In 2008, I bought or acquired 78 albums , a number that stuns me now but at the time didn’t feel excessive in the least. Now months will go by — years, even — when I only get a handful of songs, and rarely an album. When did that change?
• If you want to understand America, you have to understand the South. And if you want to understand the South, you have to understand country music.
• Country — I'm talking here about mainstream country music, not offshoots like alt-country — is so rooted in geography and ideology that it's impossible to separate the art from its roots. Other genres and performers have had ties to different places, sure: musical sounds vary by region and history, and lyricists have romanticized specific places in ways that make those places feel universal, eternal. (E.g., Springsteen's mythical Jersey Americana.) But most pop and rock is about feeling, not place. Love, heartache, excitement, partying, story, dance, whatever: the songs aren't designed with a specific city or home town in mind. Country, though, is descended from Southern communities and tied inextricably to Southern states. By extension, that means it's tied to ideologies that are traditionally popular in the South, like religion or social dynamics.
• An example of the religious specificity of country and its relation to region: Dotted throughout the South are Churches of Christ — autonomous churches of varying size (some downright tiny) that are typically conservative and trace their roots to the Restoration Movement. These churches don't answer to any kind of diocese or broad leader, and they tend to be off the radar in ways that, say, the Southern Baptist Convention isn't. The denomination doesn't really have much of a pop culture presence, or an awareness among the general public, but it has still been mentioned in hit country songs like this one and this one. That is the closeness of the bond between country and the South. Many of the genre's songs are acts of in-group identification.
• Country music is often reactive; that is, as much as it relies on certain sounds and styles, it just as often seeks to define itself in opposition to pop, rock, and mainstream genres and ideologies. This goes back to the South's notion of representing itself as set apart, special, and differently formed than the rest of the country. It is not even remotely accidental that a region of the country that once seceded to form its own nation still champions a musical genre that is stylistically and narratively based in opposition and separation.
• Country's reactiveness tends to make itself known most sharply when mainstream culture is undergoing progressive shifts. In 1969, with the youth movement and civil rights battles in full swing, Merle Haggard released "Okie From Muskogee," an anti-protest song that railed against pot, draft-dodging, long hair, and just about every possible hippie stereotype you could name. This is country music: a down-home sound that resists social change.
• Similarly, periods of conservatism tend to bring out more peaceful, nostalgic country music. The Reagan presidency saw a rise in pop-oriented country that yearned for a return to the good old days. Songs like The Judds' "Grandpa (Tell Me 'Bout the Good Ol' Days)" literally spelled out these requests, and the mega-success of the band Alabama (who had 21 consecutive No. 1 hits on the country charts from 1980-1986) relied on it, as well, with songs like "Song of the South," "High Cotton," "Mountain Music," and the blue-collar ode "40 Hour Week (For a Livin')." Ronnie Milsap's "Lost in the Fifties Tonight (In the Still of the Night)" is another ode to Boomer wish-fulfillment.
• As the 1990s arrived, though, bringing with them Bill Clinton and renewed mainstream discussions of social progression, country music veered into neotraditionalism, which placed an emphasis on classic sounds. This was more of an aesthetic rebellion than a lyrical one, more interested in drawing a line in the musical sand, and many of the artists who emerged here put out some strong music.
• Country's opposition isn't solely about who's in the White House, though, but about the social discussions we're having as a nation at large. It was the first George W. Bush administration's launch of the war on terror, after all, that gave us Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" — though interestingly, Keith had started his career with blander tunes in the neotraditional era. It wasn't until he caricatured himself that he went to a new level of fame (or infamy).
• This is the context of bro-country, a recent subgenre that assembles song lyrics from a list composed of dirt roads, short skirts, and fishing trips. Critic Grady Smith made this in 2013 to examine the phenomenon:
• Bro-country's reductive, almost hilariously one-dimensional understanding of women and relationships was skewered in 2014's "Girl in a Country Song," by Maddie & Tae. The song is its own call for a return to the past, one in which women were at least allowed to do something more than wear cutoffs and ride shotgun in pickups:
• Bro-country is the genre's latest retaliation against broader cultural trends, this time those dealing with evolving ideas of marriage, relationships, and sexuality, as well as the openness with which such ideas are addressed. Gay marriage is now legal in 37 states; award-winning TV shows revolve around transgender stories; pop culture storytelling now has gay characters whose sexuality is not a joke, nor their defining characteristic. Bro-country is a cliche-ridden attempt to push back at this. Its subtextual call for a return to the good ol' days is similar to the one country music is always, in some way, sounding out, but this time it's specifically about the nation's changing attitudes toward its gay citizens and country music's reticence to follow along.
• Country can be a tough place for gay artists to find acceptance. Performers like Chely Wright and Ty Herndon have come out, but given the genre's historical connection to the South — and to Southern religions — country is still years (or decades) behind pop and rock. When Ricky Skaggs was ambushed by TMZ and asked his opinion about country singers coming out, he expressed his approval not that they be themselves, but that they should be accepted because "we're all sinners." This is the backdrop of country music. The importance of the connections between the music, the region, and the religion cannot be overstated.
