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Musings /// Making Modern Art in a City Obsessed with the Past

Maybe the best thing to do in the New Year, in a constantly changing town, is to focus on crafting the present, rather than just preserving the past - and on why it's so important to think of some of our favorite local "throwback" artists as arbiters for a better modernity, not simple conservation.

10420165_10152604784239617_6180531653091047775_nTwo days before New Year’s Eve in 1999, I somehow found myself on the side of the road about thirty miles outside of Pompano Beach, Florida, waiting for a tow-truck while Jessica, my college roommate, paced back and fourth in a panic as her borrowed Audi let out more puffs of smoke than the Marlborough red stacked between her fingers. We were on our way to, of all things, a festival to see Phish play at Big Cypress Indian Reservation, which we’d decided to do after staying up until 7 a.m. during finals to finish a paper for one of my English seminars and she pieced together film storyboards, sitting in the Union Square Starbucks outside our dorm room sipping giant black coffees and proclaiming that this would be the year we’d do ridiculous things and seize the day, as if any day or week in college wasn’t already full of various ridiculous things or, at least, as David Foster Wallace would have said, supposedly fun things we’d never do again.

We sat in the middle of the highway on a grassy medium while Jessica’s car, a shiny lacquered black thing as fresh looking as a new manicure, sat with the front hood open – it was probably one of the nicer vehicles on the road, which festival-goers en route where very aware of as they passed in 1980s Fords with plastic-wrap windows, honking at us and screaming “nice wheels” while they sped away to Phishland, presumably to dance until dawn and do enough drugs so they didn’t remember what year it was or if they’d prepared for Y2K. We ended up getting carted back to Pompano, riding shotgun together with a driver who ate Fritos the whole way, or at least I think it was Fritos (I just rememberDSC_1641 incessant crunch). Anyway, we ended up ringing in the New Year with some friends on a beach in Miami, spilling the entirely too-expensive bottle of champagne we bought all overour feet after the clock stuck midnight and the world didn’t actually end.

In my college mind, swamped down with Derrida and Adorno and Lester Bangs, I had been convinced that this was somehow a message from the cosmos about the burning ache of modernity, and that I ought to spend 2000 focused on brining back old things – that there had to be some kind of subtext about our brand-new vehicle breaking down on the way to see a vaguely revivalist band. This was nothing new really – I’d always been convinced, like many idealist teenagers before me – that things were better in the past, and that any kind of art or literature made before was better, just because. But I was so much older then – I’m younger than that now.

Part of growing up and examining life an artist (I do consider to journalism to be an art, as well as a trade, listicles be damned) is accepting that what is modern is far different than what you once understood it to be – that change was not the enemy of good, that music, writing or any craft can exist in the current sphere without being revivalist or seeking to be old, and that the constant attitude of “it was better then” is not only repressing to art but intellectually counterproductive. 2014, my third year in Nashville, was a time of distinctly poignant examination of this point – with so much focus being put on what’s old and what’s new, what’s changing, what’s gone, which music sounds “vintage” and what does not. And when did “modern” become a pejorative? Maybe it’s always been…

A few days before the New Year this go-around, I stood with the Lockeland Springsteen team at our fundraiser, watching Blackfoot Gypsies, Alanna Royale, Elenowen, Cory Branan and Boom Forest play their songs, and I started thinking about the curse of the new. The dialogue of the month (the year, really) had been about how Nashville is transitioning, about how all the old spots were disappearing, about how country music is terrible, about how it was all better back then, wherever in time “then” actually is. I grew up in New York City, where transitioning neighborhoods were part of the pulse of the town – and I became accustomed to childhood haunts turning over to Chase banks, and to apartments in areas where artists once dwelled now fetching sky-high rents, because people wanted to be cool by osmosis. I guess I’ve lived it before.

 And now it was almost 2015, and none of us were scooting around on flying hoverboards or self-tying shoes – instead, it was just a night of music played on guitars and horns and drums, the simple stuff, really. I’d call all that music modern, as I would so much of the calexcellent “revivalist” stuff emerging from our town: Sturgill Simpson, Nikki lane, Cale Tyson, Andrew Combs, Taylor Brashears, Joe Fletcher, JP Harris, Margo Price, Kelsey Waldon, Luke Bell. To me, this stuff just travels on a parallel plane, seeking its own special place in a morphing world where new can mean both good and bad, and sound it too. I’ve had conversations with many of these artists about not wanting to be tagged as “vintage” anything, and about how to go about expanding minds to realize that modern music doesn’t have to incorporate a synth, and how something with three chords and narrative lyrics can be just as future-forward as anything that oozes and throbs and sounds more like a robot scooting across space than an instrument.

So what is Nashville 2015? It’s a combination of opposing forces, but it’s also a place where innovation and artistic quality is skyrocketing fast – and it’s crucial to realize that not everything needs to stay old to be better, and that something that’s different from the mainstream is not automatically old. Music can change and grow and so can Nashville – mindfully, of course – but dirty dive bars don’t define our artistic community, and there is grace in the new if you take the chance to view it differently. Great artists understand that they are living in the present, always fused with the past – but you have to accept the inertia of life to make music that grows with it. The city can change, but sometimes it’s how we understand the present that really matters. Art makes makes the fleeting nature of now feel bearable.

On that note, we present you with a brand-new video filmed exclusively for us by the very talented Nick Pichnic, of the Blackfoot Gypsies – a band who innately understands being both modern and respective of the past. The song is called “Promise to Keep,” filmed at our 5 Spot holiday party. Happy New Year from Team L/S.

 – M.R.M. 

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