Several years ago, I read Johnny Cash’s memoir, Cash: The Autobiography. Of the many passages that stood out to me, the strong one came from a very brief section in which Cash was discussing the songs and style of country artists. With just a tinge of “old man-itis,” he noted that while country artists of the past wore clothing and sang songs that reflected the materiality of their lives (i.e., those jeans and cowboy boots were part of their labor; songs about poverty reflected their lives), it was more the case now that the style and the themes were a requirement of the genre and no longer reflected lived experience (i.e., those jeans and boots are not reflective of a working life).
While I’m not interested in defending “authenticity” in music or elsewhere, and while I have no cause to romanticize the past, I do want to spend a moment reflecting on, for lack of a better word, sincerity. I want to reflect on this in relation to music in specific because, for my money, there is no art form that can so richly tap a wide array of emotions. And tapping into those emotions from time to time—aurally and otherwise—is valuable for a number of reasons. I also want to reflect on it because I witnessed a performance last night that has changed my thinking somewhat and has given me hope.
Over the years, I have found it more difficult for music to open my emotional cylinders in quite the same way it did when I was young, and, honestly, I miss its therapeutic function. Some of the reasons it no longer works are obvious: age jades. Regardless of the buoyancy of your personality, emotions don’t tap as easily—or at least in quite the same way—when you’re middle-aged as when you’re young. But I think it’s more than that: pleading guilty to my own case of “old man-itis,” I want to suggest that Cash is right. It’s difficult to perform sincerity when you’re so strongly self-aware that you’re performing.
While watching Nashville Star this season, my Bonnie and I have noticed an interesting critique consistently made by the judges. Someone will perform a song, and the judges will note, in a variety of different ways, that if the candidate wants to last another week, they need to learn to “perform” country authenticity a little better. That is, in a confirmation of Cash’s concerns, the judges are asking telling the performers that they need to more closely adhere to the generic conventions if they want to be seen as authentic rather than having the generic conventions arise from their actions.
I understand that this is not a unique observation, and I understand that it is true of all forms of music. Indeed, it didn’t take cultural critics to observe that, while a genre might arise for material reasons, its popularity transforms it into a constraint on those who ‘enter’ the genre later (whether we’re talking about a style of music, a profession, a sport, etc.). Small twists on the genre keep it alive, but the genre controls the performer more than the performer controls or shapes the genre.
Here in music city, for example, tourists demand the performance of “authenticity.” As my former colleague Pete Peterson has pointed out, the musicians in the honky tonks on Lower Broadway know that there job is to perform “authentic country” so that everyone walks away with their idea of a “real" Nashville experience. In attempting to “perform authenticity,” of course, the performers change to fit the genre, reifying the genre itself.
Until yesterday, I would have come close to arguing that these constraints on music performance had led to a situation in which, while I continue to be something of a music head, my experience of musical sincerity (rather than authenticity) was over. That is, I had begun to believe that because one had to fit generic constraints, artists are less successful at emotional transference. While I know there are a huge host of problems with such an analysis, it made sense to me. Every live show I go to anymore feels as if we all—audience and performers—are walking through the motions, playing our roles the best we can.
And then, there was Daniel Johnston.
Last evening, my son took me to see Johnston play with the Hymns at Mercy Lounge here in Nashville. We’re both Johnston fans, although we admittedly came very late to the game, only really listening to his early music consistently about two years ago, after seeing the documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston. At that point, however, we became fanatics (well, at least fanatic about the early recordings).
Johnston, for the uninitiated, is a singer songwriter whose fame came in mid-80s when he performed in the Austin, Texas area. His first albums—cassettes recorded on a cheap tape player in the house in which he was raised—feature Daniel playing piano and singing songs about unrequited love, God, the devil, and a variety of characters (as well as the sound of his mother yelling at him, toilets flushing, water running, etc.). The songs are amateurish and simple on the one hand, but rich and complex on the other. Something about the innocence and rawness of Johnston’s emotions, and the beauty of the melodies, has a tendency to blow you away, opening up those emotional cylinders and clearing them out.
Because Johnston, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, has lived a very difficult life, going in and out of institutions and on and off of medications, I really didn’t expect much from the show. Indeed, I had heard reports from earlier shows on this tour that Johnston had quietly walked off the stage on a number of occasions and was distracted at others. So, my expectations were low. Wow. Was I wrong.
From the moment—and the way-Johnston-walked onto the stage, you knew you were up for something different. With the crowd chatting with one another, it took quite awhile for anyone to notice that Johnston had, on his own, walked onto the stage, set down his two liter bottle of Diet Mountain Dew and was getting ready to play. Talk about your utter lack of pretensions. From the moment he started playing, the crowd was his, and he was marvelous.
The show proceeded like this: Johnston sang two songs solo. He was then joined by an old college friend who played guitar while Johnston sang (good move that: Johnston is an honest, but not very able, guitarist). After a break, Johnston came out with the opening act, the Hymns acting as his backing band and sang songs with a much stronger rock emphasis. Here’s the thing: regardless of where we were in the act, Johnston songs sounded like he meant them. And not just his personal songs, but the covers as well (The Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and “I Saw Her Standing There”). His voice—as innocent and pained as it is on those original recordings—moves you. That’s a cliché of course, so I want to stress that you feel emotional about this music. Perhaps it’s his bipolar disorder; perhaps he’s just that emotionally raw; I don’t know and I don’t care. It works; the experience is cathartic.
Here’s an anecdote from late in the show that might give you some sense of Johnston's performance. After having sung a number of songs featuring pain and wonder, and then a number of more forceful rockers, Johnston seemed to be enjoying himself in a goofy boylike way. He looks up at the audience and says, “We’re going to sing our final song.” Then, he adds, as if he’s giving away a secret, “Except we’ve got this extra song we can sing if you cheer enough.” The guy just seems full of joy with the idea that he’s going to end the show and then play another song for you, as if he invented the encore. That, my friends, is fun.
I can’t promise you that you’ll love his music (although I’d start with the homemade recordings), and I can’t promise that his shows are all this magical. I can promise you, however, that last night, I felt I saw one of the last great hopes for musical sincerity.