Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Longing For That “Old Timey” Sound

Recently, in an attempt to escape the dizzy, chaotic swirl that college life in our postmodern world can often become, I sat down to read an old Time magazine and listen to some forgotten albums of The Band, or at least the few songs that my philistine frat brothers hadn’t beaten to death with overplay. As I read the 1970’s Time cover article about the group, and reacquainted my ears with the beauties of their simple, unpretentious sound, my mind lingered in the world of nostalgia—wondering why more bands today can’t blend the roots of our rock traditions in a fresh and organic way, as The Band did in the late sixties. At some point I dozed off, but eventually woke to the haunting chorus: “Corn in the fields / Listen to the rice when the wind blows ‘cross the water / King Harvest has surely come.”

Following the surprise success of The Band’s debut album Music from Big Pink in 1968, the four Canadians (Robertson, Danko, Manuel, Hudson) and the lone Arkansan (Helm) packed up and moved from the quiet seclusion of Woodstock, New York to the bright lights of Los Angeles. Ironically, it was among the glitz and glam of Hollywood, in a house rented from Sammy Davis Jr., that The Band recorded their second self-titled album—equally as successful and well-received as their first, and equally as fixed in the down-home roots revival, country, and folk traditions of their own mostly rural upbringings (similar to the imagined upbringings of the many 19th century rural, mostly Southern, archetypes that continued to populate their songs). “Dry summer, then comes fall / Which I depend on most of all / Hey, rainmaker, can't you hear my call? / Please let these crops grow tall / Long enough I've been up on skid row / And it's plain to see, I've nothin' to show / I'm glad to pay those union dues / Just don't judge me by my shoes," laments the poor, Depression-era farmer in “King Harvest,” the last track on The Band. “It was the last thing we cut in California and it was the magical feeling of ‘King Harvest’ that pulled us through, “ said drummer and vocalist Levon Helm, “It was like: there, that’s The Band.” Robbie Robertson, guitarist and main songwriter, attributed the inspiration for “King Harvest” to the Steinbeck novels he was engrossed in at the time (most obviously, Grapes of Wrath), saying of the song: “It’s just a character study in a time period. At the beginning, when unions came in, they were a saving grace, a way of fighting the big money people.” Prominent cultural historian and music critic Greil Marcus once said of the song’s inclusion on a compilation of The Band’s best material: “To me, it is the most important song on the album, and while a handful of The Band’s songs might equal it, none have surpassed it.” “King Harvest” has always been one of my favorite songs of The Band; it perfectly exhibits the beauty of The Band’s honest and unidealized lyrical exploration into “the old” as well their musical ability to blend the contemporary with yesterday’s style, creating a fresh and purely American sound. For these same reasons, fans from a diverse cross section of America, tired of the impersonal nature of commercialized pop and rock music, have flocked to the authenticity and warmth of The Band’s music since the group first appeared from out of nowhere in late 1960’s.

As I continue to read Jay Cocks’ 1970 chronicle of the group’s growing popular and critical success, I continue to ponder the state of today’s music, wondering what we might learn from The Band. Describing The Band’s music, Cocks wrote: “it is a turning back toward easy-rhythmic blues, folk songs, and the twangy, lonely lamentations known as country music.” This stylistic method, although hauntingly well-executed and made to look exceedingly easy by The Band, was not necessarily an unprecedented idea. The economic Great Depression of the 1930’s, as the farmer from “King Harvest” can surely attest, inspired a swelling sense of regret about American society along with its culture and values. While Americans knew the system had failed them, they were unsure of exactly who was implicit in this tragic breakdown. Unwilling to point fingers at their neighbors, many concluded that the guilt lay not with ordinary Americans but with the mainstream establishments that were supposed to have been serving them. As a result, many middle-class Americans looked, for inspiration, to those who seemed to exist independent of these ‘mainstream institutions’ and uncorrupted by the inhumanity of the industrializing world. The same poor sharecropping farmers of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath that inspired Robertson’s “King Harvest” lyrics were also the heroes of this 1930’s trend—embodying the dignity and the proud perseverance in the face of hardship that so many hoped to emulate.

