Your Take: Suffering for the Sake of Art

Staff | November 2nd, 2013

Earlier this week, Jeff Miers of The Buffalo News wrote a column entitled “Reflecting on tradition vs. trend-hopping in country music,” which was written shortly after attending a Merle Haggard concert.

So why do I have positive feelings for guys and gals like Haggard, when I feel pretty much exactly the opposite about artists including Toby Keith, Jason Aldean and Taylor Swift? I suppose it all comes down to questions of intention on the part of the artist. The true greats in country music history were not attempting to cross over into the realms of pop music, by any means necessary. They were purists, in a way. Like jazz artists who looked down their noses (often wrongly) at those among their peer group who accepted the influences of rock on their genre, the best country artists made sure their music was packed with reverence for its forebears. Not everyone was meant to be able to play it. You had to be good. You had to have suffered a bit.

Miers names Garth Brooks and his “edgeless,” commercial country as the model which current male country stars choose to emulate in their often clichéd, unadventurous, lowest-common-denominator music, which “apes styles, employs signifiers both musical and sartorial, and generally follows a cynically premeditated plan.”

Haggard, on the other hand, used music not as a stepping stone to become famous, but to escape a lifestyle that would have killed him had he kept on that path. His early music was born from an all-too-real desperation that gave his work a depth that is all but absent from today’s radio hits.

[Haggard] is from California, but we’re not talking Hollywood here – he came from rural California. He was pretty much trouble from the first moment his feet hit the ground. He ran afoul of the law, and was in prison. While there, he learned that his wife was pregnant with another man’s child. When he was released, he got a job digging ditches. Literally. His abilities as a songwriter, singer and guitarist quite likely saved his life in a very real way.  That tough-as-nails existence informs all of Haggard’s work, the best of which is infused with a profound sadness that is borne with dignity by the singer. When Haggard sings, you believe him. End of story.

We want your take: Does an artist have to suffer for his or her work to be “good,” or to be remembered like Haggard, Hank Williams, and Townes Van Zandt? To be believable?

  1. Adam
    November 2, 2013 at 9:41 am

    The problem with Miers’ column is that it fails to acknowledge the widespread poverty nationwide when Haggard was growing up. This would have an effect on an entire generation of performers. Merle, Cash, Elvis, Waylon, George Jones, etc. and it may have given them a bit more drive early in their career.

    There’s still poverty, of course, but in general things were much better even for poor rural families by the time Garth Brooks grew up in the ’60s and ’70s. Different generation, different experiences, different audience, much different music. I prefer Haggard to Brooks, but there are minor artists throughout country history who struggled as much as Haggard and don’t stack up to either Haggard or Garth.

    Besides, in terms of breaking into the music industry Hank Jr. struglled less than probably any artist before or since. That didn’t stop him from being the top artist in the genre (my opinion only) from 1978-1987.

  2. Jack Williams
    November 2, 2013 at 11:23 am

    As far as the writer’s mentioning of suffering goes, it seems more than he’s suggesting that an a great country artist needs to have some suffering in their background as opposed to them suffering for the sake of their art like Townes Van Zandt thought he needed to do (I believe). But I think the more important point he’s making is the about the intentions of the person making the music. For example, I believe people like Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch had stable upbringings, yet they’ve been able to make great country music.

  3. nm
    November 2, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    Ya know, Toby Keith is a jackass. I disagree with him about pretty much any social or political point he has ever bothered opening his mouth to make. His behavior in public is needlessly, deliberately, boorish and offensive. His songs, taken together, belittle women so much I can barely stand to listen to them.

    But if you listen to the entirety of his work, as a songwriter and as a singer he is stone country. Anyone who can’t hear that is deaf (or deafened by guessing about “intention”). I listen to Toby Keith and I think that he is wasting one of the greatest sets of musical gifts a guy was ever given on expressing personal pettiness. But he is doing that as a country singer, in a country music way. It’s true he has very little dignity, but when he expresses his undignified self, I believe him. Unfortunately.

