On Genre

June 27, 2023 0 By JohnValbyNation

There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind . . . the only yardstick by which the result should be judged is simply that of how it sounds.“—Duke Ellington

Before I became Stereophile‘s editor—when I still had time for such things—I would occasionally pack up a camera and some lenses, get in my truck, and drive, usually south, in pursuit of good images and sounds. I’d spend a couple of weeks on the road, stopping to take pictures whenever I came across a picturesque town or valley or an abandoned drive-in theater. I’d try to end the day in some city or town that was likely to have live music. A couple of times on every trip, I’d find myself approaching an especially musical place: Clarksdale. Memphis. New Orleans.

On one such journey, as I approached Nashville, I put out feelers by email and on social media: Where should I go in Nashville to hear live music? Yes, the Opry was at Ryman, but there were no decent seats left. Where else should I go?

“Make sure you go to the Station Inn, if possible,” wrote Stereophile Deputy Editor Art Dudley in an email. “That’s where a lot of the greats hang out, and there’s always good music being made there.”

I grew up in a thin-strip-of-Florida city along US 1 and the Atlantic coast—go a few miles inland, toward Okeechobee, and there was nothing but farmland—and the schools I went to reflected this division: city and country. We city boys rejected music that made us seem unsophisticated. For us it was prog, jazz, maybe a little punk rock or new wave for those of us who had heard about it. We rejected music redolent of soil, crops, and cows—embarrassing in retrospect, but we were just kids after all.

The Station Inn is a bluegrass spot—no, it’s the bluegrass spot. And while I had matured some since my high school days, and come to like some country music—I was from Alabama after all—I was scarcely acquainted with bluegrass music at all.

Still, that night in Nashville, I arrived early at the address on 12th Street South, parked on the street, paid my $10 cover, took a seat front and center at a communal table, and waited for the music to start. The headliner that night was Shad Cobb (vocals, fiddle), who has played with Willie Nelson and Steve Earle. Cobb was playing in various combinations with five other musicians who came and went: bassist Todd Phillips, a founding member (on second mandolin) of the David Grisman Quintet; Jenny Leigh Obert, who has played fiddle with Emmylou Harris; Wes Corbett of Joy Kills Sorrow on banjo; Ashby Frank, who played with Bill Monroe at age 11, on mandolin; and Jake Stargel, who has worked with Ricky Skaggs, on guitar. Just another Tuesday night in Nashville.

If, in my dotage, senility has taken me and I have lost my mind, play this music for me and my toe will start tapping and a smile will cross my face.

The next night I returned to the Station Inn, this time for Missy Raines (bass and vocals), with a different group of top-notch musicians—session players, I think. If I’d stayed another night in Nashville, I would have gone to the Station Inn again.

I learned something from that experience—something important. I learned that genre doesn’t matter. Bluegrass has many things in common with other music, music I’ve loved for years. For example: Bluegrass consists of sounds. It’s made up of notes. It has rhythms. It is played on instruments that, being mostly made out of wood, have interesting timbres and textures. At its heart is—well, heart.

There was a moment on the first night, while a quartet was on the stage—fiddle, bass, guitar, mandolin—when I thought “This is almost like a string quartet.” The music was more rhythmic than Mozart, more upbeat than Schubert, but the timbres and textures were similar. A string quartet can be lonesome, too.

At the Station Inn, most of the instruments are miked, but it’s done very well so that little of the instruments’ character is lost. Microphones and speakers can add their own signature to a live-music experience; they are part of the way the music sounds. Good is good, as Cheryl Crow sang and Kevin Costner once said in a made-for-TV movie. Like the character of a recording, well-executed sound reinforcement is just another aspect of music that can be considered and enjoyed.

There’s a lot of other music out there, and much of it is good. With few exceptions (John Cage?), it is all made up of sounds. It is played on instruments and sung with voices. It has timbres, rhythms, and textures—unless it doesn’t, in which case it is of no interest to me.

My favorite music has those things, the more the better, and my favorite recordings capture them vividly.

We all have our favorite artists and our favorite genres of music. But audiophiles are unique, or at least unusual, in our appreciation of music as sound. This makes it easier—indeed, easy—for us to cross genres, to appreciate other kinds of music, as I did those nights at the Station Inn.

My experience at the Station Inn, and others like it, inform Stereophile‘s approach to music and music reviews. It’s the thing that sets us apart from other music publications—Downbeat, Pitchfork, Gramophone—that are able to cover their genres more thoroughly than we can. Rock, jazz, bluegrass—musical genre matters far less than those musical and sonic fundamentals: notes, rhythms, sounds. As I develop our music section in the coming months and years, this will always be in the back of my mind, if it’s not at the front.

It’s not that I think genre doesn’t matter. It’s that I think other aspects of music matter much more.—Jim Austin

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