Music Scenes: Local, Translocal, and Virtual / Live from Fitzgerald’s: Songs and Stories of an American Music Club / Nashville’s Lower Broad: The Street that Music Made
Music comes from everywhere, of course, but the logic of commerce argues that American popular music should mostly be produced in the industry’s three principal business centers: New York, Los Angeles and Nashville.
And sometimes it is.
But an ever-expanding body of literature seeks to understand how important music evolves elsewhere.
Among those who care, the history of pop music throughout the second half of the 20th century can easily be referenced simply by naming other places — Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago, Liverpool, Detroit, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Austin, Athens, Minneapolis, Seattle, Chapel Hill — and conjuring the specific sounds to which each gave birth.
In each case you can point to a handful of musicians, technicians and entrepreneurs to explain the eruption. They usually congregate in cheap places to live where nobody pays much attention to what they do, at least until most of the thinking and creating is done. And a great deal of what makes a hit record — even in today’s marketing-savvy world — remains sheer, dumbfounding magic.
Which is why we listeners remain so intrigued by the process (that, and the fact that we always want more of something we love). Music Scenes is the latest contribution by the community of sociologists to this study. It offers a pleasant, even voyeuristic glimpse into an assortment of largely closed worlds, most presented through the lens of a grad student embedded within. They draw the curtain back on such varied enclaves as U.S. karaoke singers, salsa dancers in London, riot grrrl, Britney Spears’ teen fans, and the internet discussion group P2, which focuses on country and alt-country music.
The most fascinating study describes the evolution of a Michigan rave scene, detailing the relationships between developers, drug dealers, politicians and police. Given how many promoters went before city councils claiming that raves were good, clean, drug-free fun, Ken Spring’s account is refreshingly honest. (And let’s not pretend that drugs don’t frequently play a role in the evolution of a sound or place or whatever a scene really is.)
The entire volume is comparatively jargon-free for sociology, though written largely in the passive voice of academia. Because each article is the work of a different contributor, no specific argument or insight grounds the book. The needs of their discipline mean that each writer is careful and exacting in description, if reluctant to leap to explanation. But at least they had fun doing the research.
At the other end of the spectrum, Live From FitzGerald’s (which comes with a live CD as well) celebrates the twenty-plus-year history of the Berwyn, Illinois, nightclub which has become a regular stop for roots music performers. Dave Whitaker and Blair Jensen previously collaborated on a much different book, Cabrini-Green In Words And Pictures, and have produced a loving — and mostly lovely — homage to a much-beloved club.
Live From FitzGerald’s largely follows the taste of the owner, Bill FitzGerald, and picks up the story of his club photographically only in the last few years. Each chapter (or set, as they would have it) centers on introductory profiles of featured performers. Which is fine, but is the audience for this book really waiting to read, “J.D. Crowe has stood at the forefront of bluegrass music for the last 40 years”?
Ah, well. The text is sandwiched between Jensen’s photographs, both color and black and white, which do a commendable job of capturing the spirit of the place.
The design — and this is a heavily designed book — gets a bit choppy toward the middle, the captions (which are made to look like typewritten stickers) become annoying pretty quickly, and there may simply be too many words for a picture book, or too many pictures for the words to command attention. These are doubtless issues (and comparatively small quibbles, at that) only for readers who are not habitues of the club.
Photographer Bill Rouda’s Nashville’s Lower Broad is a quieter, much more focused (sorry) retrospective of a scene that came and went quickly, but altogether on his watch. When the Grand Ole Opry vacated the Ryman Auditorium in 1974, the surrounding neighborhood went slowly to seed. By the time Rouda arrived in October 1993, Tootsie’s, Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop and other historic landmarks were the province of unwary tourists and fall-down drunks, surrounded by peep shows and whatever other sordid enterprises the locals supported. And nobody cared.
Art has a funny way of flourishing in such settings. Lucinda Williams contributes a preface detailing her arrival there, and Rouda’s lens captures the rise of BR-549 and the Robert’s Western Wear revival (often from the perspective of Greg Garing) along with the particular glory of the neighborhood regulars. A few celebrities show up, particularly toward the end of the book as BR-549’s success caused the neighborhood to be rediscovered, then transformed by the arrival of chain bars (Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock Cafe, NASCAR Cafe) and a more acceptable kind of public order. And, of course, the moment passed.
The entire story is captured in rich black and white photographs, poignant in detail, augmented by simple captions, recording the lives of many otherwise anonymous souls. It reads like a first-rate essay.