The Melting Pot: Opinions … Everyone’s Got One

The Melting Pot is a recurring feature where I discuss various topics related to country music.

I had originally planned to divide these into their own separate posts and topics – “these” being some various music-related discussion points that have been on my mind lately. This is a bit off the beaten path from what I usually do here, and is kind of indicative of my earliest days of writing when I’d ramble on about various philosophical topics and approaches to music. So I’ve decided to cluster those topics into one long think piece that, while hopefully cohesive and coherent, is meant to be taken as me addressing a wide variety of discussion points over anything else. Hopefully I make at least one decent argument or point. A loose guideline to the topics would go something like this: The constant search for the “next big thing” and the perils of having little time to hear new music, the pressures of conforming to “hype,” how everyone’s got an opinion on something, how knowledge is both powerful and dangerous, and finally, trying to discern what kind of country music fan we all are.

As music fans – especially country music fans, in a genre that has traditionally prided itself on those artist-fan relationships – I think we’re always in search of the next artist who’s going to “blow up,” so to say. We listen to an artist, tell our friends, make predictions, and watch everything unfold. Or we’d like to, that is. In an age of endless discovery opportunities, it’s easier to do that, but also harder to find actual consensus. Perhaps it’s just because “country” music has become such an all-encompassing umbrella of sounds (for better and worse) and is typically associated with “Americana” in the same way that “Texas Country” and “Red Dirt” usually get clustered together (which in and of themselves are also part of that big-ass umbrella). It’s fun, but it can also be draining to try and keep up with it all. While streaming services have eased the burden of financial costs over the past decade or so – ideally to have more to spend on merchandise and live shows (someday again), but let’s stick to reality – there’s still a problem of having too little time that will likely never be fixed. Beyond the new music constantly being released, there’s an entire library of artists we likely haven’t gotten to yet because … again, time doesn’t allow for all of that.

So, how do we solve that? I don’t know, you’re asking the wrong person. I’m not sure we should solve it anyway. While the ways we find music have changed over the years, the one constant remains that we look to other like-minded fans and friends to help us sift through it all and find the “good” stuff, whatever that is. But there’s also the added burden of the modern day to try and keep up with it all, and I think that’s a backwards way to approach art. We should cherish what we love and let that feeling linger. I think what we’re really looking for is to constantly reignite that “first time feeling” with music, the moment where we listen to a piece and wonder how something like that never existed until now. And we want to know if there’s more like it from the act we’re listening to. It’s one of the best feelings.

But … does the endless supply of new music somewhat dilute that? Again, I don’t know. That’s more of a personal opinion kind of thing. Personally, I think so. We’re never going to hear everything at least once in our lifetimes anyway, so there’s no sense in trying to rush through a certain percentage of it just for the sake of “keeping up” or “staying ahead of the curve.” On another personal note, it’s one reason why I advocate more for discussions than recommendations with my work on this particular blog, because one person’s trash is surely another’s treasure.

I feel like we as music fans are always trying to predict the next “it” moment for country music – who will be the next Simpson, Price, Childers, or whoever else. A fun game, for sure, but it feels like we try to crown that moment much too early and way too often. Not to say there aren’t artists deserving of it out there, but in trying to act like authoritarians on the genre, I think we forget how to have fun with music and embrace our own weirdly personal tastes. I’m delving mostly into discussions of “stan” culture with this, to an extent, but for the artists who come to close to attaining that meteoric rise – recent names including, say, Zach Bryan or Morgan Wade – there’s always a group of cynics who act contrarian just for the sake of … and ones who genuinely have an opposite opinion, and that’s OK. We get made to believe that certain acts are above criticism or that everyone else has to either love them or else face shame on social media or wherever else, with no in-between. And that erodes the most beautiful element about music – that it’s completely subjective.

Which is not to say that music is necessarily meant to be debated and discussed from a “both sides” perspective. I mean, I’m the sort of nerd who made a music blog because he enjoys doing that, but it’s important to remember how to be a fan first and foremost. But I want to circle back to that other perspective, because I feel like the general fragmentation of country audiences fed up with country radio (and, naturally, those not fed up with it) has created this weird cluster of certain “types” of country music fans, where one can only enjoy certain names within that cluster. Ultimately, I’m a big believer of the motto “like what you like,” and I hate when we’re made to feel like we either have to like or can’t like something. Music was never made to be a black-and-white entity that had a set formula or code to it. It can surprise in ways nothing else can sometimes.

