Dear David,


As I’ve mentioned previously, of all the artists that Christgau and you admire and I don’t, there is exactly one that completely flummoxes me.  When I find that I don’t care about Los Campesinos/Belle and Sebastian/Chills, I’m not confused.  I know what they are doing that I don’t give a hoot about.  When I find that I downgrade the Rolling Stones/Sonic Youth/Neil Young compared to you, I can figure out the whys and the hows.  That my hip hop tastes are hopelessly stuck in the early 1990s, and I’ve failed to move forward with Jay Z and The College Dropout and late Wu Tang and a host of crunk musicians whose names I don’t know is also something I can analyze.   

Likewise with the dumber American rock that I prefer to you and Christgau — the Stevie Nickses and Tom Pettys and John Mellencamps and Billy Joels and Paul Simons, none of whom is an all-time favorite of mine but of all of whom I believe have defensible songbooks worthy of some level of respect and enthusiasm.  (I know you don’t hate any of these, any more then I hate Rolling Stones/Sonic Youth/Neil Young, but it’s the difference in tone and treatment that I’m talking about; it goes without saying that the real difference between B+ and A- is incremental.)  Likewise with certain acts, most obviously Graham Parker and Sleater-Kinney, where I simply care more about everything, including in Parker’s case going deeper and later with him even as his bad attitude stops being seeming so social and starts seeming like just a bad attitude; here the different increments are between A and A+.

All these things are clear to me.  Only Willie Nelson — who, let me hasten to note, was also loved by all my Knoxville aesthete friends (back when I had Knoxville aesthete friends) — continues to flummox me.  Obviously there is something real here; I understand that if you all claim it, it is so.  Yet on two occasions in the past I have made a serious effort to listen to recommended albums and/or collections, and on both occasions I found the music at best trivial and at worst annoying as hell.  I simply haven’t heard it — neither the relaxed, sour high-pitched vocals nor the songs as songs have made the slightest impact on me, and the sound has struck me as conventional, even dumb.  It’s been ten years since I last tried.

Yet as you know I have the ability to change and grow.  In just the last couple of years I’ve finally gotten the Go-Betweens and Paul Heaton (can Belle and Sebastian really be far behind?)  I’ve made serious hay out of Sonic Youth and Neil Young and now, though they are still not all-time favorites, I have tastes and preferences and engagements with their music.  I’ve loved Late Registration, even while still not caring for The College Dropout.  And of course I’ve added depth and breadth to my canon of Country Music.

So now, as my friend and as a person who gets sound-not-song better then I do:  if I buy the recommended 100 song One Hell of A Ride with Christgau’s caveats that it has lots of dreck on it, can you give me a playlist — minimum 20 songs, maximum 30 songs — that will exaggerate the good stuff and maximize the likelihood that I will get it?  That will demonstrate the musical and/or songwriting principles that make Willie Nelson a person to admire?  That will get me over this hump?  It’s time for my once-a-decade try.

your friend,



4 Responses to “Dear David,”

  1. 1 schweitzito

    Sorry to disappoint you, but I only made it to 15. Well more than half of these tracks I recall nothing about if I’ve ever heard them, and that’s with the the three-disc ’75-’92 Columbia box I’ve played all the way through at least twice. What remains is an eccentric, half of it from his early ’60s recordings when he was a successful songwriter and an utter flop recording artist. With the early 70s “Me & Paul” the transition, after that all the songs here are written by others, usually decades earlier. The most recent track is from an excellent all-instrumental 1999 album.

    There’s definitely stuff missing from this — his excellent album, for example, which is I guess because Atlantic wouldn’t deal, and his cover of Pansy Division’s “Cowboys Are Secretly Frequently Fond of Each Other,” which was just prudishness. My favorites from his aberrantly all-original 1996 aren’t in the box, either.

    These are ordered by preference — for listening, you might be better off with chrono.

    1,4. Nite Life
    1,3. Man With The Blues
    1,28. Me And Paul
    3,18. In The Jailhouse Now w/Webb Pierce
    1,6. Funny How Time Slips Away
    1,7. Crazy
    2,25. Stardust
    2,26. Georgia On My Mind
    4, 16. Nuages
    1,9. Mr. Record Man
    4,3. I’m Movin’ On w/ Hank Snow
    1,8. Half A Man
    1,10. One In A Row
    3,15 Old Friends w/Roger Miller& Ray Price

    Principles? Vocally, Christgau pinpointed it as “hitting a song on the button while glancing off in the other direction,” and songwriting/persona is generally some kind of non-chalantness as well — a combination of resolve and resignation that I guess can be misheard as complacency and just not giving two shits. The best songs on and demonstrate just how much he does care.

  2. 2 kmostern

    Disappointed? Not in the least — you are saving me $50, because under these circumstances I obviously am not going to buy the damned thing. Wondering, however, how it is possible that someone can release a 100-song best of and a self-defined fan of his music can only find 15 tracks to recommend does afford me the opportunity to reflect a bit about Nelson, criticism, etc.