• Bro-country, then, isn't just the latest disposable fad within the genre, or a way to mark this particular era, but a reflection of the genre's and the region's discomfort with progressive attitudes toward and discussions of adult human sexuality outside the traditional "two straight white people in love" model. It's a defense mechanism, born of a desire to avoid change and conflict and get back to the way things used to be. But things weren't better in the great Back Then; they were just hidden. The best thing for country to do here is the thing it has the hardest time doing: embracing the future.
I wrote about Inside Llewyn Davis, The Broken Circle Breakdown, and using folk/Americana music to process pain.
Counting Crows' "Rain King," from their debut August and Everything After, goes in part:
I belong in the service of the queen I belong anywhere but in between She's been lying, and I've been sinking And I am the Rain King
I'm not here to parse Adam Duritz's meaning, but to look at the way he echoes that language in "Goodnight Elisabeth," from their sophomore effort, Recovering the Satellites:
If you wrap yourself in daffodils I will wrap myself in pain And if you're the queen of California Baby I am the king of the rain
This is the kind of in-universe connection you'd usually see in movies, TV, or books. Off the top of my head, a number of Stephen King novels make mention of events or people in his Dark Tower series, in effect turning a large amount of his work into one connected (if occasionally ungainly) body. Or there's the way Richard Belzer's Detective Munch appeared on "Homicide: Life on the Street" and then "Law & Order: SVU," cementing those two separate shows as existing in the same world. (And you can, of course, go farther down the rabbit hole with Tommy Westphall.) One of my favorite movie examples is a small one: Michael Keaton as FBI agent Ray Nicolette in 1997's Jackie Brown and 1998's Out of Sight. The films have different stories, directors, and casts; he's the only link.
For some reason, though, it feels rarer for such crossovers to happen in music. It also feels more special, and I think that's because music is such a personal experience. We watch movies together, and we even watch TV together, but we listen to music by ourselves. It's in our ears, or our car, and it becomes a soundtrack to our own lives. So little grace notes that connect songs across albums feel like gifts for listeners and fans, ways for you to feel connected on a deeper level. They just have that beautiful little spark.
The Refreshments have some, too. They only put out two albums before their label dropped them, and 1996's Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy and 1997's The Bottle & Fresh Horses feel like narrative complements to each other. The first one's about relationships coming together, the second's about how they fall apart. The first album's "Down Together," a love song about being in it for the long haul, says:
Cars break down and People break down and Other things break down, too So let's go Down together, down together, down together Let's go down
The follow-up album's "Fonder and Blonder," a bittersweet break-up tune, goes:
Cars break down and People break down and Other things break down, too I felt something slip when you left on your trip And now I think I'm breaking down on you
You don't have to know the first song to get the meaning of the second, but it helps. At any rate, it gives the second one more punch to connect it to the happier character of the first song and to wonder about the path he took to get where he is. John Mellencamp did the same thing with "Jack and Diane" and "Eden is Burning," which charted young love and its apathetic decline.
I'm trying to find more examples, but I'm not even sure what this would be called. These aren't just songs that reference other songs, but multiple songs by the same artist that reference each other. Song worlds? Song universes? Anyway, you get the idea. If you have any more examples, I'd love to hear them.
I got into alternative country in college. After growing up on mainstream country, I was still in love with the root of the sound — open and rangy, purely American — but less invested in artists or songs that felt, well, dumb. Mainstream country radio seemed to be all about picnics, first love, and a determination to equate patriotism with evangelical Christianity, but alt-country took the elements of the sound I loved and married them with great songwriting that embraced nuance. I remember the moment a friend pressed Wilco’s Being There into my hand and said “You need to own this,” and how that sent me back to A.M. and then into Uncle Tupelo. I remember burning a copy of Strangers Almanac from my roommate, and the first time I heard “Oh My Sweet Carolina.” What I really remember, though, is the lesson that genre and message are not the same thing. I’d grouped all country music together, when the truth was that a certain type of music could actually be used in a variety of different ways.
That’s the biggest lesson I’ve taken from hip-hop, too. It can be so easy to confuse the part for the whole, and to assume that the entire genre is dedicated to songs about sex or the glorification of certain persona, if that persona is being flaunted satirically. The easy stuff gets airplay, just like it does in any genre (and that stuff can still be great), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other stories out there. Black Star talks about social issues. KRS-One started Stop the Violence. Macklemore likes thrift shops and loves gay people.
Alternative hip-hop artist recently appeared on WTF With Marc Maron to talk about all this, and he’s probably the best note to end on.
Eagle on music:
Maron: “You’re literally trying to integrate life as you’re living it, which is not the rap life, which is not the hackneyed idea, but it’s just a guy who’s getting older, who’s dealing with family responsibilities, who’s dealing with questions about identity issues as a 30- to 40-year-old dude, and you’re just laying that out.”
Eagle: “Right. I mean, a lot of the guys I’m grouped with in terms of sound, that’s what we attempt to do. Just kind of elevate the art form. That sounds kind of weird to say. But, you know, to me there’s a legitimacy in what rap music is in terms of expression, and there’s room for all of our individual experiences in it.”
Maron: “To have a record called Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes — it’s a counterintuitive cultural idea. And there’s a conscious attempt to stand alone outside of cultural expectations and also slightly racist expectations of what rappers are supposed to be and what they’re supposed to do. So that’s sort of the defining tone of what alternative rap is.”
