I’m Kevin Lynch (or keve2109) from Milwaukee, and welcome to Culture Currents (Vernaculars Speak), my new blog. I subtitled it Words, Sounds and Images of Common (and uncommon) Culture. But it could also be Rooting around the Subculture. One of my notions is that subculture these days becomes mainstream culture very quickly, through co-opting or larger forces of consumption that bypass commercial or corporate marketing, which seems good.
So yes, it will be basically a culture blog. I’m a veteran, award-winning arts journalist, writer and visual artist who carries a curious little paradox around inside him, which I like to think of as my little shrunken head, a la Queequeg, one of my cultural heroes, fictional as he is. You see, I’m a lifelong Midwesterner with a hankering for the sea that seems to be part of what keeps my spirits restless. So the “sullen white surf” theme photo above suits my inherent discontent to a “T,” as I suspect it did Herman Melville and his contemporary writers in what Lewis Mumford called “The Golden Age” of American letters. That literary generation has fallen into certain disrepute in some academic quarters but that doesn’t change the quality of their writing. I try to reach across the American spectrum of creative writing but for now I remain fascinated by what appears to be its true Genesis in the mid-1800s — especially Melville, Whitman, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Dickinson.
As for using this e-medium, I’m just beginning to accept James Fallows contention in a recent Atlantic article that the new media is perhaps “transforming” journalistic communications, by giving people what they want rather than what somebody thinks they need. So this blog won’t be good-for-you hard reporting, though politics will inevitably seep in, and links to good, solid journalism. But I will share if I think you’ll benefit from it in any sense of the word. That’s a fundamental motive for any culture writer, it seems to me.
So even if I do reel in some Melville quotes and perspectives from that era, this blog will be plenty contemporary, I promise with, I hope, trenchant and provocative comments on another interest in American culture that grew into a personal obsession of sorts in recent years. It’s a remarkably encompassing phenomenon that nevertheless I try to hornswaggle with a rusty-sounding brand: North American Roots Music. Maybe lassoing this sprawling phenomenon is a bit like trying to catch tumbling tumble weeds, dancing and sweeping across the Great Plains, and into the Heartland and whirling and twisting back down into the Southwest. So I’ll be wandering and chasing, and pausing to savor the voices in those winds.
So I hope you don’t mind following some of my extended metaphors and shambling similes. I’m tracking down a new generation of singer songwriters – a wonderfully motley crew – who are speaking through their lyrics and music with great care for the composed word. Here is why I think our indigenous vernaculars are serving us better than ever and worth paying attention to. So I also feel a sense of the restless, even slightly bedeviled, wanderer because I’ll put a confession right up front: I’ve always been fascinated by North American roots music but my very difficult (for me) divorce in 2007 cast me along the cruel shoals with countless forsaken spouses. There I rediscovered, and truly appreciated for the first time, Townes Van Zandt’s mournfully poetic soul salve. If you must know, “For the Sake of the Song” seems to nail my marriage like a dolorous Grim Reaper.
But I soon realized this man was right up there with Dylan and Young as a songwriter. I was unable to live without Van Zandt’s music daily for three or four months, something I can’t say about any other artist. Enough said about the marriage and “art therapy” though a few “vernacular voyeurs” I’m sure will proceed to poke around in the psyche of my postings if they must.
Truth is, roots music always had a hold on me in a way that I suspect entangles us all as real Americans, whether we’re aware of it or not. That’s okay, but it’s a reason why I write about it now as much as any art form, or at least try to. I’m really fascinated by the youngest generation of rootsy singer-songwriters who seem to embrace their elder’s style and sensibility while making it their own. I suspect they understand it’s their own heritage as much as their parents. The American song lyric as a medium has matured and grown painfully with our vast, often self-deluding but empowering “sense of destiny,” like our country’s whole, hoary democratic experiment. So I’m interested in lyrics that you can (thankfully) hear — as its own literary form, as well as the culture the songs and styles have spawned. Some of the forbearers I may mention include of course the aforementioned Dylan, Van Zandt and Young, and Robbie Robertson, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Guy Clark, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne,Patti Smith, Lou Reed, John Lennon, Tom Waits, Warrren Zevon, Randy Newman, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Phil Ochs, Paul Simon, Robert Hunter, John Hiatt, Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, the individuals and “super” collectives of The Flatlanders and The Highwaymen, and the Brits Richard Thompson and Nick Drake.