  4. Leeann Ward
    November 2, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    I think of it like acting. Just as actors have to do, I think somebody can sell a song even if they’ve never lived through it, as long as they’ve found a way to convey the emotions of the song to us through their performance.

  5. Adam
    November 2, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    Leann, I think you summed it up pretty well, but I do think a great performance depends on the artist having some kind of reference point to draw from or perhaps a way of seeing the song as a metaphor for something in their own life. For example, look at two of Willie Nelson’s best albums. “Phases and Stages” and “Red Headed Stranger” were both deeply personal, but only one applied literally to events in Willie’s own life.

    The personal songs like “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Coat of Many Colors,” and even Hank Jr.’s “Family Tradition” stand as all-time greats of the country genre, but so do “Folsom Prison Blues,” “King of the Road,” and “Amarillio By Morning.”

  6. Barry Mazor
    November 2, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    I find those comments almost complete nonsense in their interpretation.

    > “The true greats in country music history were not attempting to cross over into the realms of pop music, by any means necessary. They were purists, in a way.” ..Nonsense! Unless you take the circular sophomoric tack of calling everyone who tried to reach a wider a audience “not great,” this has no consistent historical validity in country music –since the days of Jimmie Rodgers., who was marketed as pop. Hank Williams was heralded as a country music savior when he was alive precisely because people like Tony Bennett wanted to sing his songs.

    That music and songs have to represent somebody’s Exact Real Life is another piece of prejudice adopted form romantic (and bad) rock commentary, and the author would be wise to read David Cantwell’s book on Merle–somebody who knows more about Merle than that he loves what he’s made, which he does–to see just how far Haggard;s songs DON’T apply to his direct experience. In this sort of “their music must be their life” preference, imagination of course, has no role at all. Which is unimaginative.

    Much of this “critical” commentary really is pure personal reaction, not critical analysis. What does this writer know of the artists intentions” anyway? If he isn’t moved by the music, therefore they had Fake Intentions. And if he lies them, he ascribes High Intentions to them–which may not be the biographical case. More nonsense!

    It was this guy’s personal fave, Garth Brooks, who said something cogent relevant to this sort of “criticism” during the Medallion ceremony for Kenny Rogers at the Hall of Fame last week:

    “In this field, everyone who came before you was a god, and everyone who comes after is a punk.”

    A witty remark–but not intended as the basis of anybody’s critiques.

  7. Leeann Ward
    November 2, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    Amen, Barry!

  8. Both Kinds of Music
    November 2, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    I can’t say this with any authority, but I’m pretty sure Gillian Welch hasn’t lived the life of a lot of her music, but that makes it no less profound or good.

    We’re the sum of our experiences and imaginations so to write what you know seems like the best answer. It just depends on how well you write and how well your audience relates to it. If trucks are what you know, then by all means – just make sure it’s a damned good truck song.

    The problem is, we’re not all that deep when it comes to both writing or listening. Pop music is just that because it asks for so little.

    Barry must know that non-critics/scholars/authorities don’t give that much thought to their consumption. I’m only a chapter into the Cantwell book and I’m already at a “who cares” at how he’s going not only out of his way, but completely off the map to explain that Haggard didn’t come from the destitute background he sings about. No, but close enough to be believable.

    It’s like the Patton Oswalt joke about the Star Wars prequels – I don’t care about Darth Vader’s backstory or how ice cream’s made, those things are bad ass because it’s true.

    Haggard speaks to me for the reason Toby Keith doesn’t. His authenticity of hard times past trumps the trappings of modern rural life (vice versa for the modern country listener). Which, then gets back to the question at hand. Do you have to suffer for your art? No way. For me, you either have to be an excellent storyteller or interpreter of the material to make it feel like you live and breathe it.

    It’s why Pancho and Lefty coming out of Townes’ mouth is so much better than Willie/Merle’s ludicrous version. A song vs a song produced to be a hit.

  9. Luckyoldsun
    November 2, 2013 at 8:27 pm

    Country music needs to get back to the days when the symbol of an artist having made it and being rich was that he owned a Pontiac festooned with silver dollars all over it. Or later, maybe, that his tour bus had air conditioning.