Eagle on bias and music journalism:
Eagle: “The journalism is so dominated by that intention, that want for a nerdy guy to feel like he’s …”
Maron: “On the pulse of it.”
Eagle: “Yeah. It seems like they try to elevate a lot of things that are really crude.”
Maron: “Are you talking about the alternative music press in general?”
Eagle: “Yeah, and maybe even the mainstream music press, too. There’s this cultural voyeurism that happens in journalism that weirds me out sometimes.”
Maron: “It’s actually anti-journalism. It’s [...] their version of courting controversy to get some juice. Right?”
Eagle: “I don’t know. I feel like a lot of them genuinely feel the way they do about the music, but I think a lot of times they don’t understand how those racial and cultural expectations that we talked about inform their point of view on things. They don’t take that into account. You’ll get a guy saying that somebody sounds more ‘authentic’ than somebody else if it’s more hood or more gangster, and I don’t think they understand how dangerous of an assertion that is.”
Maron: “ ‘He’s authentic in that he’s exactly what we always expected out of the Negro!’ ”
Eagle: “Exactly, exactly. And you could put that in there and it would make perfect sense. I think a lot of times they don’t step back and realize that they’re helping to perpetuate shit when they do that.”
Maron: “They’re not seeing the artist as an artist. Their opinion is overshadowed by their own stereotype.”
Eagle: “Right. And they’re buried in the context and don’t realize they’re helping to create it, as well. That’s where it gets annoying to me. And that’s what I feel is the obstacle between guys who, like I said, are trying to make this a more substantial — we’re trying to give it the value that art has.”
There have been a few blog posts and single-serving sites going around recently designed to let you check which of your Facebook friends like certain pop culture artifacts. The point isn't to discover common interests, though, but to find out who in your social network has expressed even fleeting affection for a person, place, or piece of entertainment usually reserved for public derision. Popular examples: Nickelback, Kim Kardashian, "Two and a Half Men." The latest of these lists is a piece from Buzzfeed titled "People You Need to Unfriend on Facebook Immediately." It includes the items mentioned above as well as Crocs, Guy Fieri, and other pop ephemera that seem to have been created solely so people would have something to make fun of in their spare time.
Tool-based lists like these are guaranteed viral hits for a number of reasons: they're easy to implement, simple to use, and they're tied to things we've been conditioned to violently hate, or at least feel strongly about. I don't like Rush Limbaugh, or Ed Hardy, or "Whitney," or really anything on the list. Yet how selfish would I have to be to only befriend people whose political and cultural tastes were exactly aligned with mine? I don't have to agree with my friend's choices about pop culture. There will always be areas where we overlap and those where we don't. What does it mean that we want to think about eliminating those presences from our lives? Even as a joke, on Facebook?
One of the things I love about being a film and TV critic is digging into something and thinking about what it means, and then using that investigation to start a conversation. I love encouraging people to think about these things; I love being encouraged to do so by the critics I admire. The point isn't to only read reviews I agree with, but to do my best to see where someone is coming from. I don't have to stop respecting someone, or terminate a real or digital friendship, simply because they enjoy DVRing "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives." If I did that, I'd be horribly close-minded.
That's what I'm worried we might be coming to. Not in a rush, but slowly, one sarcastic and self-aware step at a time. I clicked on the link in the Buzzfeed article attached to George W. Bush to see which of my Facebook friends like/Like the former president. About a dozen do, though who knows how many like him without having expressed it online. I feel a great dislike for much of Bush's presidency and the debacle that was the dual wars he waged, but my feelings toward those friends who like Bush haven't changed one bit after learning that they support a president whose actions I often found intolerable. They have different opinions on him than I do. They hold different beliefs. I'm not going to kick them out of my life for being different from me, and I wouldn't want them to cut me out of their own lives, either. I'd like to think we find more to care about in each other than a voting record and viewing habits.
I'm fascinated by how it's possible to be nostalgic for something that happened in your lifetime but that you didn't actually experience firsthand when it happened. Case in point, for me: early-1990s alternative rock and pop. I love great guitar pop from this era, even though I was too young for it at the time. I was 12 in 1994, and as I've said, I was a musically sheltered kid who didn't know what was happening even in mainstream modern rock, let alone the alternative or power-pop worlds I'd come to love so much when I got older.
There's something about that sound that's endlessly captivating for me. Part of it's the fact that kids my age and not much older were into bands I'm only now enjoying, but it's really a kind of wistfulness that this sound, this energy, was popular right before I was really culturally aware of musical trends outside my parentally prescribed window of country and oldies. Listening to certain records now is like hearing someone describe a party at which I arrived moments too late to do anything but help clean up.
That's how I feel about Freedy Johnston's "Bad Reputation." The singer-songwriter's fourth album, This Perfect World, hit shelves in the summer of 1994, when I was very much a confused boy who would not at all be able to appreciate Johnston's witty lyricism or his soulful but poppy angst. It was just a little beyond me at the time, and besides, it wasn't even on my cultural radar.
I heard the song for the first time on a mix tape some friends made me as a parting gift when I moved to Los Angeles after college. It's an actual tape, too, and one I wore out through repeated use to the point that the tape itself began to stretch and warp, the songs losing or gaining speed at random. It's right now locked in the small fireproof safe I use to store things like my wedding certificate and Social Security card. It's that important to me. The tape was a wonderful mix of pop and hip-hop, rock and soul, and its makers spliced in sound cues that tied into the overarching themes of travel and challenge and that also made the final product feel that much more special. It's practically impossible to duplicate. Some songs have movie dialogue between them; others cut out halfway through as the next track kicks in abruptly. It's a work of art.