A second-generation, very roughly calculated, includes Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Jim Lauderdale, Bill Camplin, Nanci Griffith, Robert Earl Keen, Patty Griffin, Dar Williams, Buddy and Julie Miller, the Jayhawks, Mary Chapin Carpenter.
I’m a fan of virtually all these artists but the ones that really excite me for the future are the youngest ones whom I feel grateful for carrying on and reinvigorating these traditions rather than discarding them. Who do I mean? There are several literal and worthy offspring like Jakob Dylan, Justin Townes Earle, Shooter Jennings and Hank Williams III and Holly Williams and Pieta Brown (the daughter of the great Iowa troubadour Greg Brown and step daughter of the marvelous Iris DeMent, who I hope still writes when she’s so moved). James McMurtry also fits the literary offspring category even if his brilliant father Larry doesn’t write songs. Among those simply gifted young songwriter-performers are the remarkable Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Hayes Carll, Ryan Bingham, Dierks Bentley, Laura Viers, Peter Mulvey, Jeffrey Foucault, Alison Krauss, Diana Jones, The Avett Brothers, the Uncle Tupelo gang, Donna the Buffalo, The Cowboy Junkies, Josh Ritter, The Pines, Slaid Cleaves, The Counting Crows, the Old 97s’ Rhet Miller, The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, again, to name only some notables.
You get a sense of this new generation.
I don’t mention deep pioneers of roots music but of course they range from the Carter family to Hazel Dickens, Woody Guthrie and the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, etc. etc.
Then there’s the blues revival — absolutely seminal to roots per se but in terms of songwriting and original performance of good two revival generations include Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, Paul Butterfield, John Hammond Jr., Al Green, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Ted Hawkins, Taj Mahal, Jack Bruce, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, Chris Smither, Paul Germania, Robert Cray, Rory Block, Trucks and Tedeschi, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Chris Whitley, Kelly Joe Phelps, Otis Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Tracy Nelson, KoKo Taylor, Magic Sam, Sue Foley, Robert Randolph, Mose Allison, Eric Bibb, Keb Mo, and many more.
Forgive my listing all this musical laundry. I only hope it feels (or will feel) eternally fresh for you. This is something I feel is alive and moving and of course very human and yet as elusive in ways as tumbling tumbleweeds, which is also why I love its unassuming nature as art.
My seemingly belated conspicuous arrival at roots music (I interviewed Bill Monroe in 1982, and covered plenty of all roots music intermittently) stems from my critical faculties (as a long time “fine arts” critic and jazz writer) or perhaps snobbery, some might suspect, concerning “folk music,” which can be the equivalent of karaoke music but without the courage of a little alcohol, and thus can still be insufferable and as self-important as Miss Piggy on a very tall mound of something ripe.
So I will be commenting on whatever mode of cultural expression — the high, low and in between — that seems interesting and timely, or timeless. Yet some of the 20th century’s most compelling and enduring music has emitted from so-called “folk” artists, who almost by definition often freely mine more specific vernaculars like blues, rock ‘n roll, R&B, country and bluegrass. As Louis Armstrong famously said “all music is folk music, horses can’t sing.” Thus, I happily set aside any leftover snootiness and gobble up wonderfully gritty and caloric glories of American art wherever reaches my senses.
Of course, my taste has its limits and I hear on the radio any number of folksy recording “artists” who sound too saccharine, wimpy and precious, as if ingratiating themselves into facile pop marketability. But I see this commercial impulse as a reflection of how roots music as a nominal subculture is starting to become a large part of a musical mainstream.
As you may know, at least popular two movies which are crucial to roots music’s revival such as it is: “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “The Blues Brothers,” the latter which I hold dear to my heart because my old white AMC Hornet putts along, I swear, in the background on an off ramp in the closing chase scene, filmed on Milwaukee’s then-unfinished “freeway to nowhere.”
Cruising slowly on an off ramp seems like a symbolically appropriate vantage point for a cultural blogger.
So please, give me a holler as I try to drive straight and keep my eye on the cultural panorama at the same time. At times “look out!” might be the best response. But at least I’m driving in a rusted-out (but American made) metaphor rather than blabbing on a cell behind a real wheel.
So speak up, anyway you please, as long as you’re civil and clean enough for our friendly sponsors. And if you’re on a Smart phone in your car, be smart. Pull over. If you’re dead already, blame me.
— Kevin Lynch