In accordance, many Americans looked to traditional folk music for additional inspiration, music that drew on traditions uncontaminated by commercialization and popular culture. Music of this kind implied an autonomous, self-sustaining culture that could outlast any plight—an unconventional, more vibrant American culture. And so it makes sense that The Band’s stylistic approach, and its contagiously warm reception, came in wake of what many saw as the most unsettling decade the U.S. had ever endured—a decade of turmoil that resurrected the yearning to break away from the damaged present by returning to the virtuous past, whether real or imagined. But just as I am unwilling to accept any and all music that claims some sort of folk tradition, the disenchanted, young rebels of this counterculture were often keen critics and reluctant to accept just any neatly packaged or commodified nostalgia. The sepia-toned, predictably melancholy, and often contrived music of the Grand Ole Opry was too stale for these youthful folk revivalists of the sixties and seventies. The Band, however, was not. “It’s hard to describe,” said an Amherst student quoted in Cocks’ article, “They’re sophisticated but the very words and music that make them so appealing move away from the sophistication to earthy, honest qualities in life.” Another fan, quoted in the article, affirms the Band’s authenticity, saying: “You listen and you just know that’s no group of Johnny-come-lately’s from the suburbs who’ve gone off to a commune while Daddy foots the bill.” Towards the end of his Time article, Cocks affirms this unique ability, writing: “What The Band has worked out is something that countless other Americans hope for, a sort of watchful, self-protective truce within an encroaching world of noisy commerce.”

It seems to me, that if the commercialization of popular culture in the sixties and seventies was often stymieing for artists seeking an authentic, folk inspired sound, then today’s postmodern, postindustrial global economy is damn near suffocating for artists with similar goals. Our consumer-heavy capitalism of today is characterized by new and increased consumption patterns, by the omnipresence of advertising and the media, by the trendy and fickle nature of fashion and styling, by the rapid, viral-like expansion of suburbia and its accompanying sprawl, and by the domination of the image in popular culture. The postmodern theorist Frederic Jameson describes today’s artistic climate as a place where “all is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.” This pastiche form of expression, drawing from the styles of various time periods, annihilates temporality just as the domination of the image and mass culture drowns any clear gist of reality. In this sense, postmodern art fails to establish any sequential sense of past, present, or future. As a result, art is condemned to the perpetual present, which is exemplary of the postmodern condition.

This might seem like an overly dreary and pessimistic outlook, but read the average album review by today’s music critic and one might be more likely to agree with Jameson—that the pastiche filled postmodern present has stifled musical originality and creativity. In a recent review of Jens Lekman, a Swedish singer-songwriter, music critic Marc Hogan writes: “Lekman's stunning Night Falls Over Kortedala embraces this idea more fully than any release of the past few years-- more even than Girl Talk with his memory-pricking laptop references, Kanye West with his canny reuse of classic hooks from Curtis Mayfield and Daft Punk, or mash-up artists with their many one-trick tracks.” Judging by this sentence (there are thousands more where this came from), laden with references to other popular musicians, it seems that today’s artists, at least in the eyes of music critics (especially the indie-rock snobs of Pitchfork Media), are relegated to being, not themselves, but an amalgamation of their musical peers and those that came before. This isn’t solely a hypothesized or perceived problem; it is a reality—today’s musicians clearly struggle with these pressures as they search for a believably authentic voice. Jeff Tweedy was previously the darling of the alt-country scene all through his days with the groundbreaking band Uncle Tupelo, but he said he felt the pressure to ditch his alt-country ‘baggage’ and break away from the strict traditionalists’ expectations before he could take his current band, Wilco, in new and more exciting directions. Many others feel the same stresses as they strive for the genuineness that The Band, and others before them, made so appealing. Similarly, as pastiche leads to a loss of temporality, today’s music can seem empty in its anachronistic displacement. The postmodern disconnect between past and present is likely part of the reason myself and others have an admittedly grouchy discomfort with today’s popular folk material. “If a performer is too rough-hewn,” one critic confesses, “it often strikes me as scam primitivism…while on the other hand, I find that if revival performers seem too polished, their folk allegiances start to seem like calculated put-ons, and I question their legitimacy as tradition practitioners.” How, in this postmodern age, is the musician to forge a unique musical path?

