When I first met Kathryn, she was a bright-eyed 15-year-old who loved pop and country music. She probably still does. Somewhere in the universe there is video of the two of us ripping through an enthusiastic, slightly off-key rendition of “Tearin’ Up My Heart.” We briefly debated performing Britney Spears’ “Crazy,” but we decided we could best do justice to *N SYNC. We had the dance moves down. Other gems performed during this unconventional classroom karaoke session for an end-of-the-year party included “Tiny Dancer,” “I Got You Babe,” and a raucous sing-along to “Rock the Casbah.”
Kathryn and I bonded over our unapologetic enjoyment of country music. We talked about the latest singles on the radio and plotted about how to convert others into country fans. I loaned her my copy of Carrie Underwood’s Some Hearts which she kept for months and may or may not have used to make her own not-quite-legal copy. Shh, don’t tell. Kathryn absolutely raved about Carrie. “She’s so good,” Kathryn enthused.
My work colleague Chris also loaned Kathryn some music, although his contribution to shaping her music collection was decidedly different from mine. He gave her an Ani DiFranco CD. Kathryn, who was raised on popular radio, had never heard of her. I graduated from a women’s college; familiarity with “32 Flavors,” “Both Hands” and “Gratitude” is practically part of the requirement for obtaining a degree. Kathryn was captivated. I couldn’t help but smile when she marveled at Ani’s songwriting prowess. The words weren’t specifically said, but the sentiment was clear: She’s so good.
Then Kathryn did what so many other fans do. She passed that CD along to a friend.
* * *
A couple years later, I was browsing through the country music section in a local Best Buy. Another woman who was looking at CDs asked me what I thought about Rascal Flatts. She deemed them “all right”, but felt that they were more pop than country.
She noticed a familiar album cover and her eyes lit up. “I love Randy Travis,” she proclaimed fervently.
We might have looked a bit strange to passersby: two women who were virtual strangers gushing over a country legend. Then again, maybe that’s just the power of a great artist.
When you hear something you love, you just want to share it.
The debate over what constitutes “good music” will continue long after I’m gone. More knowledgeable experts will debate the merits of independent versus mainstream artistry. People will continue to bemoan the influence of youth over radio playlists and the all-consuming power of conglomerates.
However, here are a few things I believe.
If it means something to you, it’s “good.” Confession time: I’ve never heard a song by Florida Georgia Line. Based on some of the vitriol aimed towards this duo, I suspect I don’t want to. However, it would be ridiculous of me to claim that this pair’s music doesn’t offer meaning to someone else. Am I suddenly going to become an ardent fan? No, but you should never have to make apologies for music if you genuinely enjoy it.
Whatever our musical tastes, we cannot be afraid to advocate for the musicians. It’s up to us to acknowledge and share their work. If we claim to value art, then we need to actively support artists, not just complain if they don’t receive the recognition we feel they deserve. If you’re unable to purchase music (in this economy that may be be something of a luxury for many), word-of-mouth is always welcome.
We cannot be dismissive of others or exclude them due to age, gender, and background. We cannot afford to rudely criticize still-developing “12 year old girls” as if they are brainless dolts who are not coping with their own dilemmas or snark about “old-timers” who look back at their cherished musical past with longing eyes. When we embrace people and invite them into our own spheres, more often than not we find allies, not enemies.
My own musical preferences have shifted over time, sometimes leaning toward lesser known, but not inaccessible musicians. I try to actively seek out new artists, but admittedly that process can be draining. Sometimes you have to sift through a fair amount of dreck to encounter the “good stuff.”
However, I remain confident that worthwhile music exists, among both independent and popular artists. In the past week I’ve downloaded great new albums from Cale Tyson and the Breedings. I’m keeping an eye on the work of new-to-me Americana act Parsonfield and counting down the days until an upcoming release from Will Hoge. I have high hopes for Alan Jackson’s bluegrass album.
I realize some of this sounds insufferably preachy. Essentially, it all boils down to one thing. When you encounter music that you love, do what Kathryn did.
Share it. Pass it on. Preferably through legal means.
Today, I rifled through my CD collection. Flipping through liner notes, I briefly lost myself in memories of Carrie and Ani. I thought about what each contributed to my own musical journey, how their songs shaped various times in my life, and how their music exposed me to other artists.
I thought of family, friends, students, and strangers.
I smiled, felt thankful, and teared up. Just a bit.
Then I felt silly.
However, I can say with certainty, yes, Kathryn, they are good.