Featured Music: Thursday, April 21, 2004
O Crap

That 2000 flick was supposed to turn country on its ear - not into a sideshow.

By Anthony Mariani

This music biz is crackers. Only about two years ago, the bluegrassy O Brother, Where Art Thou? film and soundtrack had made giants out of tiny musicians who, when not avoiding the equally sinister frying pans of obscurity and poverty, had been getting by on very little, chiefly corny No Depression stories — specifically those spleen-o-grams hurled at that alleged cesspool of a town, Nashville — and the benevolence of NPR and Pacifica music directors. The soundtrack’s single, “Man of Constant Sorrow” by Dan Tyminski/The Soggy Bottom Boys, even got air-time on huge commercial country radio stations. More bluegrass-influenced music followed; the hipsters christened it “newgrass” (essentially bluegrass created and produced by the living). The unplanned yet brutal dichotomy that formed naturally between genteel songs by the likes of Alison Krauss and Ralph Stanley and unabashed pop numbers by the likes of Shania Twain and Faith Hill forced everyone — listeners, industry types, artists — into self-reflection mode. Against the homey, Velazquez-esque grace of Stanley’s or Krauss’ sensible, earthbound corporeality, Shania’s and Faith’s hungry, pixilated faces just looked even more like a bunch of benday dots. Hardscrabble “newgrass” seemed to have the upper hand. Even Billboard rationalized the need for a — get this — bluegrass album chart, and some body called the Americana Music Association conjured up the Americana Awards. The counterrevolution had begun, and rhinestone cowboys and cowgirls were properly inoculating themselves against the impending blue scourge by hiding the leather pants and shooting videos in sepia tones.

But that was yesteryear. Nashvegas country has since assumed control. Any impression that “newgrass” or its smart, homely older sister Americana may have made on stations that go by nicknames like “The Wolf” and “The River” not only eventually disappeared, it actually instigated something of a counter-counterrevolution, kicking off late last year with Playmate-in-waiting Shania’s last drink coaster on which every song was recorded twice — once in country, once in pop. The pop numbers leveled no impact, but the country tunes essentially pushed the Soggy Bottom Boys and their kind off the dial. Lesser closet pop stars in ropers followed Shania back to glory like soldiers behind a tank.

If you’re looking to blame anyone, aside from the millions of us whose black Am-Ex cards and pea-sized brains apparently steer our culture, you may want to try bluegrass fans and artists. They embraced the exposure like a hot member of the opposite sex. All bluegrass all the time, frankly, was bound to open the door even just a crack for insurgents. And when an insurgent happens to be as lusty as Shania, then you’ve got a full-fledged disaster on your hands.

The big losers in all this are — who else? — us. Not necessarily because we can’t hear real music on the radio anymore. And not necessarily because disposable country like Shania’s and Faith’s makes our culture as a whole even dumber. No, we’re the big losers because we’re now on the business end of a “new” type of sound, one that tries to please both bluegrassers and pop-country-ites alike but that lacks both the melancholy magic of traditional bluegrass and the sex appeal of Nashvegas country. It’s called pop bluegrass. Or, as we like to call it around here, “blue-ass.”

Leading the charge are Chris Thile and Nickel Creek (not to be confused with rent-a-rockers Nickelback). The San Diego trio of Thile and the brother-and-sister team of Sean and Sara Watkins has been getting by mostly on its youthful good looks and unorthodox approach. All that can really be said about This Side, Nickel Creek’s most recent c.d. (on which appears a Pavement cover), is that listening to it just makes you appreciate real pop music, from the Temptations to Incubus. Same with Del McCoury’s mistakes and just about anything by the Dixie Chicks — silly. Like a native Texan in a Yankees ball cap, the oil-and-water mix of banjos and mechanized beats is ... just ... not ... right.

So what should real “newgrass” sound like? What would contemporize it? Well, for one thing, there’s nothing stopping a “newgrass” artist from lyrically exploring our lives now, from the way we relate to our over-medicated, over-fed, over-wrought selves to how we digest what’s going on in the world. Also, who says that bluegrass can be played only on certain instruments? Who says that a bluegrass picker can’t apply his steely chops to a non-traditional instrument like a synthesizer or saxophone or piano? It’s a shame that, like the blues, bluegrass artists are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If they hew to tradition, they’re criticized as museum acts; if they try something different, they’re labeled sell-outs. The key is to honor tradition while honoring your minuscule place on this planet. And if you happen to create something fresh and original in the meantime, then nobody can hold that against you.

Except maybe everyone in this crazy music biz.

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