I've been thinking a lot recently about country music.
I keep thinking I'll write one post where I just break it all down,
country music and why I love it and what's unique and special about it,
and these ideas always seem within my grasp when they're inside my head
but completely ineffective when I try to put them outside.
Ain't that always the way though? Seriously.
Yes, it is always the way. It's something I feel very acutely in my
life, which involves a fair amount of talking and even more writing.
I've compared writing to shrink-wrapping a toy package, which is
something I have way too much experience with. What I mean to express
there is -- and anyone who has shrink-wrapped a toy package will feel me
on this one -- the constant quest to get as close in and clean as
possible and the ever-present knowledge that you'll never get it like
you want it. (In fact it's usually when you start obsessing about the
quality that you find a massive hole on the other side of the package or
a tear in the seam of the shrink-wrap. I told you I've done this way
too much in my life.)
I bring up writing in connection with country music because it's a genre
and a culture that truly values the songwriter. And what's more, a good
country song IS good writing, because it's clean, to-the-point, simple,
It's easy to mistake simple for simplistic. Similarly, it's easy to
mistake good performance (which carries an element of ease) with not
trying. When in fact most good performances of any variety are the
result of a lot of trying.
But the trying has to be concealed, because it's not the most important
part, because the audience's focus should be on the art, not the artist.
This concept is summed up in the wonderful word sprezzatura, which I understand basically to mean "making it look easy". And if you can do that, that's how you know you're any good.
In writing I think the greatest example of this is John Steinbeck. In
performance there are many masters, but I will always love Aretha Franklin for it.
Making it look easy is undervalued. But in fact I think it is one of the hardest things there is.
At the beginning of my latest country music phase, I fell in love with this performance.
It's interesting for multiple reasons: for one, it's Kelly Clarkson (as
a former American Idol winner, one of the most pop-y pop singers
around) trying to establish herself in the somewhat insular world of
country music. That her partner in crime is Vince Gill, one of the most
respected people in the biz, doesn't hurt. But for all else you can say
about country music, it truly respects talent even if it comes from an
unexpected source. (That Darius Rucker, aka Hootie, has managed to build
a second career in country music is the purest example of this I know.)
And this is just such a confident performance! There is no anxiety here
at all, either from Kelly or from the song itself. (Which if I may just
point out is truly, very romantic.) It's just smooth and rich and great.
And SLY, too.
The song: Kelly Clarkson and Vince Gill, "Don't Rush"; 2012
The moment: 2:53
The moment: the audience thinks the song has wound down, and they loved
it, Kelly's won them over. And you can tell by the looks on their faces
that Kelly and Vince know this. So when they launch into that second
ending, and the crowd goes wild, it just feels SO GOOD.
There is the pleasure of novelty, and then there's the pleasure of old
territory covered well. Country music tends toward the latter. Most of
the songs are about love, or loss. But clearly we can never say enough
about either of those things.
It's very hard to translate the feelings that live inside a person into
something another person can understand, which is why we all walk around
thinking nobody else in the world has feelings as complex as we do.
Country music, like all good writing, begins to show us that's not true. And makes it look easy.