I'm way behind in talking about today's subject, but that's just because I've been preoccupied with tasks or ideas or what have you. I get busy with something and then remember the thing I wanted to talk to blogville about and think I should get to writing, but then another task comes up. Anyway, here's the deal:
Almost two weeks ago, my orchestra performed its final concert of the season. It was a tag-on concert meant to raise extra money, so to bring in the middle-America, small-town Ohio crowds, we gave a country concert with a guest soloist and a guest fiddler from Nashville. We also made room on the stage for other musicians we don't normally perform with—steel guitar, banjo, mandolin, drumset, the kind of piano player who looks at a piece of paper with nothing but chords scratched on it and then manages to play a song that's free and easy.
The plan worked, and we had a sell-out crowd that evening. We played numbers we don't normally play, and we sat quietly on stage to hear the guests perform for most of the second half—it was like being in the audience except the audience was looking in our direction. We tried to be still with our horns in our laps, and we applauded after each song as we wiped our brows from the sweltering heat under the lights.
Well, one of the usual horn players had another thing going on that evening, so we had a substitute, a young woman we'd never met before who was very good. She's a grad student, which means she doesn't just pick up the horn when she can. It's her life at the moment. She wasn't familiar with our county or why we would program such a concert, so I told her about how it was a fund-raising event meant to attract people who wouldn't normally attend an orchestra concert. I told her the people who would be there that evening would love the music we'd present, but they might not come back next fall to hear us perform Brahms or Beethoven or Strauss.
To that, she smirked and said, "Don't they realize that Brahms is so much better than this stuff?" She pointed to the program—You Ain't Woman Enough to Take My Man, I Am A Man of Constant Sorrows, Country Roads... She was so assured in her statement, and she left no room for subjectivity. Plain and simple, classical music is superior to country/western.
I don't prefer country music, although I can't help but sing with the soundtrack of "O Brother, Where Art Thou." I can harmonize with "I'll Fly Away" and tap my foot to a Carter classic, but if given a choice, I choose classical. It speaks to me more than any other music form, whether I'm plunking something out on the piano or playing something on my horn or just listening. But there is value in country music, just as much as there is in jazz or blues or sacred music. If done well, it tells a common story, speaks with an honest voice and expresses an organic life experience.
There might be a twang in the tenor, and the soprano might sing through her nose on occasion, but the music in its purest form is a very real expression of love, loss, sorrow, joy—no less music than something performed by a full orchestra with musicians wearing tuxedos and looking stolid.
My father wouldn't have given two cents to hear an orchestra play a symphony, but let him hear Roy Acuff on the radio or watch a cracker jack banjo picker on TV, and he could hardly keep still from wanting to jump up and do a little clogging. He and his brothers all played instruments when they were growing up, and they spent their evenings playing on the front porch. They covered all the basic instruments: banjo, guitar, mandolin, steel guitar, harmonica. Later, when they were old men and had stopped playing together, they would each take out an instrument now and then and pick a little. My Uncle Herschel used to keep a mandolin beside his recliner, and he'd pick it up and play with Hee Haw. And I remember visiting my Uncle Melvin and listening to him slide around on the steel guitar before he had a stroke and lost the use of one arm.
During our concert a couple of weeks ago, I listened to the steel guitar player perform a standard song I had heard many times as a kid, and I thought about how much my father would have appreciated that number. It struck me, then, that this young woman sitting next to me has had a different life experience than I have had. I bet she never sat under the tree in the backyard and listened to her uncles talk about the old days while they whittled away at cedar sticks and spit tobacco juice into the grass. She probably never stood around the piano and sang from old, yellowed shape-note books and listened to her grandfather belt out the base line to No Tears In Heaven with enough force to rattle the windows. And I'm sure she has never watched her aging father try to find a few notes on his banjo but give up after a minute because the strings cut into his fingers, and after all those years of not playing, he couldn't remember a single tune. If she had done all of those things, she might not be so quick to make blanket statements about what form of music is "better" than another.
I'll admit I'm glad we won't be playing another country concert for at least another year, but I can't say that's because Brahms is so much better. Brahms just speaks to me more than do Kenny Chesney or Brooks and Dunn. Their fans are likely to ask "Brahms who?," but that's what makes the liking and disliking of music so subjective—music is personal story telling, shaped by the things we've seen and done and heard. And with all the different life experiences each of us faces over years and years, and with all the memories we choose to hold onto and revisit from time to time, there is plenty room and plenty need for different styles of music to help us tell our stories. And it can all be good.