutely dynamite just the same. But, as institutions like the Grand Ole Opry gain prominence, and an industry starts to sprout up around the music that isn't the music itself, you can see "country music" start to become Country music. You can see a whole set of cultural baggage get attached to the music, that (again) isn't a necessary part of the music itself - the cowboy hats and boots, the mindless "patriotism," the twangy accents, the whiteness. By a certain point in the museum, the definitions of what is and isn't Country becomes so calcified and Disney-cated that it becomes exclusionary. The music used to be something that brought people together, that illustrated the ways in which our lives were similar. Now, it has become a way to illustrate the ways in which our lives are different.
I think, in actuality, it's not country music itself most people have a problem with, it's the cultural attitudes assigned to it. It's the "this is for us America-loving, gun-toting, tobacco-chewing, cowboy-hat-wearing white people" - ness of it. It's the "this is not for you" -ness of it. Jimmie Rodgers didn't ever need a cowboy hat to be country. Neither did Johnny Cash. Without her cowboy boots and acoustic guitar, it's pretty difficult to distinguish Taylor Swift from Katy Perry or (I'm betting in a few years) even Rihanna. I'm betting the Carter Family would not agree that "a boot in your ass" is the American way.
But my main problem isn't that there aren't enough black people in the museum (there aren't), it's that there isn't enough country music in the museum. The jarring experience of a Taylor Swift video blaring in the background while I was weeping at the Monroe/Carter/Rodgers trinity of instruments perfectly illustrated for me the disconnect between the cultural past and present of Country music. My opinion is that what gets called Country today has almost nothing to do with its roots. By the time one travels from the beginning of the museum to the end, it's difficult to escape the feeling that you've ended up in a completely different museum.
Of course, this isn't to say that the country tradition has died, or that there aren't contemporary artists making fresh, exciting, original music in the spirit of that tradition. It's just that those artists are not represented in the Country Music Hall of Fame - and I think that's a damn shame. Who won't you find in the museum? To name a few: Son Volt, Ryan Adams, The Avett Brothers, Neko Case, The Jayhawks, Will Oldham, Jason Molina, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Hiss Golden Messenger, Haley Bonar, Drive-By Truckers, Howe Gelb, Richard Buckner... The list could go on. In a just world there would be nothing "alt" about these truly country artists. The fact that the only place in the museum one can find a mention of the Dixie Chicks (What could be more mainstream than the Dixie Chicks?!) is on the list of major donors lays bare the fact that the curators are motivated by political/cultural concerns at least as much as musical ones. From an economic standpoint I understand that the museum needs to cater to those most likely to buy tickets and buy merchandise, but I think country music (and Nashville) deserve better. Still, the museum gets a lot of things right, and there's more than enough to justify a visit. You'll just have to know when to fold 'em, and get out while the getting's good.