Hello Stranger from Issue #20
“No Depression seems like a culturalist, racist magazine to me, about a certain kind of white music.”
— Will Oldham
Time Out New York
Dec. 10-17, 1998
“Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
— Henry David Thoreau
We are alone at a stoplight in the dark, blocks from home and that last, midnight choice remaining to a hard day: a cold beer or a warm bed? And we are both smiling to the music playing loudly in our cars. The beats come hard from his trunk, not at skull-crushing volume, but loud enough that I am reminded how far out of touch with contemporary hip-hop I have become. It is equally doubtful he will recognize the Del McCoury Band seeping through my doors, but there is still an instant when our tired eyes meet and our lips barely smile.
The germ of this brief essay has been gnawing at me for two years. At least one colleague has cautioned against writing it at all. And I know that these few words in this space will not do the job, but one must begin somewhere.
Well. I am a married, middle-aged male of English-Irish-German ancestry who lives in a house in the suburbs by the railroad spur. I would look as foolish in sagging pants as I would in an Armani suit. So what, precisely, is it that I am supposed to listen to?
Music: Everything. It’s part of the job description, and I do my job with great pleasure.
And, for the moment, it is the music we write about in this magazine that speaks to me most strongly, for this work is always about the joy of discovery, from Skeets McDonald to Ted Hawkins, from Mance Lipscomb to Steve Earle. This music — these musics, more properly — is, to my ears, a rare glimmer of creativity and invention, a backwater oasis in a strip-malled culture, a place where songwriting remains pre-eminent, where my heart is most often touched.
One is always welcome to disagree with that. I am, after all, only a music critic.
Not a racist.
Culturalist? Two forms of music have been invented in the United States: Jazz, and bluegrass. Discuss and get back to me on that one.
Meanwhile, what exactly is white music? Or black music, for that matter?
Music is more than pleasing wallpaper in the lives of only a comparative few. One of its additional functions, most noticeably within youth culture, is to establish bonding groups. One joins, announces loyalty, shares unity with other strangers through the totems of T-shirts, bumper stickers, tattoos.
As the marketeers have become increasingly savvy at segmenting us, those differences have become more pronounced. As radio has become ever more tightly formatted (see David Cantwell’s excellent lead review this issue), it has become easier and easier for these bonding groups to grow in isolation, one from the other.
Despite that, research by the Country Music Association indicates that 20 percent of the audience for country music is black. Despite that, there is great country music by Ray Charles, Charley Pride, Stoney Edwards, Johnny Rodriguez and others…but, yes, it’s a short list.
Does country music in general, and Nashville in specific, have a long history of racial exclusivity? Absolutely. Does this magazine, these editors, these writers, and the artists we discuss seek to perpetuate that history?
I suppose you will have to judge that.
Meanwhile, I honestly don’t remember what the man in the car next to me that late night looked like. But I do remember the moment we shared. And I shall try to keep my ears on the music, not the bullshit.