Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The Nashville Scene makes me die a little bit more every week

I rarely read books for fun anymore, though I'm slowly working my way through this awesome book about Charlie Birger, which I will talk about at some point, I'm sure. But here goes the Nashville Scene with a review of a book I heretofore had no intention of reading making me think I'd better pick it up. The book, Country Music Goes to War edited by Charles K. Wolfe and James E. Akenson, contains, apparently, an essay by Aaron Fox suggesting that Gillian Welch is some upper middle class snot appropriating working class music and reformulating it in a way that makes it safe for other upper middle class snots. I love Gillian Welch. I rave about her to everyone I know. I have, on one occasion, given her something free from work even though it goes against everything I stand for. I drive around town with the windows down singing "I've got an old V-8 from the year I's born, don't look like much, just a flat, black Ford" like I don't give a shit who sees me. I even dragged Miss J. to a concert. But I also know what I am, a frumpy dumpy Midwestern girl who escaped a life of sitting at the bar reminiscing about high school waiting for my farmer husband to get done with the kids at Little League by shear luck. Those kids who circle around on their bikes in front of their grandma's house out in the country on hot summer days--that was me. Those kids who drive as fast as they can away from the tiny towns they live in only to come creeping back in because their parents want the car home by midnight--that's me. I eat only cornbread for dinner and I like it just fine; even if it was all my mom could afford, I believed her when she said it was a treat. And that's not to say that I'm some champion of the poor. We never saw ourselves as poor because we were just the same as everyone we went to school with. Some folks might have had a little more money and some folks might have had a little less, but, even though we were working class, I guess, I think we all thought we were safely middle class. But we all listened to country music, like it or not, because it was always around us. You couldn't go into a grocery store without hearing Reba over the speakers. My mechanic always had country music blaring in his garage. It was there at the doctor's office and at the bank and anywhere where folks had radios. You could dislike country music, but you couldn't not listen to it. Is Gillian Welch "aping working-class identities in the same disingenuous manner that black-faced minstrels did during the late 1800s"? That's a pretty serious charge. And it's one that's hard to know what to do with because it's hard to understand where Aaron Fox is coming from. He's got himself a "working class" looking photo on his website. And he's got a book all about working class culture. But, seriously, he's got a website and a professional photo and a book. And, and, he's got a B.A. from Harvard. How is he the arbiter of working class? Seriously. I'm $70 overdrawn and I'm living in a beer-bottle encrusted hole in the ground with my pitbull and my no-account brother who only has a job because he fears the wrath of my dad more than he hates working, with random license plates strewn about the front yard and a fucking train that runs through my back yard carrying on it hobos who could at any minute kill us because the fucking back door doesn't lock and the dog's a coward and I'm no more working class than Mr. B.A. from Harvard Aaron Fox, because, Dr. Professor Fox, once you leave, you can't go back, especially once you leave for grad school. So, Aaron, assuming you have the background of the folks you presume to speak for, let's be honest, you and I, we're both poseurs. We both can run around impugning all the folks we want for being classists, but come on, from one pretender to another, who are we to say anything? It's the price you pay for being lucky and getting to leave. You don't safely fit in the academy for fear that your bumpkin ways will betray you for the imposter you are, but you don't fit back home either. It's a paradox you always have to keep in mind if you want to do honest work, if you want to strive honestly for social justice, that you both always are that thing and can't ever be that thing again, in this case, the "authentic" audience for country music. And so, to accuse Gillian Welch of disingenuousness, hell, not just disingenuousness, but disingenuousness of a magnitude on the level of minstrelsy, without at least being aware of your own level of imposter-hood is sure something. I don't feel like I'm listening to something particularly false when I listen to Gillian Welch. I'm well-aware that she's a rich kid from California, but it doesn't bother me. Country music, as the billboard on my way to work says, is Your Music--America's music (or at least a part of it). And anyone with the time and energy to steep herself in it deserves the right to sing and play it. I know Johnny Cash never killed Delia or any man in Reno. And I know Gillian Welch didn't kill Caleb Meyer. I think the thing that really bothers me is the implication that certain types of music are only for certain people--that a rich kid from California can't make music that sounds like she's a rural white southerner, for instance, or that three Jewish white boys from NYC can't make rap music. I mean, what is rock and roll if not white kids ripping off black music? It's how American music works--to go back to that again--I steal from you; you steal from me. ...stole from my best friend, some joker got lucky, stole her back again... Anyway, maybe this post is more personal that it seemed at first. Of course I have a great stake in believing that all music is for everyone, that anyone with talent and luck can be successful in any genre, that all American music is all our musical heritage, because I need to believe that all America is for all of us. This land is your land, this land is my land, and all that jazz. So, Aaron Fox, now I've decided not to read your essay, because I don't give a shit if Gillian Welch and all the other yahoos are a bunch of poseurs; hell, I don't even give a shit if you are as well.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oooh...I don't like it when anybody disses on Miss Gillian like that. I don't know if you remember this, Aunt B, but after you and Miss J went to the show I bought one of her CDs sound unheard based on your recommendation and it was all I could listen to for several months. I think it was only Lucinda Williams that finally got some variety in the rotation.