On another note, let’s face it, if you want to be a country music fan, it helps to know your history. That means that in addition to keeping up with everything current, we’re made to feel like we have to know every single Johnny Cash or Hank Williams song before we’re true country fans. And if we don’t know this or that, we can’t possibly actually enjoy what we’re hearing. I’ve never been a fan of the term “gatekeeping,” per se – as a wannabe historian, I think it’s important to encourage knowledge of the past and spotlight names that no longer receive as much attention as those current acts. But it’s important to lean into that, rather than force it and ruin it for someone else. A tool like Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary, for example, provides an easy, accessible, and immeasurable start to that, and again, the advent of streaming services has allowed that discovery to be easier than ever before. It all circles back to that paradox of having too much to listen to and not enough time. It’s important and healthy to listen to what you want to at your own pace. Again, discovery and capturing that “first time feeling” is special and shouldn’t be taken for granted.

So, then, what kind of country music are you? As for me, I often feel like I’m too traditional to mingle with pop-oriented country fans and too pop-oriented to mingle with traditional fans. I like music from Nashville and Texas and beyond, and that’s weird, ain’t it? Country music is for everyone, and it’s important to remember that a love and appreciation for the music can stem from anywhere for anyone, and that while we’ll always have our own opinions, it’s important to never discount someone else’s experience or their likes and dislikes. I read something the other day that essentially stated that music is a reflection of our lives and experiences, and that it’s a unique soundtrack we can share, but never quite replicate for someone else. It’s important to embrace that and remember what comprises those individual tastes. We’re country music fans, and we’re ourselves. It shouldn’t be any more complicated than that.

3 thoughts on “The Melting Pot: Opinions … Everyone’s Got One

  1. Great piece, man! You touch on a lot of topics I often think about myself, especially the whole not enough time to keep up with all of the music thing. It takes on a double meaning as a critic, as you not only have to account for what you like and what interests you, but also what you feel like you should talk about. I’ve ultimately concluded this age of streaming is a double edged sword: on one hand, it’s allow me to discover amazing music and some of my all-time favorite artists. It’s never been a better time to discover music as a fan. But then on the other side, it’s like walking into a buffet, but it’s hundreds of miles long. Sure that fried chicken I just picked up looks great, but then on the way to eating it I see a steak and now I gotta try that and then I see popcorn shrimp…you get the point haha. As you said it’s important to take your time and enjoy what you enjoy. There’s no worse feeling than forcing yourself to listen to music and it’s a trap I’ve fallen into many times. And in keeping up with all the new releases and trying to listen to past “essentials,” you can also forget about revisiting favorites.

    All of this compounds even more of course when you expand to all genres like I’ve done over the last few years. My rule of thumb I’ve come to develop is when listening to an album, if it’s not something I’m willing to spend both money and time on to listen to, it’s time to move on. In other words, would I be willing to buy this on vinyl or CD? Because this was something that the fan once had to ask themselves before streaming and this naturally helped somebody better figure out what to listen to. If it’s just a 6 or 7/10, to me it’s not worth spending time (or money) on and therefore it’s time to listen to something else. Now one might find this limiting, but I’ve found I spend more time now on music I generally enjoy. If there’s something to that 7/10 album I’ve moved on, I’ll naturally revisit it later (or I’ll see a compelling discussion or review that convinces me to go back to it). Otherwise I normally don’t ever revisit albums at this level or below. In addition I hold even higher standards for giving new artists a chance. For example, when Mo Pitney and William Michael Morgan arose during the traditionalist revival a few years ago, I criticized them much to the surprise of many. The big issue with them I ultimately had was while their music sounded like Strait and Jackson, it wasn’t at their level (especially in terms of songwriting) and therefore they aren’t worth the time. Fast forward to today and well I feel my point was kind of made, as nobody talks about their music. It wasn’t terrible music, but in the grand scheme it’s largely forgettable. Their music was only being compared in the minds of many to the bro country/metro bro stuff being released currently at the time instead of being looked at in terms of all music history. And this may seem like a harsh comparison for new artists and impossible mountain to overcome, but it’s not like music listeners segmentate their libraries and listening.