    About Nelson: he has a lousy voice, he has no taste in collaborators (literally no taste, not bad taste — he collaborates with talented and untalented people in equal measure, and all the time), and the best anyone says about the songs he records is that since he chooses good ones sometimes, among the hundreds he’s recorded, dozens are good.

    Yet everyone agrees he’s a great guy, unpretentious and generous, personally responsible for the greatness of the Austin scene for decades, an important figure in the lives of several (if not many) musicians I admire. This is easy to believe and easy to appreciate. You can admire someone as an impressario without admiring them as an artist (hell, many more people have liked the arts events I’ve put together then have wanted to hear me sing!). For me there is simply no difficulty reconciling these two things.

    About critical principles: I am still working out my complicated relationship with Christgau, the senses in which I am and am not listening “in his spirit.” I end up writing about differences more then I intend because one often defines oneself based on differences with one’s betters, not because one imagines oneself their equal, but because that’s where one’s uniqueness is measured.

    I listen to rock and roll more, and more carefully, then the overwhelming majority of employed forty year-olds who are not music professionals. This means that I listen to somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the quantity of music Christgau listens to, and no doubt affects the quality as well. By definition, this affects what I can and can’t appreciate about his work: it goes without saying that he has greater aesthetic range, can get inside a wider variety of aesthetic spaces then I can.

    In the bourgeoisie, which I am in but not of, it is normal to pretend publicly that you get what your betters tell you you ought to get. You claim to taste the wonders of the $50 bottle of wine when you’d be happy with the $10 bottle. You claim to like Shakespeare. Me, I can tell the difference between cabernet and zinfandel and will get it right 100% of the time in a blind taste test, but will be completely at a loss at distinguishing a “fine” California cabernet from an average — and I know it and admit it openly. And I managed to get a Ph.D. in lit while not giving two shits about Shakespeare, which did not endear me to my colleagues during the five years I taught English at the university level.

    I am not claiming that there is nothing to fine wine, Shakespeare, or Willie Nelson’s music, but I don’t get it, and if I don’t get it I don’t pretend.

    I actually have great intellectual range, thoughtful, consistent opinions, and I strongly prefer John Mellencamp (who I’m not a huge fan of either) to Willie Nelson. Because, like Christgau, I’m a materialist, I actually can provide a far more practical sensibility around one way that taste and genre are experienced within limits that I try to be conscious of then Christgau can, because he neither buys records nor accepts limits to his understanding. I, actually, am Christgau’s ideal consumer, which means not that I hear what he hears, but that I know how to read him to find the things I actually will get, and to ignore the stuff I won’t get.

    In Scrabble there is a strategy played by all world champions, who have literally memorized all the words in the official wordlist — but it’s the wrong strategy for the rest of us. My listening strategy is to Christgau’s as my Scrabble play is to a champion’s. The places where it is most consistent with Christgau are where it relies on lists as paradigms and reference points, aesthetic argumentation, and the intersection of aesthetics with the social. The place where it is least consistent when, for good materialist reasons, I throw my hands up and say “there is no point in my trying to understand this anymore.”

  3. 3 schweitzito

    And for a long time I haven’t bothered you about that — you long since having made your point, I am always surprised when you actually like, say, some actual non-alt country music, although I admit I do react to blanket statements like “Willie Nelson has no talent,” just because I don’t think that not understanding someone is the same thing is declaring they’re worthless. It’s Christgau who has the anxiety about not understanding something, right? But “I don’t get it” isn’t an issue I push — unless, I admit, it comes from me.

  4. 4 kmostern

    So, here’s what makes the conversation difficult — what makes the random person reading this website leave a post that says “rock critics suck,” that makes the whole enterprise of listmaking seem absurd ESPECIALLY at the moment when the depth in which Christgau covers any particular genre has decreased so dramatically.

    The precise meaning of “pretentious” is “I claim to understand something I don’t.” All critics are accused of being precisely, pretentious, by people who either (1) don’t hear what they/we hear, and don’t understand what they/we understand or (2) by the artists themselves who reserve the right of interpretetation to themselves and deny that those outside the fold have any true understanding, let alone even perhaps a different and valuable perspective.

    The bourgeois who claims to love the $50 bottle of win because s/he read that s/he should is, precisely, pretentious. And of course lots of people will claim that this blog is pretentious.

    I can’t counteract these claims, and won’t try. The point is, the only thing that could possibly justify continuing is the ability to express in words principles — about Willie Nelson or whoever — that are comprehensible to others. That’s what makes me — as you understand my writing — “narrow.” I am trying, and not always succeeding, to express such principles about those whom I “get” (in the dual sense of understand and like), and trying to not overstretch my understandings, or my tastes, in ways that really are pretentious. I am trying, specifically, to explain what is so wrong, aesthetically wrong, with Neil Young (to take a key example from a couple years ago that precedes this blog) as a way of explore the real implications of ways of listening rather than jumping on a bandwagon. This will always, by definition, make me “narrower” then you or Christgau. I may be missing something, but everybody is missing something. My comments are valuable to the extent they help others to understand what I get and what I don’t — and allow them to express honestly their own reactions in response.

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