What I do know is that there is some kind of empty loneliness and exhausted desparation when Gillian sings "could you spare a coin and a Christian prayer, my luck has turned against me" that knocks me flat and feels so familiar even though by grace and luck so far I've never had to beg for spare change from strangers. I'm sure that unless that happens to me I'll never really know what that situation is like but I know those feelings in different contexts. That particular song is like coming home to being lost. I remember when one of my grandmothers died it was the only song I could listen to for a while.

So I guess I'm agreeing with you or maybe I'm just telling a story. But I think even if the situations of the singer and the music aren't the same, the feelings can be.

I was going to go to bed, but now I have to listen to some CDs.


2/09/2005 11:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think everyone in this country thinks they're middle class.

( reference to your fourth paragraph.)

2/10/2005 04:48:00 AM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

Oh, Anonymous, good point. And one I hadn't even considered as I was ranting. Of course you have to be in situations where you're really confronted with the vast spectrum of wealth before you become accutely aware of where you are on the scale (and most of us are never in those situations). And of course, there's something self-serving and strange about declaring a group of people "working class" at the same time you position yourself as champion of them.

And, Super Genius, I think, too, that it's pretty funny that a lot of the album Revelator, which is my favorite of hers, is devoted to mulling over the very things that Fox seems to think she's utterly unaware of. What more can she do? Is she supposed to make Beach Boys music?

2/10/2005 08:59:00 AM  
Blogger Steve Pick said...

Wow. Great blog, Aunt B. I'm glad I clicked on your name when you posted a comment over at Mouse Words.

The question of authenticity in country music has been riddled with bullshit from the word go. Country music as we know it has always been show business. In the 1920s, when the Grand Ole Opry started, the producers actually made early performers take off their nice suits (which they wanted to wear because they thought they should look good) and put on hayseed clothing. From that moment on, country music has always been representing some imaginary past at the same time it's been vying with elements of sophistication, or at least striving to move up a level in class.

As much as I love a lot of alt-country, fans of the genre have this horribly romanticized view of what makes something authentic. Gillian Welch is as authentic as anybody, as long as she makes music that sounds real. What difference does it make whether she lived what she sings about or she read about it? She's true to her muse either way, and the only question we should worry about is whether or not we believe her when she sings.

By the way, I've always had an odd relationship with Ms. Welch's music. I like her songs a lot when sung by other people, and I like her singing a lot when she sings songs by other people. But, for the most part, I'm just not moved by her singing her own songs. Go figure! At any rate, it's not because I worry about whether or not she is authentically poor.

2/10/2005 10:53:00 AM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

Hey, Steve, thanks for the high praise. I checked out your blog and was tickled and intimidated (a little) to see how much better you write about music than I do. I have just a fan's passion for it, a morbid fascination with the ways scholars try to talk about music, and a belief that the ways we talk about music say a lot about us.