One of the anchors of the tape is Johnston's "Bad Reputation," and the song's feeling of finding yourself alone in a crowd, looking for someone you can't forget, cut raggedly to my core as I drove across the country to a new home away from the people I'd spent four years weaving into my life. Everyone goes through the same basic crises right after college, and those years of rockily searching for your identity aren't that interesting to anyone who wasn't in them with you, but still, knowing that everyone else was having a tough time didn't make mine any easier. The first year after college was a tough one for me — my job had low pay and even lower morale, and I went through three apartments and eight roommates in 12 months — and I found myself turning again and again to the songs my friends had put to tape and sent westward with me.
Sometime in those early post-graduate years, I came across Kicking and Screaming. I'd only heard snatches about Noah Baumbach's first film, and those only in the context of articles that talked about his hiatus in the entertainment industry between writing and directing 1997's Mr. Jealousy and returning to the field to co-write 2004's The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou with Wes Anderson. I was so glad to find the film, too. It's a hilarious, sharply written, wonderfully observed comedy about the existential malaise that sets in in your early 20s as you stumble from the cocoon of academia into the unforgiving sunlight of the real world. The jokes worked, the characters were spot-on, and the stories of selfish heartbreak made perfect sense to a young man trying to figure out just what he was going to do with his life.
The film ends on a perfect note of reckless optimism with a young man reaching out to the woman in his life, and as it cuts to black, Baumbach cues up "Bad Reputation." It was a pretty timely choice from a technical perspective — the film came out in October 1995, just a year after Johnston's album — but for me it the resonance doubled and trebled, becoming not just a coda for the film but a reference to the very song that had carried me to California on the words and prayers of friends greater and truer than I could ever have imagined having. I didn't know the song would be there, nor that the film would speak so clearly to what I was living through at the time. But it was, and it did.
The tape my friends made me came with a note and a track listing, scrawled in a messy hand, and the note talks in part about how my friends want me to know that they will always be with me, and that I will always have people in my life willing to share in my joy, offer solace in my grief, or just make me a tape of songs they hope I'll like. That's what I think of when I listen to "Bad Reputation." I remember what it is to be lonely but brave, and loved above all, and to have nothing to hold onto but the knowledge that all things change.
I was 14 years old in October 1996, two months into my freshman year of high school. My friends at the time were pretty much limited to the few relationships I'd forged at my church's youth group. School was a much more lonely and daunting place, and I actually spent most of my freshman year eating lunch by myself on the courtyard benches outside the cafeteria. I'm not saying this to engender sympathy; I'm just trying to talk about how I experienced the world back then. I wasn't happy with my situation, but I was familiar with it.
One of my closest friends — who'd become my best friend, a man I'm still in touch with today — was a kid I knew from the youth group. He went to a different high school, but we bonded over movies. We had similar tastes in film and a shared desire to explore the art form in ways that our other friends didn't care to: My friend and I were probably the only teens in Texas to leave a Bible study early to catch American History X. He taught me about music, too, and he's now someone I turn to regularly to discover artists I know I'll love.
But all of that was later. In 1996, at 14, I was just a quiet, lonesome boy who didn't know much about anything. My friend turned me onto a band called Fountains of Wayne when we were hanging out at his house one night, and the plaintive, witty power pop was the perfect soundtrack to insular evenings spent playing video games and talking about how much we didn't understand the girls in our lives. We were listening to Fountains of Wayne's self-titled debut, which came out that fall and received a modest amount of attention thanks to the fact that frontman Adam Schlesinger had penned the title song for Tom Hanks' That Thing You Do!, which hit theaters four days after the band's album dropped. "Radiation Vibe" and "Sink to the Bottom" were released as singles, but all of the album's bright, poppy explorations of heartache felt radio-ready. The one that stuck with me, though, was "Leave the Biker."
"Leave the Biker" is an angular, jangly, downright perfect pop song about a boy or young man beating his head and heart against an invisible wall, wondering with all his might why the girl of his dreams was spending her time and energy on a slovenly thug who didn't appreciate her (and, it should be noted, had been a real dick to the singer's character). The singer talks about feeling trapped in his hometown, being unable to find a date, and wondering how he'll ever make things change. These feelings are, to put it mildly, extremely resonant for lonesome high school freshmen, and the song stuck with me for its frankness and piercing heartbreak all wrapped up in a bubble-gum package. I learned the lyrics without ever trying to, and it became one of those songs everyone has that they sing in the shower or hum to themselves at odd moments. It just became my song.
I stayed with the band from then on. I liked 1999's Utopia Parkway well enough, especially "It Must Be Summer" and "Red Dragon Tattoo," but I adored 2003's Welcome Interstate Managers. That was the album that introduced most of the rest of the country to the band: Its first single, "Stacy's Mom," was the band's biggest smash to date, earning the video regular airplay and bringing the band an oddly timed Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, despite having formed almost a decade earlier and releasing two albums before this one. "Hey Julie," another great song, earned some play thanks to placement in a few TV shows.