    This all leads to my point (and basically yours too) that time is the best judge of music. The more time you take listening and the more time you wait to judge it, the better grasp you get. Conveyor belt listening just leads to a terrible music experience. But preaching patience in a world that spins faster and gets louder every day is a hard message to get out. And it’s even harder to get people to be secure in being themselves because so many listeners consciously and unconsciously worry about the image and themes of artists they connect themselves to. But that’s a whole other can of worms and I’ve already written too much hahah!

    P.S. I’m almost done with my notes and feedback on the book and I’ll have them to you soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks man! If I’m being honest – this was written as much to me as it was to everyone else. I needed a reminder of what it’s all about. The buffet comparison nails it, too. Everyone’s clamoring to tell you who they think is good, and while I think people still like hearing those opinions from others over a streaming algorithm, it is just entirely bloated right now, it seems. And I don’t see that stopping.

      To put it into perspective, I reviewed 128 albums last year. That was fun at times, but also something I’d never want to do again. Reviewing less while making more time for the music that interests me has absolutely been the right call.

      From a casual perspective, I definitely like your way of going at it. It’s different when you’re writing about it, because you want to be as respectful as can be to the artist while still voicing your thoughts, but at the end of the day, you have to question if it’s something you’ll really like afterward, so I definitely hear you. Far from limiting, as you said, given that there’s still so much past music to always check out as well.

      Which goes toward your next point of time being the best judge, and … absolutely. I mean, something new I’ve tried this year is listening to albums in various places, and I find that the album I really like are ones I’m happy to get lost in, rather than just sit at home and listen to because I feel like I have to.

      Your Morgan and Pitney points do bring up an interesting point – in that there is a tiny element of objectivism in discussing music. I think most can agree those two it doesn’t reinvent the wheel by any means, and the subjective element is asking how much that really means to you. And historical context is always important in adding another complex layer, as you say. The neotraditional movement that everyone predicted then didn’t happen, and everything is just kind of fragmented now in a really weird way.

      This next comment will likely draw ire from those that see it, but here goes: at the end of the day, I like Rhiannon Giddens’ take that there is no ‘other’ when it comes to music. I get sick of people trying to claim reasons not to listen to someone because of this or that. There’s a time and a place for those discussions.

      Lastly, hey, no worries, man! I appreciate any help offered. I have several surveys still to collect and three feedback blurbs to receive (yours being one of four), so in the spirit of the piece absolutely no rush whatsoever. I myself am having fun with the planning stages, so I don’t plan to do anything quite yet!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh I’ve definitely written my fair share of pieces directed at myself (both published and unpublished), so I totally get this. It’s cathartic. And I agree a person’s recommendation to me is always better than a streaming algorithm. But of course it’s also important that a discussion takes place around it too, as adding context always helps. Everybody just shouting at each other what to listen to is just as noisy as an algorithm haha.

        I’m glad you’ve realized that! It’s a lesson I’ve learned many times and I’m sure I’ll have to learn some more.

        Great point on listening in various places. It’s funny how some music sounds better when driving in your car, some sounds better just concentrating while it plays on a turntable and others can sound better when walking/exercising. Experiences while listening definitely play a role in shaping your perception of the music. So just naturally picking what you want to listen to in the moment helps you better figure out where you stand with music.

        Yeah I’ve definitely felt that fragmented feeling myself. And it is weird. I’ve just casually dismissed it as a reflection of the times. But it also kind of reminds me a bit of the 2000s in country music, as it feels like there’s a void and the closest thing to a domineering trend right now is boyfriend country. Even in the independent scenes nothing is really a “hot trend” at the moment. It’ll be interesting to see if something or a group of artists can break out soon.

        I definitely agree on there being no other when it comes to music! And it’s definitely not something a lot of people like to get into because there’s a lot of elements at play. Just to give one basic, less controversial example: there are a lot of average music listeners who wouldn’t give an independent artist a chance just for being independent because they have a perception that they can only listen to popular artists. And even if they listen to it and like it, they may still be embarrassed to tell people they like it. Of course the hope in this example and other examples is that streaming helps break these various ridiculous barriers. But it could also be fueling more and more isolated silos, and therefore stifling the community aspect around music. There’s a definitely a time and place for such a lengthy discussion.

        Good to hear! I’m definitely enjoying reading it and I’m glad to help!

        Liked by 1 person

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