March 18, 2009
This morning, I came across an account in the Los Angeles Times of last night’s “American Idol” broadcast. I missed it. How careless of me to have accepted an invitation to a dinner party on “Idol” night. Well, truth be told, I wouldn’t have watched it anyway. In fact, I have never seen more than a minute or two of an “Idol” broadcast, and that only two or three times when someone else was watching it. This has as much to do with my not watching television very much as it has to do with any objection to that show in particular. But what caught my attention in this article was the reference to the contestants’ “reverence for the most traditional of American genres – country music.” What did the writer mean by “country music”? How did country music – whatever the writer meant by it – become more “traditional” than folk music – whatever I mean by that? And, Miss Turner, what’s “reverence” got to do with it?
I presume the writer had a straight face when he or she wrote that several contestants delivered “solid but respectful versions of country standards by Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, and Carrie Underwood.” That’s Carrie Underwood – the “American Idol” graduate who was salutatorian of her high school class in Oklahoma. And the writer soberly added that Adam Lambert’s “psychedelic, sitar-backed” rendition of “Ring of Fire” was – according to an audience member visiting from Missouri – “disrespectful to country music.”
If we owe some sort of “respect” to country music, is it to be found in the over-produced material that Dolly Parton has been disgorging for the past few decades? To me that’s as “country” as Jackie Wilson’s “Alone at Last” was classical. “Country” has the smell of stale beer about it. “Country” is what we used to find in the 1960s at the old Coral Bar in East Paterson when Elton Britt, a singer with gold hanging on his wall, would drive himself up from Maryland to perform for a few dozen patrons who would recognize his voice even if their vision was blurred. “Country” is what we found back then at open-ended shows at the old Mosque Theater in Newark, where headline acts sometimes had to be nudged off the stage to make room for Little Jimmy Dickens or Ray Price or Webb Pierce, who were waiting in the wings. If a singer appeared in a torquoise outfit covered with rhinestones, the clothes just emphasized the common nature of the man or woman inside. “Country” was real, and if there was anything to respect in it, it was the unfiltered, unapologizing reality. But then, “reality” has taken on a different meaning in our time.