Welcome Interstate Managers stayed in a regular rotation for me for years — it became default road-trip music, for instance — but I never let myself get too far from their earlier songs or "Leave the Biker." The band's 15 minutes in the MTV spotlight ended, and they went back to being mine, in that way all groups do for fans who've been around before the fame hit and will be there long after it's gone. Traffic and Weather, from 2007, had some great songs, and their latest, Sky Full of Holes, is wonderful.
When I met the woman who'd become my wife, I was living in California and she was living in Texas, which meant many, many phone calls. We discovered not only similar tastes in certain movies and music, but a shared history as singers, too: We both participated in the choir programs at our schools and universities, though her natural voice is stronger than mine. One night on the phone, she asked me to sing for her. I was scared for all the predictable reasons: Our relationship was still young, I was nervous, I wanted her to be impressed, I wanted her to like me, I didn't want my voice to crack. She wasn't auditioning me, but asking me to open up. So I did.
I sang "Leave the Biker." At the time I told myself (and her) that it was the first and easiest song I could remember, and that it wasn't too much of a strain in terms of range or melody, so I knew I'd be able to easily sing it over the phone. But the truth is it was also a song that had been with me for half my life at that point, and singing it meant saying This is who I am and where I've been. It wasn't just a song I knew; it was something that had gotten me where I was, and a representation of the things about yourself that can only ever be expressed through music. I sang to her, softly, sitting on the edge of my bed in a crowded room in a Los Angeles apartment, reaching out to someone 1,600 miles away. It meant something to share it with her, the way it always does when you find someone so important that you're willing to disclose the awkward ways you became who you are. That's why there's always going to be a divide between what people say is the best band and the one they claim as their favorite. Some stuff just stays with you that way.
Weezer's debut album — the first of three so far to be self-titled, but usually referred to as The Blue Album or, simply, Blue — was released in May 1994, the summer before my seventh-grade year and a month before I turned 12. The first single, "Undone (The Sweater Song)," was released in June, followed by "Buddy Holly" in September. That was followed by "Say It Ain't So" in June 1995. All three songs charted well as Weezer became part of the pop consciousness, but "Buddy Holly" probably brought them the most recognition as their hardened pop — what I think of as "edgy shimmer" — took over the airwaves.
I knew none of this at the time. Or rather, I was aware that Weezer was a band that existed, and that they put out songs that kids far cooler than I was would sing in snatches around school. I saw friends listening to Discmans and holding the jewel case with its bright blue cover; I knew of the music video that featured what might be Fonzie; and that was about it. I grew up in a conservative religious household, which influenced what my parents would let me and my younger sister see or listen to (we didn't watch MTV until I was probably 16, and even then it only happened because there was a glitch with the cable box and the parental controls became unlocked and my folks were too tired to fight the change), so we weren't exactly steeped in popular rock.
But equally as influential was the fact that my parents just kind of stopped developing musically sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. In other words, around the time they got married and then had me. My dad would later tell me of the Clapton and Zeppelin LPs he had in college, and my mother would grin while remembering the Simon and Garfunkel vinyls of her youth. But for the most part, they just didn't care anymore about what was out there. They didn't want what was newer, and they didn't seem to be able to connect to the passion they used to have for what was older. In the car, my father listened to classic country, while my mom preferred the modern country station or, later, oldies. So while it's tempting to try and equate my ignorance of certain pop songs to my parents' views on religion, it's more accurate to place those blank spots within a broader context: They weren't against music, just indifferent to it.
Because of that, I had to educate myself on the music of my time in whatever ways I could, and I often came to things years late out of nothing more than a desire to explore and appreciate something I'd just barely missed. I heard Weezer on the radio and even snagged a few mp3s at college (the fall of my freshman year was the tail end of the Napster era), but I didn't own Blue until I was probably 20. I was out shopping with a friend and saw it on sale for $10 or so, and I decided on a whim to buy it.
It is, as everyone who's heard it knows, a magnificent pop record, full of snappy hooks, dreamy choruses, and enough angst to fuel a million bad mix tapes. It's an album I can listen to regardless of mood, location, or time of day; it just fits everywhere. Getting to know the album as a whole gave me renewed appreciation for the singles, too. No longer were those songs dispatches from a place I'd never seen. They were now a part of my young adult experience, serving as a soundtrack to my present even as they connected me in new ways to my past.
I lived in Los Angeles for five years after I graduated college, and the joy and pain of that time did more to shape me than anything else ever has. I discovered that Blue fit my awkward young adulthood like a tear-stained glove: "Surf Wax America" for driving down the PCH, "Undone" for the commute home after a night out with friends, "In the Garage" when I was feeling insecure, "Say It Ain't So" when I needed to howl in the car. The songs became touchstones in my life, tying me to a time and place. I get just as nostalgic when I hear that record as I'd imagine my peers do, but I'm nostalgic for an entirely different time of our lives. They remember pubescent anger and a world viewed through fog; I remember my first job, my first love, my first heartbreak, my first apartment. The life I carved out of rock. The places I shouldn't have gone. The things I'm glad I did. And the people that went with me.
Moving across the country to a place where no one knows you just to try your hand at a fate that might well destroy you is a challenge like no other. Most people do it in their 20s because that's when they're strong enough to take it. I was lucky during my time in California to make some truly great friends and find a fantastic roommate, all of whom made it a bit easier to survive the tough times that no one ever sees coming.
