Top ten experiences with music in the last year: Number Three

December 20, 2012

September 2012:

Halfway to the bank, Travis Tritt found himself laughing so hard he had to sit down.

One thing that happens to you when you grow up is you get more relaxed about your tastes. You were close-minded about something before; now you decide to give it a chance. You always secretly liked something, now you openly like it and don’t care who knows. With a certain kind of music fan, this can manifest itself as an almost puritanical teenage obsession with what band is or isn’t cool, slowly loosening as the fan gets older until the 15-year-old who listened to Black Flag becomes the 35-year-old who listens to John Coltrane, or the boy who listened to Slayer becomes the man who listens to Leonard Cohen (and sometimes Slayer). There are moments when you find yourself mildly shocked at what you just put on the stereo, and you picture your teenage self, turning away from you in disgust. Once upon a time I thought of Fleetwood Mac as unspeakably cheesy, a soft-rock embarrassment whose name I could barely stand to hear mentioned. Now they’re one of my favorite bands and seemingly universally beloved by listeners my age, all the kids who grew up on pissed-off noisy Nirvana songs.

But there are limits. Most of us keep certain retaining walls in our mind, barriers in musical taste that we won’t permit ourselves to pass beyond. New Age. Smooth Jazz. Jam Bands. Ska. Rap-Metal. Whatever the genre, if we keep these hard and fast “This, but no further”rules about our tastes, we feel more comfortable pushing the easier boundaries. We dabble in soft rock. We reappraise house music. We dust off that cheesy early-90s R&B ballad and discover there’s a lot to like there. As long as we keep our genre taboos, we feel like we haven’t lost the compass of our essential music taste.  If there were a secret masterpiece in one of these genres, a record that’s going to stand the test of time and be canonized by future generations, you would never know if it’s a genre you’ve chosen to quarantine. Maybe you don’t even want to know; you don’t even want to believe in the possibility that there’s one Hoobastank record that’s secretly, surprisingly incredible (note: probably not).  Even if you discovered this hidden Hoobastank masterpiece and you realized it was incredible (again, unlikely), you would delete it from your iTunes, or you’d only listen to it late at night by yourself, or very, very quiet in your earbuds on a loud subway. You wouldn’t want your friends knowing you sincerely enjoy Hoobastank. Who (bastank) would believe you anyway? Better to be blissfully ignorant about the secret masterpiece that lies in the forbidden wasteland. Let a braver future listener unearth it.

I know some of you aren’t like this. Because basically what I’m talking about is snobbery, and I know there are plenty of passionate music fans – people reading this piece – who aren’t snobs, not like the way I’ve been a snob. I guess what this piece is, for me, is a confession. I’m sorry I was a snob and in some ways still remain a snob. But, spurred by your example, I’m trying to grow and to change.

I’ve always been good with people’s parents. No – great! I am a master at charming your dad. Mostly how I do it is talking music – the music of their generation – not casually, with faked polite interest, but passionately, relating to your dad, nailing what I love so much about his favorite band. When the moment is right, and no earlier, I drop the reference to the rare record that up until then I hadn’t let on that I’d known about. The lost masterpiece by his favorite band. The side-project or the fellow travelers. The offshoot. It’s devastating. You dad now loves me. I am his favorite of your boyfriends. Your dad doesn’t have to be a hardcore music completist for me to work my magic; everybody has the music they listened to when they were young, and contained in that music is so much happiness, so many beautiful memories, but also a sense of mournfulness. Those days are gone, never to return. When there’s evidence that the music they loved is meaningful to someone of a younger generation, it’s incredibly validating. It wasn’t all for naught. I wasn’t a silly teenager. I was onto something! My generation, what we listened to was great. We were great. It was a great time.

The reason I can do this is that I really do truly love your dad’s favorite band. Or, more accurately, I love one or two of them, but with all my heart.  And the second part of my dad secret is that I gloss over the band I’m not into as much. I hear Janis Joplin’s name mentioned and I move on as quickly as possible, looking for something I can work with, looking for Buffalo Springfield.

Usually this trick goes undetected, but Beth’s mom, in the most subtle and polite but definitely very pointed way, called me on it. My connection with her was Elvis and country music. I dazzled her with the depth and variety of my Elvis factoids. I showed the requisite respect for old country music. But she sensed a weakness there. Specially, she could tell that I was a snob about modern popular country music. She never called me out on it or accused me directly. Instead, she killed me with kindness. She started sending me gifts, albums that she knew I didn’t like. She’d start with something closer to my tastes and then deliberately push the boundary further and further out until the whole thing started to feel a bit passive aggressive. And then, one day, Beth came back from a visit to her mom and put a Travis Tritt CD on my desk. It was a birthday present, I think, but it was also a way of calling my bluff, saying you’re not even going to listen to this – you know it and I know it.

And I didn’t listen to it, or anyway didn’t for awhile. How could I? That stonewashed denim. The hardcore George W. Bush Republicanism. The outspoken NRA advocacy. The mullet. Travis Tritt was the opposite of everything I stood for.

Actually, I was being a snob. If I can still enjoy the music of John Phillips and Phil Spector and R. Kelly (and I do, and I don’t have a good answer as to why other than that I think that it’s great music and I can’t stand to deprive myself of it), then I can listen to some songs written by a damn Republican.  I realized the snotty attitude I had about Travis Tritt was related to the snotty attitude I’d once had about all country music, even greats like George Jones and Dolly Parton, back when I was a dumb kid who didn’t know any better. So I dutifully put the Travis Tritt on and listened to it carefully.

