A recent article on so-called “novelty bands” [“Eccentric Like Me,” Nov. 30, 2005 Xpress] got me thinking (again) about music, art in general, and the holy fools who labor to make and to grok it. But while I was pleased to see a cover story about the emerging local music scene, I cringed at the word “novelty.”
Then, during an in-studio interview with the Mad Tea Party on WNCW, I heard Martin Anderson use the same word, albeit somewhat reluctantly, to describe that band’s sound. He mentioned the Mountain Xpress article, and I thought to myself: “Damn. People are using that word.”
The article defines “novel” as “new,” but what does that mean? A novelty is something you pay a quarter for on your way out the door. The prize itself isn’t even worth as much as the thrill of turning the crank. It’s forgotten by the time you reach the car, and it probably wasn’t worth your quarter to begin with.
Novelty music? Weird Al … maybe. A Widespread Panic cover band with facial hair and drug preferences that mimic those of each member of the real band … maybe. Regardless, to call a band a novelty act is to insult it. To coin “novelty” as a musical genre is not only an unfair generalization, it’s a cop-out.
Granted, there are bands that seem to rely too heavily on gimmicks … or perhaps their gimmicks just aren’t focused or deliberate enough. But we won’t have to think about the acts that suck for long, because extraneous over-stimulation can take a band only so far before it becomes a turnoff. On the other hand, artistic talent and definitive vision — however odd — will prove themselves over time.
What we have happening musically around Asheville is notable but by no means merely novel. First, I’d like to extend all necessary props (respect — not structural assistance) to the local bluegrassers for repeatedly pushing the accepted norms of speed and dazzling technical ability. Likewise, I not only respect but thank the local old-time community for its relentless preservationism. In any given situation, there should always be a small pocket of fundamentalists maintaining the sacred bloodline.
I reserve my utmost praise and admiration for those whose music presents a challenge. In its isolated form, technical wizardry belongs in a petri dish in a laboratory sample drawer. There has to be an idea; there has to be a risk. Who out there is testing new — and possibly treacherous — waters?
I want style. I want vision. I want something to make me take notice, even if I don’t get it right away. I want the court fool skipping down the hall to play a trick on me and everybody else, just to free us from the stagnant melody and rhythmic drudgery we’ve become so accustomed to. I like that experience. I appreciate artists who make their statements boldly and unapologetically, who make me really think about whether or not I like their music.
This elusive approach is solidifying around town now, maybe more as a matter of style than of musical genre. And a lot of these quirky troubadours do seem to draw inspiration from the early days of recorded music. But for my generation, several steps removed, that music is more myth than memory.
It is important to note the fact that in those days, music was the impetus for making recordings, rather than potential recordings being the impetus for making music. The musicians who made them were artfully reinterpreting the older styles of minstrels and medicine shows, where musical accompaniment was an obvious addendum to draw crowds. Then recording technology came along, enabling musicians to be more than a sideshow. It allowed them to master a style and present a complete thought; to create their art for art’s sake.
“Medicine show” … where have we heard that before recently? Ah yes. There is the Snake Oil Medicine Show and there is the Old Crow Medicine Show. Both groups, who are mutually exclusive, borrow their names from the 19th-century traveling sales shows. Most of these musicians were weaned off of King Street in Boone back in the 20th century, and continue in some format into the 21st century. So this isn’t “new,” necessarily. Snake Oil came to Asheville some years back and has since disbanded. They are now involved in other local projects with like-minded artists, all of which are helping to solidify this emerging Asheville sound. Old Crow, on the other hand, came down from its lost holler and migrated to Nashville. We owe them a debt of gratitude for having graced Ritz Crackerville and the Grand Ole Opry with their presence. We can also thank Music City USA for having cleaned them up and watered them down.
Speaking of Nashville and Asheville, maybe there is some geography involved in the development of this elusive “newness.” (Did I hear something about “displaced zydepunk refugees?”) Metropolitan Asheville, by and large, is like a movie set. The Victorian mansions of Montford, downtown’s art deco stylings, West Asheville’s bungalows and even Biltmore House: All are relics of Asheville’s prior booms of the late 19th and early 20th century.
And now here we are in another one, with people arriving every day. Some come to settle, some to visit, and some don’t even seem to see the difference. In any case, this little grotto of ours boasts a progressive culture unmatched by any other urban center in the southeastern United States. You can see the evidence in Asheville’s politics, its galleries and boutiques, its grocery stores, its lifestyles and its hairstyles.
In other words, weird has become the norm here; weird is the trend. So it’s up to pioneering artists to be weirder by being smarter; by reading their surroundings and seeing things before they happen. Someone has to create weird with a purpose to give others a reference point. The fool always knows more than he lets on. That’s why he’s entertaining — and also why his presence can be unnerving.
People are intrigued (and sometimes intimidated) by something they don’t quite get, especially if the people around them even seem to get it. And face it, this town wears its hipness on its sleeve: Whether it’s your Lexington Avenue strut, your Dirt Flare hemp wear, your bumper-sticker collection or your political correction, you and I, in our respective ways, both appreciate the weirdness of this place. And we like to convince ourselves we’re part of something secret that is cooler, or better, or just different than what all those other people know. There’s no shame in this — it’s what shapes this town (which is why it’s the platform for this new approach to music to take shape).
During that WNCW interview, one of the female Mad Tea Party members — I think it was the one with the bunny head — said she considers their music to be the sound of authenticity. “People crave authenticity,” she observed. Novelty, on the other hand, is too cheap, too cliched.
But since I’m the one who opened this can of yearns by objecting to the word “novelty,” it seems only fair that I should offer an alternative. So how about “fools’ music”?
[Smith McAulay is a freelance writer, musician, audiophile and historian living in West Asheville. He and his band, The Skintback City Public Radio (aka SkinPR), can be heard on assorted local stages giving their own take on eclecticana music.]