    Of course, those days ain’t coming back, so I just apply some “willing suspension of disbelief” and accept that Alan Jackson still eats baloney sandwiches and searches on the Internet for old ’60s American cars (while flying on his private Lear jet) and that Toby Keith drinks out of a red Solo cup (Hey, he has to pour a cup from his $1,000-dollar bottle of French Cabernet into something!)

  10. Barry Mazor
    November 3, 2013 at 10:11 am

    I don’t know who you are Both Kinds, but if, in the end, you’re taking us back to “country fans don’t care about your high fallutin’ thinkin’ and background stuff, cause we’re just folks,” I think you;’re missing a lot about country fans.

    As Brandy Clark says to Peter Cooper in today’s Tennessean, ““I don’t think we (in country music) give our audience enough credit,” Clark says. “They’re really smart. They’re forward-thinking, open-minded people, or at least the ones I meet are. They love music like the Dixie Chicks and Jamey Johnson, because those artists don’t think they’re smarter than the audience.”

    Those of us who write about this stuff don’t think everybody will want to dig a little deeper;w e’re not dumb either. A lot of people don’t care to do that in all kind soy music, and that’s their right. On the other hand, if I was a commenter on a website where we actually talk about country, and attempt–occasionally successfully–to keep it smart, I wouldn’t want to dedicate myself to a defense of being shallow.

    Meanwhile: I think you’re right at the right point about Ms. Welch, or about anybody else. The only authenticity that matters is the emotional authenticity of what the performers’ produce–and that is a very subjective thing t o detect. Those of us who pay a lot of attention and form sentences and even paragraphs about that, try to nail with specifics the evidence of that effectiveness. It is precisely what Dave Cantwell is excellent at, and if you’ll give what he’s saying one thousandth the time he took to create it, you might still agree with me on that.

  11. BRUCE
    November 3, 2013 at 8:11 pm

    When I hear a song that I like and connects with me, I don’t perform a background check on the artist to verify my satisfaction. Just as I do not perform a biography check on a writer that writes a spy thriller to see if they have experience working with the CIA.

    Sure I like the fact that some country music performers come from country roots. That’s my preference; however I do not let that bias my thoughts on the song or not.

    Good grief. It’s music for heaven’s sake. If a particular song appeals to you, just accept it and go on. Tryng to delve between the lines for some grandious definition is above the pay-grade of most listeners. Myself included.

  12. Markus Meyer
    November 4, 2013 at 12:28 am

    I think Leeann nailed it.

    An example from today’s country is “I Drive Your Truck”.

    Lee did not have a hand in writing it but I could’ve sworn he did judging by his performance.

  13. SunsetPark
    November 4, 2013 at 10:37 am

    If someone is taking most of their material from the lives of others and putting it out there, they need to be really good to make it feel authentic. If someone is taking their own life and putting it out there, they don’t need to be quite as good to make feel authentic. To me it is just a longer climb for those who are using the material largely from outside their own life – it doesn’t mean they can’t get to the same excellent product in the end.

  14. Barry Mazor
    November 4, 2013 at 10:57 am

    Everybody has a life. Very few create songs other people care about. It takes talent, no matter where the song comes from.

    Fortunately, all of the great murder ballads were written by murderers.

  15. TX Music Jim
    November 4, 2013 at 11:12 am

    TVZ is an example of someone who, to me, is the greatest songwriter that ever lived. However, he was also unfortunately a manic depressive and an alcoholic who struggled with these demons his whole life and eventually they killed him. By the same token I think REK is a great writer too and he has had by all accounts lived a throughly stable middle class lifestyle.I think you either have the talent are you don’t of course your life experiences play a role but so do books you read, movies you watch other peoples music you listen to etc.

  16. Ken Morton, Jr.
    November 4, 2013 at 11:52 am

    Fortunately, all of the great murder ballads were written by murderers. Thanks for the chuckle this morning, Barry. I had suspected this all along. :)

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