This dilemma seems especially pertinent for artists of my beloved postmodern South. As the region becomes more and more assimilated into the popular culture of the global economy, what will become of the Southern folk roots that made the area so distinct? Taking on the pessimistic outlook of Jameson, I feel impelled to expect the revivalist-like Southern response to an increasingly diverse and confusing world to be an ugly and heated contest, as various parties jockey to claim Southern culture for their own. But my more reasonable and democratic understanding of the South acknowledges the inevitability of competition, yet sees this as neither problematic, nor anything new. What makes the South so great, for me, is that it has always been a dynamic site of hybridity, and often, rivaling cultures and identities. Indeed, in the postmodern, international context, the South has always been and will continue to be, not a place of heated contest, but one of cultural exchange. This is what moved The Band’s Canadian members Robertson, Danko, and Manuel to travel to the South, to the flood plains of the Mississippi, where they met Levon Helm, and where blues, jazz, folk, country, gospel, soul, and rockabilly fused into rock n’ roll. If we can embrace the South and the cultures associated with ‘place’ as something, not coldly tangible and in need of possession, but something eclectic, dynamic, and living, then we make the task of breathing new life into folk traditions much less pressure-ridden for musicians. I cite Wilco’s collaboration with Billy Bragg, the folk samplings of the hipster Beck, or the eclectic, evolving career of Bob Dylan, and even the persevering nature of Pete Seeger’s career, among others, as examples of artists who have managed to circumvent the strictures of authenticity, deciding not to limit themselves with the label of any one particular sound but instead, subscribing to the folk ideal itself—the process of digging through vernacular roots, breathing new life into them by combining them creatively with contemporary flare.

But for me, while not the only band that embraces both the postmodern condition as well as the living dynamism of Southern identity in an effort to breath new life into old traditions, but the one that does it most fully (and one I recently rediscovered), is the Chapel Hill based band Southern Culture on the Skids. In a review of The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism, edited by Stephen Conors, the critic Marshall Fishwick writes of the band: “I got an earful of postmodernism when a new rock group called Southern Culture on the Skids invaded our campus for an End of Exams Blowout concert. The name was well chosen. Loud and lusty, they blasted us with music they described as ‘hillbilly-surf-mexicali-rockabilly.’ One of the spectators, having enjoyed a good amount of artificial stimulus, called it ‘low-down-dirty thunder that's straight outta-the sewer blooze.’” The band was founded by guitarist and vocalist Rick Miller, who split his childhood between North Carolina and California, which helps explain the band’s Southern-roots-rockabilly-meets-surf-guitar sound. Since 1987, bassist and sometime vocalist Mary Huff along with drummer Dave Hartman, both of who hale from Roanoke, Virginia, have accompanied Miller on stage in what is one of the most entertaining and hilarious live acts in the music world. As Fishwick acknowledged in his book review, Southern Culture on the Skids is fully postmodern—not only in their obvious Southern-fried fusion of blues, rockabilly, country, swamp pop, boogie, and chitlin circuit R&B, but also in their blending of high and low culture along with their ironic lyrical approach to Southern (mainly trailer park) stereotypes. When Southern Culture on the Skids (known by most veteran fans as SCOTS) signed with a major record label in 1995 to release probably their most accessible album, Dirt Trake Date, the company, DGC Records, sifted through promotion ideas for their new client. They soon realized it was futile, as a record exec confessed, “To think of something clever to add to a band that plays on stage with a line of dancing men and women, a guy in a black suit with a Mexican Santo wrestling mask on his face, [and] a box of [fried] chicken being thrown around.” Yes, with their ‘kodzu limbo’ dancing, Tabasco guzzling, and friend chicken eating, their live shows are known to some to be the freakiest, freshest rock n’ roll parties around.

But SCOTS aren’t all gimmick. With just three instruments they achieve an amazingly loose, but rich and lively sound. Guitarist Miller, with his unique ability to provide extended guitar solos that one is able to dance to, pays heroically fresh tribute to the likes of Dick Dale, Travis Wammick, and Link Wray. And while they come across as sometimes vulgar, and many times hilariously ironic, SCOTS approaches the Southern archetypes they know best with the same honesty and poignancy as The Band. Like The Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek” about the familiar female stop of a hard, working trucker, SCOTS sings “Fried Chicken and Gasoline” about a trucker missing a girl who don’t even know he’s gone. SCOTS’ ability to both poke fun at and take pride in their often white trash characters at the same time, along with their eclectic blend of different music styles, made with a contemporary feel and punk attitude, have made them accessible to a diverse demographic of fans. They can appeal to both those who embrace these low down Southern stereotypes as their own (the band gives the feeling that they are making fun of themselves more than anyone else) as well as those intellectual types who manage to take a bit more wit and irony out of their listening. Indeed, Southern Culture on the Skids is a benchmark of success in achieving a distinctly Southern, authentic voice rooted in traditions, with a tinge of postmodern eclecticism and irony, but never trapped by its strictures. If more artists can learn to apply this formula to their musical creativity, today’s music scene will only grow richer and more vibrant than it is today; and The Band might not remain as the group I seek to purify my soul when life overwhelms.

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