For the past few years, music-top-10-list time has inspired in me something approaching low-grade existential terror. Ideally, we should want to shout our top-10 lists from the mountaintops. They should be the albums that get under our skin, that speak to something profound and inexpressible deep within us, that linger in the subconscious long after we’ve taken them out of our eight-tracks and reel-to-reel players.
As The A.V. Club’s main hip-hop writer for more than a decade, that’s certainly how I felt about my top five choices from 2004, Kanye West’s The College Dropout, Madvillain’s Madvillainy, Ghostface’s The Pretty Toney Album, Foreign Exchange’s Connected and MF Doom’s Mm.. Food. I think we dedicated music snobs can all agree that 2004 was the last year new music wasn’t total shit, just an awful fucking abomination that makes baby Jesus cry and fills humanity with an overwhelming sense of despair. After that golden annum, it was all just a bunch of agitated screeching from musically disinclined sadists.
This past year, I wound up scrambling to find 10 albums I liked, let alone loved. I had reached a crossroads in my relationship with hip-hop. If I can be the latest to lazily recycle the resonant rap-fandom-as-romantic-relationship metaphor from Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” (“H.E.R” meaning alternately “hip-hop in Her Essence is Real” or “Hearing Every Rhyme”), I still loved H.E.R., but the infatuation stage was long gone. Tenderness was replaced with cutting sarcasm and distrust. I’d sometimes come home late reeking of alcohol, and hip-hop would just glare at me and stew silently in a way far more unsettling than any tongue-lashing.
Hip-hop started seeing other writers, while I was tempted by other genres. Hip-hop began to find my use of convoluted, derivative relationship-based metaphors precious and irritating. I became annoyed by hip-hop’s girlish obsession with Lil Wayne, and its dogged refusal to grow up.
There’s a wonderful line in the musical Passing Strange where narrator Stew wistfully remarks, “It’s weird when you wake up one morning and realize that your entire adult life was based on the decision of a stoned teenager.” In sharp contrast my entire adult life as a music critic was based on a casual decision made as a 21-year-old.
Sometime in spring 1998, my editor, Stephen Thompson, held up a copy of the Bulworth soundtrack and said, “Hey, Nathan, you like hip-hop. Do you want to review this for us?” I was at the time deep into my third sophomore or second junior year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and was eager to make a name for myself at The A.V. Club. I gleefully acquiesced. The paper needed a hip-hop writer. I needed to be needed. I had found a niche.
It was a natural fit. Hip-hop was the music that spoke most directly to me. It was the music I’d run home to listen to on Yo! MTV Raps and The Box after a long day of playing hooky. It was the music we gravitated toward in the group home where I grew up, the culture that spoke angrily and provocatively toward our collective anxieties, fantasies, and desires. It was the soundtrack of my tortured adolescence and marginally less tortured adulthood.
Volunteering to review the Bulworth soundtrack helped determine my musical diet for the next 11 years. Since that fateful day, I’ve listened overwhelmingly to hip-hop for personal as well as professional reasons. Huge rock acts have almost completely passed me by. I’ve never really listened to a White Stripes album. The last Radiohead album I was into was The Bends.
Throughout the years, I’ve fantasized about correcting my wildly unbalanced musical education by spending a year immersing myself in a foreign genre. (Yes, that is what critics fantasize about. That and elaborate new ways to file their CD and DVD collections.) I daydreamed about correcting the lopsided nature of my musical education by pulling a massive 180 in my listening habits. Instead of listening overwhelmingly to only one genre of music, I’d do something completely different and listen overwhelmingly to a different genre.
While listening to Billy Joe Shaver’s “Been To Georgia On A Fast Train” earlier this year, I had an epiphany. I decided that now was as good a time as any to put my plan into action. As the great Jewish philosopher Hillel famously asked, “If not now, when? If I am not for myself then who will be? And if I am only for myself than what am I?” I’m fairly certain Rabbi Hillel was talking specifically about ambitious yearlong online country-oriented projects on pop-culture websites. That is impressive, considering Hillel died several thousand years ago. In accordance with his final wishes, Hillel’s corpse was slathered with horseradish, wine, nutmeg, apples, and nuts, then buried between giant pieces of matzo.
This year, I decided to stop dreaming about pursuing a super-intense yearlong crash course in country, and start doing it. Inspired by Noel Murray’s Popless series, I will, over the next year, immerse myself in the sum of country music, the good, the bad, and the creamy middle, and write a series of long, rambling, freeform essays about my musical odyssey deep into the heart of a vital, oft-maligned sector of American music.
