The following is a recent email exchange between me and Rock M Nation's RPT. It concerns one of our many shared interests: Red Dirt Music. Some of you who are interested in this genre may find it of interest. If not, sorry, it's the offseason.
So after a Twitter discussion and thinking about it this evening, I think I've come up with a partial explanation for what Red Dirt/Texas Country is, and why it's better than Nashville. Aside from the obvious, I mean.
After re-reading Evan Felker's 20 Questions with Galleywinter, I got to thinking about his explanation for the meaning of " 7&7." It's not a story any of us is unfamiliar with, and it's not a story that's never been covered by musicians. After thinking about it a bit, I thought of a song covering similar subject matter. George Strait, who I ordinarily respect the hell out of, put out kind of a clunker in "She'll Leave You With a Smile."
But why is "7&7" better than "She'll Leave You With a Smile?" It all comes down to a simple concept that you and I both learned in journalism school, and then I had reinforced in law school. It's all storytelling. It's all in the show, not the tell.
Take George Strait's song. "At first she's gonna come on strong/Like she'll love you all night long." Well, OK. That's what we'd call a conclusory statement in the legal world. It tells what happened (or what's going to happen), but it doesn't tell how it's happening, it doesn't tell why it's happening, and it sure as hell doesn't show you anything. After listening to the first and second verse, you understand that this guy loved a girl, they spilt, and then he runs into her with "the guy that he used to be." More conclusions.
Contrast that with "7&7." I can't even pull just a quick snippet out of that song to illustrate the point. You really have to go through the first and second verses, then the third and fourth verses after the first refrain to get the idea. And it's not because Felker is being wordy, but it's because he's showing you what is happening. It's not "she's gonna come on strong," it's "fun was dominoes and Seven-Up and Seagrams" and "you're a picture of strength and grace and beauty/and I'm just a fool in a supermarket aisle." And it's more than that, but you get the point.
It's really no more complicated than what separates good and great speechmaking from average and worse speechmaking. I've sat through speeches where the speaker trotted out a bunch of inspirational quotes and semi-clichés that were intended to make the audience look inward and see the best within themselves. It's never done anything for me. The only people it does anything for are people who argue on newspaper comments sections, and it only inspires them for about five minutes, or until they get their next US Weekly magazine. These speeches are nothing but conclusions, just a bunch of "if you try really hard, you'll succeed!"
But the speeches that have actually inspired or stuck with me were the ones where the speaker talked about something they had experienced, or someone close to them had experienced. And they talked about it in detail. Not just "I used to be addicted to drugs," but "I was doing so much cocaine the doctors told me it should have killed me, and one night I was so tired of what I was doing that I got my pistol out to kill myself, but I couldn't find the bullets" (I actually heard a lawyer tell that story in my Professional Responsibility class). I'll always remember a personal story, but the inspirational quotes just fade away.
Enough with the digression. You get the point. I'm convinced that at least part of the reason why Evan Felker, Willy Braun, Jason Boland , Robert Earl Keene, Hayes Carll, Cody Canada and others are so much better songwriters than the Nashville acts is that they have time to get lost in their thoughts. When you're driving from a gig in Kansas City to your next show in Tulsa or Coffeyville or Jonesboro, you have some time to sit around and think. My best writing is the result of having time to gather my thoughts and make connections. Thinking is the great art that our generation has lost, but some of us are still able to do it. These guys put some time and effort into their songwriting, and it shows.
Had to share that with someone who would get it. Keep enjoying Austin.
All in all, I think I'd echo many of the points you've raised here. As you mentioned, the scene is first and foremost about storytelling. That's a tribute to the Robert Earl Keens and Steve Earles of the world who paved the way by setting the bar for what is expected of a storyteller and a songwriter in this genre. Hell, one of REK's most popular offerings -- The Front Porch Song -- literally has a 3-4 minute story embedded in it.
And, to the genre's credit, the storytelling doesn't all have to be Evan Felker or Chris Knight. Roger Creager can tell his own story, even if that means substituting in a song about one of those "All I want to do is drink with my buddies right now" kind of moments rather than Felker seeing an ex-flame in a grocery store. It really matters not what the subject is, but rather that the songwriter knows it and the audience believes it. Let's face it -- I'm a kid from the suburbs of Dallas. I didn't grow up living hard on a farm. I didn't spend my formative nights in an old beat-up Ford driving across the expanse of West Texas. But, if the songwriting is genuine, I didn't have to. The song can take me there. It makes non-personal experiences personal, it makes simple emotions complex and it makes complex emotions simple (Felker's best quality).
That brings me to what I think is the singular word I would elect to use about the Red Dirt scene in totality: Authenticity. The musicians in this space are committed to their own music, committed to their own personality and committed to their own stories. By and large, they are not intended for the masses. Their work is not the result of focus groups, nor is its intention a high ranking on the CMT Top Whatever. The great songwriters in this genre will take a well-told, soul-bearing truth that gets played only in dive bars on Wednesdays compared to a generic, lowest-common-denominator hit. In effect, they're sacrificing opportunities at national prominence for truth. It keeps the Red Dirt scene fairly contained in numbers, but in response it inspires an exponentially larger investment by the fans into the musicians and the well-being of the entire movement. It inspires brand loyalty at the expense of mass appeal.
Now, of course, the irony is that the authentic ones seem to blow up a little bit less nationally. It's why Brian Keane and Adam Hood can write one of the most authentic songs I've ever heard -- "I'll Sing About Mine" -- and it takes a soul-less Josh Abbott remake to make the radio. Will Hoge, one of the best songwriters in the scene despite being from Nashville, oddly, wrote the story of his music career with "Even If It Breaks Your Heart," and it took Eli Young covering it to make it national. Maybe this is just me being a little tired of Josh Abbott's lack of depth or Eli Young hanging atop the Texas Top 25 (though, to the credit of Eli Young Band, I think they're authentic, they just have a sound that's a little more formulaic).
You're right about getting lost in their thoughts, because they commit to getting lost in their thoughts. In the eyes of the best in the scene, it's an art, not a business. And, perhaps in a chicken and the egg kind of way, the musicians in this scene have ALWAYS made their names by becoming road warriors. Almost never has a Red Dirt musician thought their name would be made with more time in the studio fine tuning their music. Their focus groups start with crowds of 20 at a rundown shack in West Texas. They cross Texas, Oklahoma, the plains, and the southeast playing as many shows as possible, because nothing sells people on Red Dirt music like watching the musicians lay their souls absolutely naked on stage each night. No polish of a studio record can match the impact of that complex human connection from live Red Dirt music.
For the reasons I mentioned, I obviously question the viability of the Red Dirt scene in the national landscape. But I never question the viability of the Red Dirt scene to Red Dirt people, because there quite simply is nothing like it that inspires devotion like that in music today.