When I tap out a blog post about an artist or an album I like, I’m working toward getting you to give the music a listen. I don’t even know you, but I try to find the right combination of words to convince you that this is something you need to hear right now. I fool myself into thinking that if I can just get you listening to clips at iTunes or Myspace, you’ll hear it the way I hear it and love it the way I do.
I’m wrong, though. That’s not the way it works. Music is about relationships. Not just between stars and fans, singers and musicians, melody and meaning. In a very intimate sense, it’s about your relationship to what you hear. It’s about how you process a song, how all of your life experience and preconceptions and preferences and everything that makes you a distinct human being come together in the ultimate moment of listening. It’s also about how you change over time, and how each new vantage point alters your view of the music. It’s about the songs that follow you, the ones that get left behind, the ones you grow into, the ones that mark you permanently.
It took me years to understand Dale Watson. He was heralded as something of a minor deity among the self-proclaimed ‘real country’ fans I knew, but I couldn’t grasp his appeal. I tried my hardest to like him, but always wound up seeing him as little more than a first-rate Haggard impersonator. Not wanting to risk social ostracism, I quietly kept this opinion to myself. Eventually, something changed. I don’t remember exactly what it was or when it happened. I probably found a Youtube video or song clip that hit me in just the right way, reaching through whatever mood I happened to be in at that moment and making me care. Whatever it was, something suddenly clicked. I bought my first Dale Watson album, then several more in short order. I became a fan, if not a devout worshipper at the First Church of Ameripolitanism.
Even making the leap of buying that first album doesn’t guarantee anything. Solitary albums by Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, and others collected dust on my shelf for months or years before I really understood why I should be glad to own them. Those lonely albums were typically purchased out of a feeling of obligation, an inherited understanding that I couldn’t really be a country fan unless I owned whatever album… as if owning it and having heard it once or twice is the same as actually understanding and appreciating it. You can force yourself to buy an album and listen to it, but you can’t force yourself into a relationship with it. That personal connection might happen immediately, but it’s just as likely that you’ll need to give it some time. Put the album away for a while and forget about it; it’ll be waiting for you when you’re ready. CDs that once filled space on my shelf have become some of my favorites. I just needed to let myself come back around to them at my own pace.
Sometimes one piece needs to fall into place before others can connect. I reached Merle Haggard and George Jones by way of Randy Travis. I had heard both of them before, but something about Travis’ modern sheen put their relevance in perspective. Before he bridged that gap for me, you could have waxed poetic about George and Merle all day and it wouldn’t have mattered. Now it’s hard for me to believe that I ever didn’t understand their brilliance. I guess that’s the learning process for you.
In my own long-winded way, I’m making the point that musical taste is based on a complex personal relationship that takes an unpredictable and unique course for each individual. Given that fact, what’s the role of the internet music evangelist? It’s not outright conversion, since he can’t hope to understand or account for all the different musical journeys being taken by his readers. It’s more akin to scattering seeds, only a small fraction of which will eventually take root. Sometimes you’ll think nothing happened until, out of nowhere, the slightest sprout of green appears.
Back before my musical evangelism found an outlet in the cyberworld, I gave my grandparents a copy of the then-new Randy Travis gospel CD, Worship & Faith, as a Christmas gift. I hoped they would enjoy it, of course, but truth be told it wasn’t an especially thoughtful present. I had fallen into a pattern of pushing Travis on friends and relatives; the Christmas gift was more an outgrowth of that pattern than something specially chosen for my grandparents. In other words, it was a gift I wanted to give, not a gift I knew they’d want to receive. Anyway, months and years passed without a peep from them about the super-fantastic gift, so I silently reprimanded myself for being a pushy Randy Travis fan and forgot all about it.
Then, in November of last year, it came back around. As my grandfather lay in a hospital bed in his living room, someone found Worship & Faith tucked away somewhere and decided to play it for him. For the last few days of Grandpa’s life, it didn’t leave the player. I learned about this at the memorial service, which also included a number of songs from the disc. The gift I thought had been forgotten became more important than I ever could have imagined, just not when or how I had planned. The music was there when he – and we, the family – needed it most. Worship & Faith became the sad, comforting soundtrack to Grandpa’s final days.
When I get to thinking I have all the answers, I have to stop and remind myself that it’s not my job to set anyone else’s path of musical self-discovery. All I can do is talk about my likes and dislikes in a way that might help others negotiate their own course through the vast musical universe. Sometimes I’ll feel like I’m shouting into a void, like today’s post will be forgotten tomorrow, but sometimes I’ll be pleasantly surprised – at the unexpected fruits of my labor, at all the things you teach me – and those times will make it all worth the while.