My roommate and I would throw an annual "Burgers, Beer, and Rock Band Bash" in the summer, opening up our apartment to friends all day. We cooked on the grill, swam in the pool, drank more than was wise, and played Rock Band on my roommate's Xbox 360. They were wonderful days, easy ones, when we all took a break from figuring out adulthood. One year, I was noodling on the plastic guitar with a few others filling out the band when we played — what else? — "Buddy Holly." It was the ideal song for the day, the kind of easy rocker that makes everyone sing along. I was drunk enough to be happily loose on the guitar, swaggering around and having fun with friends. I'd played the song before on the game but something about it just felt better that night. It was, for reasons I can't figure out and wouldn't want to bother trying to, exactly what I needed to hear. As we came to the solo, I slid into the groove without missing a note, feeling the fake/real music moving through me, inebriated enough to be happy I was home but sober enough to be thankful for the moment, surrounded by a family I'd found. I didn't even think about those final eight notes when only the guitar played, though they'd tripped me up before. I just went into them, right as a friend turned and pointed at me to underscore the absurdity of pretending to be a band and the weird bliss of almost being them, and I nailed every note, and we all came back in together and sang our youth to the stars, I was a rock star, I was Buddy Holly, I was home.
My best friend got me into The Refreshments in high school. This was right before it became impossibly easy to learn about and acquire new music, and getting a new album meant actually, physically buying one. When I realized the band had a second (and final) record, I felt as if I'd made some discovery born of my own hard work.
The same thing happened to the band that happens to so many others: They just didn't spark, and they broke up. Guitarist and lead vocalist Roger Clyne took drummer P.H. Naffah and formed a new group, Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, that delved deeper into the country-rock sound that The Refreshments had flirted with on a few songs. That best friend was the one who brought me to Clyne's new music. He got us tickets to see the group play at a bar in San Antonio on a weeknight, maybe a Wednesday, which meant leaving our college town of Abilene and barreling four hours through the Texas desert to make it in time for doors and the opener*. That trip was the first time I'd actually heard Clyne's new project, and my friend played the Peacemakers' first and then only album, Honky Tonk Union, over and over on the drive to San Antonio so I'd be familiar with the songs when I heard them live that night.
(*The opening act turned out to be Slobberbone. It's probably the only show I've ever been to where I actually enjoyed the opening act as much as the headliner, and I got into Slobberbone's music then, too. That band has since broken up and reconstituted itself as The Drams.)
The show was one of the best I've ever been to. I've seen better bands, sure, and I've been to better venues. But the band's low profile meant the turnout was pretty moderate, and my friend and I were able to stand closer to the stage than I ever could have dreamed. The show also resonated in a special way because the band felt like it was ours. That's a horrible cliche, and something people say about every band they like regardless of its hits or pop culture influence, but it felt true then and still holds today. This was the band we'd listened to in high school that no one else seemed to know or care about. These were the songs — earnest, rocking, lyrically flawed — that played in my younger life and would continue to spin for years. Clyne's words have never quite lived up to the standard he holds for himself, and the mix of fun wordplay and genuine angst often buts against some truly heinous puns and rhythms, but that fuzzy attempt to get the words right just made the songs that much more appropriate for me. I was young, and I didn't even know what I didn't know yet except that it was often all I could do just to try to get the words out in rough shape. Clyne was rough, but so was I.
After the show, my friend and I were keyed up and blissed out on rock and youth. We went by my parents' house, though they didn't even know I was in town. My friend and I got to their house around midnight, and I called them from the living room to prove I was actually there. They were nonplussed but accommodating. We left and went to my friend's parents' place to spend the night before heading back to college. The round trip didn't take 30 hours.
My friend and I stayed tuned into Clyne for a while, but our interest eventually waned. We saw him play the Viper Room when I moved to Los Angeles after graduation, and we journeyed from Tucson to Puerto Penasco, Mexico, for one of his epic-length biannual beach shows. (After four hours of music, I gave up and went back to the hotel, passing out half-drunk watching some disturbing Mexican game show featuring a man in a monkey suit.) Clyne's successive albums devolved in tone, style, and quality; he began his new band with an ear for rocking alt-country, but he morphed into a latter-day Jimmy Buffett enamored of songs about margaritas and beach parties. He changed, and we did, and that was it.
Hearing those early Clyne songs now is almost surreal. They were tied so tightly to a specific time in my life, but more than that, to a specific stage in my life. I was alone and lonely, drunk and worried, unsure of myself and unaware of the life-changing mistakes I would soon make. In other words, I was in my early 20s. To hear songs of barroom romance and cowboy-lite wanderings now is to be transported into the skin of a different man. I wonder if this is the way it is for everyone. You never love any music like the stuff you did when you were young — my sister very astutely observed that whatever you were listening to when you learned to drive will forever be a part of you — and it's interesting that what that actually means is that you never click with anything else the way you did with the stuff you heard when you were just learning to walk on your own in this world. The soundtrack of your disappointments will always stick with you, long after the failures have faded. I can still touch the feelings I had the first time I heard these songs, and I recoil from them as if shocked. Some music grows with us, some of it's timeless, and some of it will always and ever take us back.
