Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The songs have got to have soul, have real meaning . . .

Even though I listen to a lot of different kinds of music from many different genres, anything from Michael Buble, The Killers, and Phoenix, the one music genre that I will always know the most about and be the most partial to is country. This may be because of the fact that I’m from the relative middle of nowhere or maybe because the only radio stations my parents listened to (or possibly the only ones that came in clearly at home) were country. I think country music is a bit of an acquired taste. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who can really admit that they are a “new” country music fan; you have to grow up with it or spend some time getting used to it before you can honestly say you like it. You almost have to learn to like it. I know my boyfriend, Ryan, who didn’t grow up with it, has a hard time even listening to country, citing the “twang” in the singer’s voice and the steel guitar in the background as “unlistenable.” But I don’t even notice these things anymore.  Ryan had to point them out to me and then I had to listen super carefully to even hear them individually; for me, they just blended together into a whole, complete song. 

The one country artist that I would say that I am the biggest fan of is Gary Allan. I have listened to Gary Allan’s music for about ten years, been to two of his concerts, met him once, and own all of his albums. Gary Allan has never been afraid to make music that he wants to make. He doesn’t “sell out” and make music just because it will be popular and it will get played on the radio. He’s made a point of staying “true” to his idea of country music when so many other country artists have crossed over into pop or rock to get more air play. However, this being said, Gary Allan’s music over his career is very eclectic and a little difficult to pin down to an exact subgenre. He started out like many country artists singing country songs that were similar to those popular at the time (i.e. like songs by Garth Brooks, George Strait, Brooks and Dunn, etc.), most likely because he wouldn’t have gotten a record label otherwise. (Country labels, at least in the mid-90s, were famous for finding singers they would sign, but then tell them they have to fit into the cowboy hat and boots wearing mold or they won’t sell music.) However, by his third album he strayed closer to making “country rock” or “Bakersfield country” that uses more electric instruments and is more sharp and edgy than traditional country. However, after the release of his fourth album, Gary’s wife committed suicide and he transformed again, his fifth album staying closer to traditional country with fiddle, steel guitar, and lyrics about losing everything. After this, his albums became a blend of the many subgenres of country, with a few songs fitting under “traditional country,” a few under “country rock,” and then a couple under “Bakersfield country.” 

I think part of the reason for Gary’s eclectic mix of subgenre’s in his music can be found in his definition of country music: “the songs have got to have soul, have real meaning....Country music is...what happens during the week. Rock 'n roll is about what happens at the weekend." I would agree. Country music prides itself in being about everyday life and being relatable to every person because it can incorporate so much of the human experience in just one song. Allan allows his own feelings and emotions dictate what he will sing. He doesn’t depend on the country genre to shape his music and push him into a preset form. So, given this, I have decided to talk about a song off of Allan’s sixth album, Living Hard, called “Learning How to Bend.” This is the second album to come out after the death of Allan’s wife. The first album to come out after her death, Tough All Over showed Allan still in shock and trying to deal with his loss, as evident in songs such as “Best I Ever Had,” “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful,” “Puttin’ My Misery on Display,” and “Puttin’ Memories Away.” However, Living Hard and especially “Learning How to Bend,” show Allan moving on with his life and getting over, but not forgetting, the loss of his wife. The song opens with the lyrics, “I’m still learning how to pray/ Trying hard not to stray/ Try to see things your way” and then a few lines later, “I’m still learning how to trust/It’s so hard to open up/And I’d do anything for us.” It’s as if Allan is saying that even though he was hurt by his wife’s death, he’s working on how to deal with her loss, how to be human again for those still in his life. He needs to relearn how to trust people and get close to them without running away in fear of losing them. Later in the song some the lines “I'm just trying to understand/It's all in someone else's hands/There's always been a bigger plan/But I don't need to understand.” Here he seems to be coming to terms with her death and realizing that it wasn’t his fault.

Even though there seems to be so much of Allan’s own feelings in the song, like I said earlier, country music incorporates so much of the human experience that I think it would be difficult for everyone not to be able to relate to some part of the song. Because of this, to teach this song and the country music genre in general, I would play “Learning How to Bend” through once for my students, with copies of the lyrics so they could follow along. Then, I would have them do a free write, picking out at least one line of the song (or the whole song) that they can relate to especially well to and find meaning in and describe why, stating an experience, memory, person, etc. Then, once done writing, I would have students who feel comfortable share what they wrote about and have them think about their peers’ responses and how they fit into the song as they listen to the song again. I would then share with them the history of the song and how Allan wrote it after his wife died. Then, after this, I would like to discuss with my students how even though the song has a definite history and meaning for the artist, it still can relate to everyone because it focuses on a subject that everyone can relate to.


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