The Newbies of Americana

This article wanted to be nice.

It started out that way; it had the best intentions; it was full of good feelings, full of sunshine and butterflies and fresh country air. It was not a pushover -- you wouldn’t want to get on the bad side of this article, that’s for sure. But if you let it alone it was a huggybear.

But then it went off to the city, and modern life was too much for the article to stand. Now, it’s not as if the article turned altogether mean. But something changed, a note of sorrow entered in, and there’s the pity. There’s so little wit and glamour in this world; it would have been nice if the article could have given us wit and glamour.

It wanted to be sweet. It had planned to talk about the recent "Down from the Mountain" concert at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. That concert was the first stop on a tour that would feature many of the same musicians who had appeared earlier at Ryman Auditorium and Carnegie Hall, holy places both, to sacramentalize traditional acoustic music and, not coincidentally, the success of the Grammy-award winning O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which had "started it all," as many newspaper writers have put it.

The article was going to set the scene, describe the music and performers -- including the Fairfield Four, Norman Blake, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Ralph Stanley, Patty Loveless -- and then take an ironic turn. But the irony was not supposed to be hardhearted or sharp-witted. This article wanted to keep on the sunny side.

The gentle irony would be focused inward -- self-deprecating, self-mocking. The irony would be at the expense of the article’s writer. Perhaps some of his readers would recognize that the writer was using himself as an example of bourgeois intellectualism and thereby understand that his article was speaking not just about himself, but about other bourgeois intellectuals like them.

The writer and his readers share an interest in the brand of authentic music this article considers -- the kind of authenticity you can buy. And the writer and those readers are reflexively, if gently, self-ironic types. Yeah, they think, we’re privileged white Americans, but we’re self-deprecating, so that makes everything OK, and then they smile in that way that privileged white Americans have.

Gentle self-mockery was part of the article’s plan. The article would use the "Down From the Mountain" concert as a pretext for fashionable boomer self-loathing. More than that, though: The article would present the ambiguities of what "authenticity" stands for today, now that mountain music is the height of bourgeois intellectual cool, endorsed by such hotshots as NPR, which earlier endorsed Cajun and Celtic and zydeco, and by the Coen Brothers, producers of the concert and every self-conscious boomer’s favorite self-conscious boomer directors of self-conscious films, including O Brother, Where Art Thou.

Not that the article would seriously interrogate the term "authenticity," which is, as the theoretical cool kids put it, "an arena for contestation." Nor would it do more than take an affectionate swipe at the Coens or NPR; the writer, despite the aforementioned "fashionable boomer self-loathing," adores Fargo and All Things Considered and can even sit through Barton Fink if you bring him snacks and pat his hand to comfort him during the weird parts.

To wit: Work in the sentence "not a gun rack in sight, though the pungency of well-chosen cheeses pervades."

Would the article have to respond to the actual event, the first concert of the "Down from the Mountain" tour? Not at first. Not when the article was in its infancy. The writer could start the article before he’d even clicked onto the Ticketmaster Web site and groaned (as ever, shocked and livid) at the "service [sic!] charge." It would be simplicity itself to make the article explore a clash of cultures: the authentic mountain culture celebrated in virtual obscurity by most of the artists on the night’s roster; and the newbie culture of the middle-class writer and his chardonnay-sipping, running shoe-wearing, PopPolitics-reading cohorts. Attending the concert would only confirm the writer’s suspicion of the cultural complexities in Rupp.

Thus, from the mental notes of the writer in transit up I-70:

* Survey the arena’s parking lot pre-show. Note the number of Volvos parked therein for this "mountain music" concert. Compare with the paltry number of mud-spattered pickups. Offer other cultural ambiguities which appear to sneer at the blue-collar crowd but instead reveal the class anxieties of the newbies. To wit: Work in the sentence "not a gun rack in sight, though the pungency of well-chosen cheeses pervades." Quote bumper stickers, especially those denoting arty or timidly progressive leanings; e.g., from the writer’s very own vehicle: "Art Works for Kentucky" and "Re-elect Gore and Lieberman, 2004."

* Work in a reference to Rupp Arena itself, a holy place among certain college basketball fans. Allude snootily to Fenway Park (since baseball is classier than basketball), also to Cameron Indoor Stadium (since Duke University is classier than the University of Kentucky). Thereby further damn the writer as a snob (but gently, make the readers pity not hate the writer, their brother, their double) while still getting the snootiness into the piece. Note that a colleague, Dr. Hugo Freund, has recently quoted Spiro Agnew as regards the writer and his friends: "impudent core of effete snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals." Self-referentiality = sincerity (cf. Eco, Postille a 'Il nome della rosa'). Neat!