So every now and then I'll put on Honky Tonk Union. I've got a few of Clyne's later records, but listening to them is a different experience. They sound like remnants of my past, dusty but harmless. Honky Tonk Union, though; that one came from my own hand. I want to tell that kid to hang in there, but I know he wouldn't listen, just grin and turn up the volume.
I grew up listening to country and pop. For a kid in South Texas, especially one with a mother who liked country and who kept the radio locked to Y100, this was not uncommon. I was raised on twang and heartache, but I also spent time with the pop hits of my youth, which instilled in me a love for alternative rock that continues to this day. My sister actually helped me understand the power of those formative musical years when she said it this way: everyone always loves the music they were listening to when they learned to drive. Those songs and sounds will forever be fused with your heart and soul, and for me, that was country, pop, and rock. In high school, I added classic rock to the growing rotation of artists I explored, from Cream to Led Zeppelin, and though I briefly dabbled in jazz, the stuff never stuck with me beyond Kind of Blue and Birth of the Cool High school also meant listening to popular music, and that meant hip-hop as well as pop and rock. There was nothing unusual about this, and I was aware of the major hits like everyone else; listening to the radio and glancing at TRL meant knowing about "What's It Gonna Be?!" as much as "How's It Going to Be." That kind of broad-based, catch-all approach to the hits continued through college, which was probably the last time I ever bothered to keep up with what was happening in popular music, and though I wasn't as tuned in as I was in high school, I still picked up the songs that made enough noise. From a hip-hop perspective, that meant songs like "Roll Out," "Ms. Jackson," "'03 Bonnie & Clyde," etc. Yet I've only recently begun to explore hip-hop in greater depth. When I did, several things happened. The first was that I worried I was only doing so out of some misguided attempt to reconcile my white liberal guilt with the ignorance of a culture that had spawned pretty much every major American musical art form in history and did so from the mouths of people whose elders had been ritualistically imported and slaughtered until very recently. I honestly wondered if it was even okay for me to be doing this. I had heard the jokes and made them myself over the years, lines to the effect that hip-hop was fun music but utterly, totally black and therefore not acceptable for me to like except in an ironic or party-oriented way. In high school, we referred to white guys who loved hip-hop as "wiggers."1 Yes, high schoolers are animals, but racism is always born of fear, and terms like that demonstrate a fear of liking something foreign. The second was that I realized just how fucking good some of it is. Every genre has its own bad artists, and hip-hop's no exception, but there are some brilliant MCs and producers out there. I got hooked on the beats and samples, the way personas would change and inflate between songs and over time2, the method with which different artists used language and internal rhyme to pack their verses. The third was that I realized that hip-hop, like all other genres, is a land of blurry borders. The music borrows from and influences pop, rock, and classic R&B to a fantastic degree. Listening to it means getting another vital piece of the American cultural puzzle, and to write it off as music only for one race or not appropriate because of who created it is shockingly, horrifyingly stupid and cruel. I also realized that, in a way, I'd come full circle. My early love for country instilled a passion for the sound but only when done well; I can't abide modern country but will always make time for good artists in the genre from any era, from Cash to The Jayhawks. Country music has always been about a specific type of culture, and its biggest personalities have cultivated personas based on larger-than-life claims backed up by real-world troubles. Some of the biggest country songs of all time are about the songwriter's problems with substance abuse and the law, whether real or embellished, and how they keep trying to get ahead and overcome anyway. Hip-hop is the same thing, just from another culture. I discovered I was hitting the same weird race wall that too many people hit. Hip-hop is almost exclusively the domain of black artists, while country is almost entirely white; yet it doesn't follow that the fans must break down along those color lines. If anything, it's insane to think that. Italian food isn't only for Italians; songs by women aren't only for women. I'd been suckered in by the same attempts to segregate the audience that had been defeating people for years. I know this only the beginning of unpacking all this, and these brief paragraphs in no way get it all done. But it's a good start. 1. It should go without saying that I'm ashamed of the frequency with which I used such terms in high school and, sadly, college. Ditto the use of "fag" and all instances of "gay" meaning "stupid." Kids can be real children. 2. For instance, Jay-Z's adorable switch from the guy who said in "Big Pimpin'" that he'd be "forever mackin'" to the one who said in "'03 Bonnie and Clyde" that all he needs is his girlfriend.
I'm fascinated by the fact that The Beatles' albums were often released in dramatically chopped and repackaged ways to manufacture more content in the United States. I know that even today, albums can have slight changes between their U.K. and U.S. versions, but this seems like an extreme that hasn't been matched in years. The Beatles' U.S. records feel like history from an alternate universe, and I'm now hooked on collecting them.