And of course there’s some great stuff there.  I guess my casual and usually unwelcome exposure to a lot of contemporary country radio while traveling across the country over the past six or seven years had led me to assume that there was basically no good country anymore after around the mid-80s, that the genre basically went into an unrecoverable tailspin. And while I still think current country music is a pale and embarrassing shadow of what it was in the 50s-70s, it’s become clear to me since that the 90s produced some really good country music. I’d expected Travis Tritt to fit into the mold I have in my mind for bad current country music – really low writing standards, a production style almost indistinguishable from pop but with a steel guitar somewhere in there, a highly compressed and kind of anonymous vocal – but a lot of what he does is really thoughtful and tasteful. He does barroom honky-tonk really well, and in a style that’s both respectful and fun – an ever-so-slightly slicker take on an old-fashioned form. But Tritt’s ballads, syrupy and sentimental as they are, slayed me.

It was hard to choose a song to highlight for this piece, but I think “Foolish Pride” shows a lot of what’s disarming about Tritt’s ballad style. First of all, the production, while slick, is tasteful, even occasionally kind of slyly inventive. These are good players, playing real instruments. I love the enveloping tremolo guitar chord at the top of “Foolish Pride” and the way the song the drums go all big and tympani-like in Tritt’s soaring chorus, which is grand but also a little solemn. Tritt’s melodies do the satisfying things you want, but they occasionally resolve in slightly unexpected places; his lyrical delivery has the kind of tight-lipped macho unfussiness you’d expect, but the emotions are giant and tremulous. His breakup songs capture the horrible fluttery end-of-the-world panic feeling of a breakup, with tough-guy narrators losing their cool, breaking down and pleading with their wives asking what they can do to change, often promising to be thoughtful and sensitive from now on in a way that skirts the line between vulnerable and emasculated.

In this song, though, there’s no begging and pleading because these narrators are too proud. Actually, we don’t know much about them other than that, the fact that they’re “too proud.” Usually in a breakup song, you’d sing from a first-person perspective, addressing your lover, pleading, “please don’t go.” There are a million songs like this. Tritt’s choice of a very distanced third person perspective, with him not seeming to side with either party, does a weird thing – it gives this song the feeling of a funeral. Which is exactly what it is – a funeral for a dead relationship, with a strangely static, frozen-in-time feel. “Turn out the lights. The competition’s over….Through the ashes, passion slowly dies.” You can picture it, the stillness falling over an abandoned house, the cold, the silence. Of course it’s a melodramatic metaphor, but first of all country music is all about melodrama and secondly who hasn’t been through a breakup that brought with it that smothering sense of misery, that sense of everything ending? Tritt’s choice of the word “competition” is honest and devastating. How miserable it feels when you’re competing with the person you’re supposed to love, when they’d rather be right than just listen to and support you. Tritt’s really doing it here, that weird country double-sided thing, the song that sounds like it couldn’t possibly be more simple but in fact contains an emotional depth that makes it feel large and enduring.

So now I have Travis Tritt in my life and I’m happier for it. Probably the 17-year-old me would recoil in shock and horror, but that guy was kind of a dick anyway. The thing about listening to new (to you) music, even to music you feel uncomfortable about, is that it’s a win-win. If you turn out not to like it, then good for you: you were right all along. If you end up thinking it’s pretty cool, then you’ve just pushed those walls of your taste out a little further, which means you’re a bigger person inside, you’re more open-minded, your soul has in some way expanded, you are who you didn’t realize you are.

Number 10: Bill & Will – “Goin’ to the River” (March 2011)
Number 9: Ted Hawkins – “Sorry You’re Sick” (November (2011)
Number 8: Blake Mills – “History of My Life (January 2011)
Number 7: Ray Price – “Release Me” (February 2012)
Number 6: Roy Harper – “One Man Rock and Roll Band” (February 2012)
Number 5: Joe and Donnie Emerson – “Baby” (March 2012)
Number 4: Robbie Dupree – “Steal Away” (May 2012)

Posted in: New Pieces | Tags: ,


8 Responses to “Top ten experiences with music in the last year: Number Three”

  1. Will Sheff

    Hey now, I was using ska as an example of a genre some people don’t like or have a mental block about. Personally a big fan of early Jamaican ska. The English stuff I tend to not be as into, with some exceptions.

  2. Deb Johnston

    Well I never thought I’d be listening to a Travis Triitt song but I’ve decided to open my mind.

  3. Emjay

    My snobbery went far beyond New Country, boasting full-on disdain for anything remotely twangish. And then a week ago I was thumbing through satellite radio while keeping my eyes on the road and bumped into the Willie’s Roadhouse station. Blue Kentucky Girl by Loretta Lynn was playing. It completely arrested me. It made me wonder how much I’ve missed because of my stupid prejudice. Getting older is awesome.

  4. Rob

    …never thought I would ever, ever, ever dig into Travis Tritt music. I just have to chalk that up to some foolish pride.

  5. Mollie

    Oh, man! What a great read and….can I make you a mix? I’d say the run of good country ended in ’95 or ’96 but there are some solid gems in there. I put on I Take My Chances by Mary Chapin Carpenter the other day and was reminded of her greatness. Same for old Steve Warnier, Randy Travis and Keith Whitley. Enjoy your journey!

  6. Jonathan

    ‘Who (bastank) would believe you anyway?’ = genius. First Black Sheep Boy, now that sentence. Unstoppable

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