With the recent wave of media attention surrounding the Randy Parton Theatre and Carolina Crossroads, in addition to concerns I’ve heard expressed over the acts selected for recent concerts, it seemed like an opportune moment to delve into a subject which has long held sway over a large expanse of my soul. I’m referring to that ancient form of black magic and harmonic madness known as music, in my humble opinion the most exalted art form our troubled planet is ever likely to conjure up.
Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a lecture by author Timothy Tyson as he discussed the finer points of southern culture with a group of students at Roanoke Rapids High School. He stressed, in particular, the influence of southern derived music in shaping the cultural landscape not only of the United States but virtually every nation across the globe. From blues to country, gospel to rock -n-roll, even rap, which originally found its way to the boroughs of New York via the shanty towns and southern climes of Jamaica, southern bred music has exerted an inordinate influence on the sounds, attitudes and social mores that dominate our society.
This influence draws its life force from the raw, unforgiving blues of the Mississippi Delta via musicians and former sharecroppers such as Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Howling Wolf; from the sanctified gospel hymns pouring forth from store front churches in Memphis, Tennessee; from the Dixie Land jazz and second line rhythms of New Orleans; from the back-wood juke joints and honky-tonks, the Buckets of Blood as they were generically known, of any rural, southern Saturday night.
Though I admit to a certain bias in this area – I’m southern by birth and choice – the raw vitality of this music cannot be denied. Unfortunately — to this writer’s ears and heart at least — while crossing the cultural desert across the late twentieth century into the new millennium, this wellspring of creativity has all but run dry.
In no way do I mean to imply that all modern music is lifeless, homogenized, sterilized beyond salvation. Not all, as I said, but certainly much of what passes for popular music today is tragically bereft of the spontaneous, raw exuberance that characterized so much of this regions, and this countries, pioneer experiments of sound and voice.
This anemia seems to be a byproduct of a more far-reaching phenomenon that infects not only today’s music but all of our once flourishing art forms. Cinema; literature; the visual arts- each of these in turn has seemingly been detached from the backbone, brain and soul that once guided them through the shallows of modern culture, a culture that seems increasingly heart- sick and weary of all pleasures save the most trivial.
I’m a realist. I see no reason to hold any degree of hope that this decline will be checked or even slowed. The market place gets what the market place demands.
What makes this current draught of popular creativity truly depressing though, is the fact that there are numerous acts touring our country at this very moment, acts that more than keep the promise of our nations pioneer artists, acts that the majority of Americans have never and will never hear about.
Mark Lanegan, The Drive By Truckers, Tom Waits, Sixteen Horsepower, Robert Belfour, Sleater-Kinney, Tricky – these are all artists working on the edges of popular music, out where there are still chances to be taken, where real blood still flows to a real heart and the brain isn’t deadened with the slow drip of commercial anesthesia. They’re not all southern, or even American for that matter, but they all preserve something vital that you’re not likely to come across on your local Top 40 or classic rock station.
Obviously, the main concern of a venture like Carolina Crossroads is financial gain. As I said, I’m a realist and would expect nothing less.
Yet the very term “crossroads,” denoting as it does an area where various ideas, cultures and interests meet at a single point, argues for something more. In this spirit I would beseech the powers that be to give some consideration to presenting acts that may not conform to the current vogue of spineless drivel and zombie-like conformity that infests the airwaves in the guise of country, R&B and rock.
At this point, any tip of the hat that would in some small measure affirm the boundless sense of wonder and grit- filled soul of our bravest artists would be more than a welcome pleasure -it would be an act worthy of applause.