Berlatsky, who admits to being an “urban, over-educated atheist”, says that the “primary audience for [Krauss’] music is not transplanted rural workers who long for rigorous spiritual truth, but NPR listeners, who long for vaguely spiritualized prettiness.” Nonsense.
I was a rural worker (not yet transplanted) in 1987 when I bought Krauss’ first album with her brilliant band Union Station. For the next two years I waited expectantly — as did other hicks in my area — until she released her near-perfect album, “I’ve Got That Old Feeling” (the title song is still the greatest song ever). We were listening to Krauss a decade before the NPRites joined the hayride.
This was enough to make me skeptical of Berlatsky’s ability to discern good music. But he gives himself away by claiming that Emmylou Harris’ “heartfelt” Roses in the Snow is “one of my favorite albums ever.” The ridiculously overrated Harris may be a critics’ darling but we rural folk use her name as a shibbolith: If you claim to be a fan of country/bluegrass/Americana and use as your example Emmylou, we know you’re a poseur.
The fun thing about country authenticity, of course, is that everybody’s a poseur. I mean, Carter’s not a rural worker anymore, yes? He’s editing some wonky online website and all enmeshed in a virtual community. It’s all over, Joe. Embrace your rootless cosmopolitanism.
If Carter doesn’t like Emmylou, that’s cool…but suggesting she doesn’t have serious country music cred seems a little silly. Johnny Cash was a long-time supporter of her music — and, indeed, he pops up on one of the best tracks on “Roses in the Snow”. (Maybe Joe doesn’t like Johnny Cash either…?) Harris was all over country music radio in the 70s; I don’t think it was just urbanites who were listening to her. Also, I’ve got to say, if you think Alison Krauss is not a humongous Emmylous Harris fan, you’re out of your gourd (the reverse is certainly true as well — I’d be shocked if Harris doesn’t love Krauss’ music. In fact, I know they’ve performed together, most famously in “O Brother Where Art Thou.”)
I do despise Krauss, and I like Harris a lot (her old stuff anyway; the recent New Agey crap is pretty vile.) But in the essay I pretty clearly,and repeatedly, lumped them together — as I said, “The beauty and longing in an Emmylous Harris or Alison Krauss song is at once a kind of nostalgic pining for a lost backbone and a celebration of the pursuit of pleasures detached from specific moral values.” Carter impugns my rural cred (which I never claimed) by suggesting my aesthetics are off. This more or less confirms the point of my essay, which is that country has gotten to this place where credibility has everything to do with liking this or that product, and very little to do with any actual values or morals. Rural identity is just another affectation, bolstered through arbitrary product purchases. Kitty Wells tried to separate the sheep from the goats; now we’re left trying to separate one Joni Mitchell heir from another, and trying to figure out which of them is more rural.
Update: Helen Rittelmeyer has a really smart post in response to my bluegrass essay up on Culture 11’s Ladyblog. Though one hates to admit this sort of thing, I fear it’s probably better than my original effort. I think this post by Aunt B. probably is as well.