Have you read A Good-Natured Riot? It's all about that early Opry moment. It's a little dry, but just when you think it's about to bore you to death, Wolfe throws in some story about folks chasing each other around with guns.

I said it here back in September, and, when drunk, to anyone who will listen all the time, but anyone who wants to claim there's some "authentic" country music better take a closer listen to The Great Goddess of Country Music Herself, Patsy Cline. If she came out today, folks would be bitching about one more woman in the Faith, Shania, cross-over queen tradition.

2/10/2005 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger Steve Pick said...

Thanks for the compliments. I've spent 25 years writing about music, and I still feel like I've got a long way to go.

I haven't read "Good Natured Riot," but it sounds interesting. I'll look for it.

Your reference to Patsy and Shania reminds me of another argument I've had again and again with my alt-country friends. First, I have to say, I love Shania Twain. I love her because I love ABBA and Def Leppard, and she sounds like a cross between them to me. But, anyway, I've had so many people insist Shania Twain isn't singing real country music that I finally started calling them on it. My question was simple: Who are you to decide what is or isn't country music? You can like or dislike whatever you hear, but the definition of the form ought to at least be owned somewhat by the people who create and the people who listen to the music itself.

2/10/2005 01:00:00 PM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

Shania! I can't bring myself to like her. But let me tell you, I'm waiting for the day when Mutt Lange admits that her studio band is, indeed, Def Leppard. I swear, I can't tell her songs from theirs until someone starts singing.

My favorite Gillian Welch song is "455 Rocket" and I love Kathy Mattea's version of it. Hmm. Maybe I just have a thing for cars.

(I guess I should just succumb to the Man from GM's efforts to hook me up with Beautiful Ed, because I could be a happy woman with a partner who loved cars.)

Wouldn't it be awesome if every music video channel told you who the songwriters were, the same way CMT does? THAT would open up some interesting discussions about rap music, if the rumors about who writes what are true.

2/11/2005 09:26:00 AM  
Blogger the Professor said...

so I fear that those license plates are mine. I've noticed them a couple of times and have contemplated doing something about it. But, I am quite interested in watching to see how long they stay there. That and, I am thinking of investigating whether or not I can recycle them rather than just pick them up and put them in the trash.

2/11/2005 03:31:00 PM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

I believe this is a modified 20--"Pick your shit up out of my front yard." Believe me, if you're trying to outwait the Butcher, you're going to lose.

2/11/2005 04:04:00 PM  
Blogger realcountrymusic said...

Hey, Aaron Fox here. And I would simply point out that you are being unfair by not reading my work, article or book. You are taking a complete simplification of my paper in CMGtW by some reviewer as a correct statement of my views. I self-identify as upper middle class in my book and clearly in the article in question. I am open about my own love for alt country, Gillian very much included. And that "working-class" picture you cite is just me dressed for one of my old jobs, since I made my living for about a decade as a country guitarist. If you're gonna slam me so hard with the class bat in print, it's really kinda obligatory to read *my* words before representing them in yours. I'd love to discuss the paper with you, publicly here or on my blog if you'd like, and would listen most respectfully to this argument if it was informed by a fair representation of my views. I've heard it before, many times, and I concede its force. It's really the same as the argument you accuse me of making (which I don't) that one's class background defines the authenticity of one's experience. Of course it doesn't. You are, in fact, using class to stereotype me (I put myself through Harvard working two and sometimes three full time jobs, and I'm the son of a professor and a nurse, not a banker or a president, I smoke, and like it sounds as if you do, I live pretty much paycheck to paycheck. What does that make me, a Rockefeler?)

Feel free to email me privately in reply: or I look forward to a civil discussion. If you'd like, I'll send you an electronic copy of the article, which I can't post and would ask you not to as well for copyright reasons, but which I'd be happy to send you as a personal gesture. Perhaps we could even cross-post a discussion on each other's blogs. I bet I can change your mind.

8/18/2005 06:18:00 PM  

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