I initially planned to listen to nothing but country for the duration of the project, but Keith and Josh talked me off that ledge, while Noel encouraged me to take the occasional week off to preserve my sanity. If things get too overwhelming, I might just devote entries to elaborate photo-essays of my cats doing cute things. I think both the rap and country contingents will find that fucking adorable.
I’ll still be reviewing the occasional hip-hop platter: I just got an e-mail about the new Doom album (he kicked the MF to the curb, Hammer-style) and it would suck if I couldn’t listen to the Supervillain’s latest for an entire year.
In embarking on this project, I am striking a forceful blow against the tyranny of essays written by people who “know what they’re talking about” and “aren’t completely ignorant.” I will be writing not as an expert, but as a passionate amateur. Isn’t that what all critics are? We just participate in the culturally mandated charade of being experts because it flatters our fragile egos. Ultimately, William Goldman’s famous aphorism about Hollywood—“Nobody knows anything”—holds true for the rest of entertainment as well. As the co-screenwriter of Dreamcatcher, Goldman knows an awful lot about not knowing anything.
I am going into this project full of idealism and hope. I’ve devoted much of my life and career to writing about subjects dismissed, demonized, and/or reviled by big segments of the population: cinematic flops, direct-to-DVD movies, silly little show-biz books, gangsta rap, pop-rap, and now country music. I am fueled by curiosity and an utterly uncharacteristic sense of optimism. It remains to be seen how long that optimism will last.
It has long been my contention that hip-hop and country have more in common than partisans on either side like to admit. There’s a reason folks say they like every kind of music except for country and rap. They’re both genres with a deep reverence for mama and Jesus that inspire strong reactions from fans and detractors. Though there are plenty of wealthy hip-hop and country fans, those genres have historically been the voice of the black and white underclass, respectively. They’re also synonymous with lifestyles as much as music. Saying you’re country or hip-hop says a whole lot more about you than what’s in your iPod shuffle.
In this project, I look to go far beyond stereotypes. I’m going in with an open mind and a spirit of generosity. I will be easing myself into this unfamiliar terrain with entries on icons whose appeal and popularity transcends country: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Hank Williams. My first few entries will be on:
Week 1: Johnny Cash’s American Recordings
Week 2: A free-ranging, digressive essay on the rest of Johnny Cash’s career
Week 3: Willie Nelson’s genre misadventures
Week 4: A random consideration of Willie Nelson’s life and career
Week 5: Hank Williams Sr.—insufficiently ready for some football; his son, less so.
Because these essays will require an insane amount of preparation, listening and book-learning, they will be planned out in advance so that you, beloved reader, can join me in my quest. One of the great things about being an A.V. Club writer/reader—other than working in close proximity to Internet Eating Sensation Dave Chang—is that my pop-culture education never has to end. Neither does yours. So I’m hoping you’ll choose to enroll in my elective course in the History Of Country Music. The instructor may be wildly unqualified, but he’ll do his damnedest to put on a good show, and he promises to wear a Rhinestone-studded Nudie suit, a Stetson hat, and a Texas-shaped belt buckle to each class. So, you know, he’s got that going for him.
This project has already passed one important litmus test: My therapist thinks it’s crazy. We recently had the following exchange:
My therapist: So you’re going to be switching from rap to country. That sounds a little bit like, what was that thing Garth Brooks did with his alter ego?
Me: Chris Gaines?
My therapist: Yeah, it sounds kind of like that.
If this project is half as successful for me as Chris Gaines was for Brooks, then, well, perhaps that isn’t a good analogy. Speaking of Chris Gaines, my plan is to delve deep into the heavyweights of the country canon first, then to explore lesser-known but still important artists en route to eventually confronting the snarling, multi-headed beast that is contemporary mainstream country. Is Garth Brooks the antichrist? I hope to find out. I look forward to devoting lengthy essays to The Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain, Toby Keith and Big And Rich.
As the climax of my musical journey, I plan to end the year with a pilgrimage South to visit the Country Music Hall Of Fame, Dollywood, The Grand Ole Opry, and other sites important to country music. Hopefully by the time I take a train to the heart of Dixie, those places will be rich with significance for me.
Am I insane in devoting a year of my life to something I know little about? Perhaps. I am a poor Napoleon forever chasing my Waterloo. Nevertheless, I look forward to writing about music in more of a loose, freeform, rambling, digressive fashion. I may be writing about a different genre, but these entries will preserve all the hallmarks of my writing style: mind-numbing self-indulgence, excessive length, dick jokes, labored self-deprecation, in-jokes, Yiddish phrases, and gratuitous Simpsons references.
What artists would you like to see me write about for this project? How far should I delve into the rockish side of the country-rock equation? Should I cover the Bloodshot/No Depression brigade? Welcome aboard, y’all. For the next 52 weeks, it’s Nashville Or Bust! This should be… interesting.