I love hearing good covers of great songs, and am especially enamored of how this happens more often within the boundaries of country and spirituals, with original works or traditional arrangements passed among artists. Here's another wonderful example of a talented artist performing an earlier work: The original "Lodi," from Creedence Clearwater Revival's 1969 record Green River, and a subsequent version by Emmylou Harris, who also included the tune on her 1992 live release At the Ryman. (If anyone has another cover they're fond of, let me know.) This one admittedly might take some fiddling, but once the ad ends, you should be able to click the play button and see the Emmylou performance:
I'm looking for as many songs as I can find about California. I started out with those songs that featured the state's name in the title, and here's what I got:"California Stars," Billy Bragg and Wilco "California," Josh Ritter "Going to California," Led Zeppelin "California Dreamin'," The Mamas and the Papas "California Girls," The Beach Boys "California," Rufus Wainwright "Back to California," The Wallflowers "All the Gold in California," Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers "California," Phantom Planet "California Love," Tupac and Dre "California," Mason Jennings "Come to California," Matthew Sweet "Just Like California," Old 97's Then I narrowed the list to Los Angeles: "Los Angeles," Denison Witmer "Los Angeles Is Burning," Bad Religion "Los Angeles," Counting Crows I'm looking for more, but am also willing to take songs that mention the state in the verses and not the title. (Like, for example, Ryan Adams' "La Cienega Just Smiled.") Let me hear it.
The best way to start this is with some background.I attended Abilene Christian University from 2000-2004, and in the fall of my sophomore year, I pledged one of the school's local fraternities. (ACU calls them social clubs, since they're not part of a national system and they require a good deal more willingness to wear satin and harmonize, which is a whole other thing to unpack, but whatever.) I was a member of Gamma Sigma Phi, and choosing that club was one of the best choices I made at school. Our rival club was called Galaxy, because why not. We were the two biggest men's clubs on campus, and each passed down their dislike of the other guys every year to the new pledge class. I pledged in the fall of 2001, and there happened to be at that time a large number of douchebags who were one or two years older, both in my club — a tall, slope-faced asshat named Cade Thompson — and in Galaxy. One of the elder members of Galaxy who was known for giving their pledges and ours a particularly hard time was a guy named Ted Misledine. There are all manner of stories of him harassing guys and being generally dickish; a guy in my pledge class who would go on to become club secretary made jokes about Ted in a few of our weekly newsletters, and was subsequently told through a mutual acquaintance to "watch his back." But as much grief as he gave GSP and our pledges, he was much worse to the incoming Galaxy guys. So that's Ted. Every fall, each club has a party called a grub; it's a costumed and catered affair centered around a theme chosen by the pledges, who are also responsible for planning the event and providing the entertainment. (For reasons I could go into but don't have the space for, the guys' grubs tended to have better acts.) A guy my age named Austin Lawrence who was pledging Galaxy had had enough of Ted's all-purpose douchery and decided to write a song called, simply, "Ted Misledine" and perform it at their grub. It's a funny, sweet-sounding little song that talks about hitting him in the crotch with a baseball bat and accuses Ted of cruising for underage girls and cross-dressing. It's basically what you'd expect a 19-year-old to write, and it's great. Sometime before or after the grub, Austin recorded the song in his dorm room and put the mp3 on his shared folder, and I grabbed it and have had the pleasure of listening to it ever since. I can't quite remember who's doing back-up vocals; my gut says Chad Huston, but I'm prepared to be totally wrong and would welcome correction from any Wildcats who know better. Also, I should confess I never met Ted, or at least I don't think I did. (I'm not even sure I'm spelling his surname correctly.) If I met him now, he'd just be some guy about my age, but because of what he put my friends through, his legend has grown until he's become a mythic name connected with memories I forgot I ever made. For your listening pleasure, I tossed a few random photos of Abilene together and set it to the song and put it on YouTube. But really, the cheap visuals are just a placeholder. Enjoy the song, and for those who knew the singer or the subject, pass it along:
Here's an explanation, and here's a playlist from my drive:"Talkin' to the Moon," Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers "Horses," Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers "Cherry Lane," Ryan Adams "Coahuila," Old 97's "Babydoll," The Fratellis "The New Kid," Old 97's "Little Thing," Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds (live) "Every Morning," Jon Nolan "Wishing," Hootie and the Blowfish "Runnin' Down a Dream," Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers "It Wasn't Me," Jenny Lewis "Lost in Space," Fountains of Wayne "Looking Forward to Seeing You," Golden Smog
Having an iPod-ready stereo is one of the greatest things imaginable in Los Angeles, where you spend a lot of time in your car. And as much as I love having every album I own one click away, I've been falling in love all over again with my collection via the shuffle feature. Some days it's just an entertaining mix, but every now and then the randomly generated playlist is just what you feel like hearing. There's admittedly some pretty easy science behind this: I like all my music, which is why I own it and have put it on my iPod in the first place, so the shuffle feature is going to necessarily be jumping between songs I'm predisposed to love. But there's always the X-factor of how the songs sound together, and sometimes you just get lucky and find yourself coasting through 10 or 12 songs you wouldn't have thought to assemble but which nevertheless become the perfect soundtrack for that brief drive to work, to home, to anywhere. Whenever those moments happen, I plan on posting the playlist here. Here's what I heard on my drive to work this morning: "Take Me for Longing," Alison Krauss & Union Station (live) "Three Days," Thermadore "Long Black Veil," The Band "Good Ol' Boy (Gettin' Tough)," Steve Earle "Joe Bean," Johnny Cash (at Folsom) "For You," Bruce Springsteen "For No One," Emmylou Harris "ELT," Wilco "Fall Down Easy," Uncle Tupelo "If You've Got the Money (I've Got the Time)," Merle Haggard "Let's Go Dancing," Teitur "One Ray of Sunlight," Phantom Planet "Evaporated," Ben Folds Five