* Mention that downtown Lexington itself is a very pretty and well-preserved city, with many lovely brick buildings and modern hotels that actually fit in. Mention the Kentucky Theater which shows art movies. Mention the excellent variety of Scotches available at the different locations of the Liquor Barn. Look in the Yellow Pages for the names of fashionable and authentic ethnic restaurants to work in. Use the phrases "funky but chic" and "cheeky but fun." Ignore the fact that the latter phrase is meaningless; pray that it, unlike the earlier coinage fratriotism, gets picked up and bandied about by influential people, thereby ensuring the writer literary immortality.

* Briefly discuss outlying Lexington, a sprawl of windswept Red Square-ish shopping centers and upper-middle-class worker houses, thereby justifying this quotation from former Lexingtonian Richard Hell: "I was sayin’ let me out of here before I was even born." Also Daniel Boone’s stated reason for leaving Kentucky for the wilds of Missouri: "Too many people. Too crowded! Too crowded! I want more elbow-room."

* Write "Man O’ War Boulevard" often.

But eventually, the writer must experience and report. After having been lost for some time (on Man O’ War Boulevard), he and his wife check into the affordable and surprisingly comfortable Comfort Suites, eat dinner at the Applebee’s next door, and go to the actual arena itself. He modifies some of the ideas he formed on the way into town. The idea about the parking lot, for instance. Because he parks at a Kinko’s instead of at the arena, he cannot be certain about the Volvo-to-pickup ratio. Regarding bumper stickers he lacks a clue. He decides to lie to his readers and tell them that he did, after all, park among the other Volvos and survey the stickers. What his readers don’t know, etc.

Inside the arena, which is next to, on top of, surrounded by, engulfed within --geography is not the writer’s strong suit -- a three-story shopping mall, he commences surveying the scene. He asks his wife, who writes legibly, to take notes. She stares hostilely but complies. Herewith, a transcription of selected items:

* Stage ostentatiously bare. Backed by a (gray?) curtain. Three mike stands. Easy chair and podium stage right. What appears to be a cheap rug, not large enough for this stage (Rupp, though the first venue of this tour, is also the biggest: unwieldy site?) The frugality is artful. "Tasteful."

* A good sign: No more than four cowboy hats visible in the entire arena. Not attracting a "country" crowd (Faith, Garth, etc.) despite the logoed-t-shirt-wearing radio station goons giving away bumper stickers to whoever wants one. (No one wants one.) A bad sign: One guy dressed completely in black, wearing a beret. Why is this a bad sign? Guys in berets are always a bad sign.

* Four men wearing jeans and tweed jackets within spitting distance. Five if you’re not the writer but rather the writer’s wife and count every guy in tweed you yourself could easily spit on. It looks like they just wandered in from a faculty meeting. No, scratch "like"; write "as if."

* Besides the chardonnay-sipping, running shoe-wearing, PopPolitics-reading types sitting nearby, there is a goodly number of real-looking country folk as well. You can tell they are real because their clothing does not combine denim with houndstooth. They seem pleased by the attention their music is getting and arrive in their seats early. Still for the real deal, they might have driven to Cincinnati, a couple of hours north where Ricky Skaggs and Del McCoury are playing tonight. But people (i.e., the bigtime press) are watching: you come to show your support. It’s a matter of support.

* The show’s host is Bob Neuwirth. Patti Smith once wrote a poem for him. It’s called "For Bob Neuwirth." He was with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. In Renaldo and Clara, which Dylan directed, he played the Masked Tortilla. T-Bone Burnett (who produced the movie soundtrack and tonight’s show) played the Inner Voice and Bob Dylan played Renaldo. (Ronnie Hawkins played Bob Dylan.) Emmylou Harris sang on Dylan’s Desire album, released at roughly that same time.

* Another way that a lot of these artists are connected: Many of them -- the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Norman Blake, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley -- have appeared on Prairie Home Companion. Aren’t the Coens, like Dylan and Garrison Keillor, from Minnesota? Does Minnesota make fiddle music okay?

* This is not pedantry.

