Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What I'm Listening To: The Charlie Poole Project

Sometimes we don't know what we like. Our tastes operate at a visceral level that often elude articulation. On one level, we "know" what we like, what delights us; but on another level we're often unable to say what we "know" in this sense. (And herein lies one of the functions of good criticism: a wise critic gives us the words to name and articulate our tastes.)

And sometimes we're just not honest with ourselves. We feel constrained to like something--that we ought to like something. Socialization is also a socialization in taste, with all the associated pressures, constraints, and prejudices. And so we might also convince ourselves that we don't like something because we "shouldn't."

I've been thinking about these sorts of dynamics in relation to my musical tastes, largely because I've had a revelation of taste--and perhaps a new realization of self-honesty. It's simply this: the sound of a banjo makes my heart sing, and the sawing of a fiddle can capture my soul from almost any distraction. The pluck-pluck of a simple upright bass and the whine of a harmonica combine into a visceral tug on both body and soul. Combined, these sounds have an uncanny way of making me feel at home. (I chalk this up to my Scots-Canadian heritage whose Celtic proclivities seem to resonate with the Scots-Irish folk who played these instruments in the hills of West Virginia, the Appalachian Mountains, and the North Carolina Piedmont.)

For a long time, I thought this meant I liked "country" music--so you can sort of imagine my hesitancy to admit this to myself (given my critique of country music). But slowly I've come to this realization: what I really love is bluegrass and what is now sometimes described as "American roots music," which informs those streams of folk with which I resonate.

Part of this dawning realization, for me, was hearing a wonderful conversation with Loudon Wainwright III on his latest 2-disc collection, High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project. This is Wainwright's homage to Charlie Poole, a North Carolina rambler who epitomized the cotton mill bands of the 1920s and 30s.

Is it possible to wear out a CD? 'Cause I'm lovin' this.