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Phantom Country

The culture of an alternative

Feb. 24, 2009
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Old Roots, New Routes: The Cultural Politics of Alt.Country Music(University of Michigan Press) is a collection of in-depth essays approaching the subject matter with the best of intentions. Each explores characteristics of the music from thoughtful and well-researched perspectives. But most if not all leave no hint that they are investigating a musical idiom that possibly exists nowhere except in the minds of those for whom reality is an excuse for over-analysis.

Tinnitus is defined as the false awareness of a sound in the absence of any acoustic stimulus, or a sonic presence that is phantom. People placed into total, external silence will sometimes experience tinnitus, along with those who have it due to some trauma or unknown cause. We are in a cultural listening vacuum of silence and are hearing idiomatic phantoms that we deem musical. The trauma of pop music in this century has been like an explosion that has left us with ears ringing, and we seek to identify the awareness of what we falsely hear. If there is an unknown cause for why "alt.country" is a phantom sound, it's that we are listening to existing cultural sine waves that do not come from extant musical ones.

Yes, yes, Uncle Tupelo was a band of kids playing cowboys and hipsters that led to Wilco and Son Volt and other flannel-underwear music. No Depression magazine probably started it all by organizing various and incompatible critics and artists under one rubric. It has since retreated to a virtual presence only, which makes perfect sense for a magazine unable to cure its cultural tinnitus with real ink spilled upon one revisionist idea after the other.

Old Roots, New Routes'essayists frequently drive definitions of alt.country that are cultural, not musical, and careen easily around questions of generational perspectives ("much alt.country, like other 1990s retro movements, wanted to be about the boomer dead end of a self-proclaimed youth culture aging gracelessly by refusing to admit that youth's window has been slammed shut"). They also wind up in the ditch on the tiresome subject of authenticity: "the alt.country genre and its 'authenticity' are often defined by the genre's shifting position on the urban-rural axis." In an attempt to find traction, an essayist pops the clutch with "alt.country's songwriters often denigrate mainstream country." The problem is that this book is an academic colonization of a perceived sort of music, even if there isn't any one kind of music contained within this ghost idiom, and it does so by virtue of wonderful but nonmusical definitions related more to the perception of the would-be ideal music than any real thing.

As a work within the area of cultural studies, Old Roots,New Routes is entirely satisfactory. All of the writers are quite brilliant, each in their own chosen field of inquiry, but none come to a definitive consensus regarding the subject category of music. The artists chosen for examination are very predictable (from Son Volt to the Dixie Chicks, neither having much in common except perhaps a penchant to be pop-oriented while disavowing its disabling superficiality) and yet there is not one index entry for Jack White, whose work at some points in its exciting evolution probably comes close to what this book hopes to find.

We all know by now that No Depression, the signature eponym for music of the kind that is never defined in this text or anywhere else for that matter, comes from the Carter Family songbook. A.P. Carter would enjoy knowing that his song catching resulted in a younger generation looking for what he found in the hills and brought to the city. But the myth of the hill country, and the severe reality of the city, do not combine musically except in a virtual world where there are cultural identities that some, like the writers in this book, prefer to consider to be music and not merely startling ways of behaving that do define a new generation that is not lost but merely just not there.


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