* As to the music itself: Competent. Professional. Slick. Scripted. Bloodless. Joyless. Sexless. Occasionally tedious. We are, one gathers, given to understand that this is a Special Evening and should therefore stop looking at our watches so often.

* Highlights: (1) The Fairfield Four sing bass parts that could dissolve kidney stones; (2) Alison Krauss, suffering from laryngitis and thus unable to sing the songs she’s been scripted to sing, instead cuts loose on fiddle; (3) several different performers refer to the ascendancy of mountain music on the pop charts and, barely able to contain their glee, note that they are at last earning a living wage; (4) Julie Miller gets miffed at something or other and claws the air in the general direction of a mystified roadie while continuing to sing harmony for Emmylou Harris; (5) Patty Loveless.

* Ralph Stanley calls for the come-on-back-everybody finale before, it appears, everybody is altogether ready to come on back. There is general confusion before the performers wander back onto the stage. Ralph looks down at his lyric sheet. Eventually they perform "Angel Band." This is a genuine relief, because all along the evening has been heading in the direction of, please please no, "Amazing Grace."

* For an encore, the gathered musicians perform the last verse and chorus of "Angel Band." They walk offstage. With no to-do whatsoever, the audience gets up and leaves. They do not stomp or clap rhythmically or otherwise demand more for their money. In the lobby of Rupp and in the streets, there is nothing resembling exhilaration.

* Before the tour has gone through too many more dates, the concert adds another encore. It is "Amazing Grace."

Let’s lose the cute third-personism. It worked to distance me from "the article," but now I’d like to be more forthright.

I live in southeastern Kentucky, in a renovated carriage house which you can see right here if you rotate the image about 180 degrees and zoom in. I have lived here, and taught in the college across the street, for nearly two years. Moving to a small town in Appalachia meant leaving behind certain things that I had come to rely on -- the nearest real bookstore is 80 miles away, and let’s not talk about movie theaters. For many years, I had patronized terrific independent record stores, like Papa Jazz in Columbia, and Manifest Records in Greenville, S.C. But no more: Now the nearest outlet for recorded music is Wal-Mart. And the second and third nearest outlets are other Wal-Marts.

But, in another sense, I do not entirely reside in that renovated house. Like my "bourgeois intellectual" readers, I feel like a citizen of some abstract but still viable nation. I have no bookstores or record shops nearby, but I can send off for anything I’d like and have it in two business days. Like anyone else with the proper wiring, I can read the New York Times as soon as I get to the office; I can read The Nation, American Prospect, Village Voice. I mourn the death of Lingua Franca and I’m not even sure that I’ve ever seen a copy in print.

And consider this: The only radio station that broadcasts here in town brags of having "the best mix of the 80s and 90s." Thus I am wistful for NPR and search the Internet for Web casts. Recalling the stations I enjoyed back home, I find good old WNCW, which plays tasteful boomer stuff like Dr. John and Little Milton and therefore could just as well be in New York or Chicago or here in tiny Barbourville (say it so it rhymes with "marvel") as in Spindale, N.C. It gives me World Café, which is bogus, but nice for doing paperwork.

These intruders did not know enough to shut up.

Several years back, WNCW was a "flagship bluegrass station," which is what it misleadingly continues calling itself today. It played real, which is to say "weird" and "scary," mountain music long before the Coen Brothers got an Americana jones. It was the station that I listened to when I wanted to hear the music you’d hear on mountaintops and in hollers without actually going up onto mountains or down into hollers. WNCW was a highway to deep country that didn’t get too near frighteningly authentic rural people.

The "Down From the Mountain" tour is not just a celebration of traditional music, but a final exam for many of us 40-ish smarty-pants who listened to radio stations like WNCW when we were kids -- who continue listening now even though they have grown pretty blah. The bourgeois intellectuals I’m talking about don’t think of music as simple entertainment or even as simple "texts." Instead, we understand pop culture as a stage for intellectual performance. While we’re listening to the latest Dylan, we read Greil Marcus for context. We study the Anthology of American Folk Music. We scuttle to Amazon and order David Johansen and the Harry Smiths, the album we heard about on Fresh Air.

We can tell you this: On Aug. 1, 1927, a signal day in American history, Ralph Peer signed and recorded both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. The Carters had come to Bristol, Tenn. -- the Birthplace of Country Music -- from Mace (or Maces, or Mace’s) Springs, Va. The mountain they came down from was Clinch Mountain, a holy place in its own right. And Maybelle Carter learned her distinctive guitar style from Leslie Riddle, an African American neighbor.

So, as you see, those of us who showed up in our Volvos were ready both for the concert and for our comprehensive exams. And how did we come up with our wealth of knowledge? Through some field work, but also from -- mostly from? -- secondary sources. As my wife, Sharee, reminds me, she has often urged me to visit Bill’s Music Shop and Pickin’ Parlor in West Columbia, S.C., where I could have seen Ralph Stanley up close, before he got the imprimatur of The New Yorker. She further reminds me that, at Bill’s, we could have seen Ralph and the Clinch Mountain Boys for $10 advance, 12 at the door (we’d have to bring our own chairs). But at Bill’s (she goes on, barely controlling her need to dope-slap me), I would have lacked distance from the topic. I’d have had to enjoy the music, not study it and file away what I learned for finals.

So here is why I did not especially enjoy "Down from the Mountain" and why the article turned mean. The quality of the show is not what soured me. The experience as compared with my expectations did. My mind was made up; I knew how the concert, and the article I’d write, would go -- the concert was going to be an excuse for gently probing boomer longing for The Authentic, for setting me and my faux dithering down among the old timers. That would be a pleasant way to set the concert in its psychic place

And then the Mallrats showed up. I am using the term "mallrat" broadly, not to mean just the kids you see hanging out at malls. Instead, I mean everyone of any age who thinks that, if God had wanted you to buy it, he’d have put it in one of 300 climate-controlled stores beneath a single roof with acres and acres of convenient parking.

They sat behind us. And next to us. And all around us. So, while we were trying to hear Ralph Stanley’s unaccompanied "O Death," we had to contend with a yee-hah-hollering goober or two. Or 10. And when Emmylou Harris came on, out came all the flash cameras. The old timers must nearly have been blinded.

Cellphone user in crisp new overalls: "Hey, Scott. Guess where I am? Rupp. Rupp Arena. At a concert. An honest-to-God bluegrass concert. Guess how much I paid for the goddam tickets?" Holds cellphone up so Scott can hear Union Station.

Worse, these intruders did not know enough to shut up. During ballads, they talked, loudly, to one another about (1) irrelevant things like who was dating whom and (2) sort of relevant things like the last Five Blind Boys of Alabama album, but shut up anyway. The woman sitting one row behind and two seats to the right of Sharee: would you like to know what she considers the best place for wings in Louisville? I know: she told me and the whole world during "Red Dirt Girl."

And they not only talked. The Mallrats sang. That is how I know they were Mallrats. The songs they sang identified them. They did not sing along to Emmylou Harris’s "Red Dirt Girl" or Patty Loveless’s "Mountain Soul." (They talked during those songs.) Instead, they sang along to "I am a Man of Constant Sorrow" "Big Rock Candy Mountain," "Angel Band," and "I’ll Fly Away" -- all the songs on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. They had gone to the mall, bought the album, and learned the songs. Then they came to the concert because it was cool.

Look: People who listen to NPR know better than to sing along at concerts. And they expect others to follow the rules of decorum. For gosh’ sakes: civilizations fall when people talk at concerts. That’s why, after my wife asked the woman behind her to keep it down (her male companion intelligently told Sharee to "chill out"), I went looking for ushers. I’d show these upstarts.

Here’s what I learned. In Rupp Arena, people are allowed to speak as loudly as they like, so long as they don’t cuss or abuse others. It didn’t matter that the show was acoustic and that the miking was inadequate to fill Rupp with anything other than minimal volume. The Mallrats -- interlopers -- could yap as noisily as they pleased.

"You mean you can’t make them be quiet?" I asked the usher.

"They paid to be here. They have the right," she said.

"So I have to put up with their noise?"

"They bought tickets."

"I bought tickets, too," I said. "Don’t my $90 count for anything?"

Silence. So I walked back to sit beside Sharee and seethe. The Mallrats got quieter as they ran out of things to say, but I got angrier. The injustice of it all.

As the evening ended I glared at the Mallrats. They left without comment. Good thing, too. I’d have had words for them.

Like: Why can’t you act like decent people?

Like: How dare you turn this music into Top 40? A fad like Gap t-shirts?

Like: Just because you paid for it doesn’t mean you own it.

Jimmy Dean Smith is an associate professor of English and communications at Union College in Kentucky and a contributing editor to PopPolitics.

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