What happens to traditional music such as folk and old time when they experience resurgence and enter popular culture in a different way? Academics, practitioners and audience members explored this and other issues in a symposium held by UNC's Southern Folklife Collection, titled "Hillbilly Music Sources And Symbols: Country Music, Cultural Brokerage and O Brother, Where Are Thou?"
Focusing on the revival caused by the Coen brothers' film, this largely academic but often open discussion featured such notable figures in traditional music heritage and preservation circles as folklorist and champion of working-class musicians Archie Green and archivist and collector Dick Spottswood (who once hunted blues 78s with folks like guitarist John Fahey, records that would inform Fahey's work thereafter). Amid sometimes-fiery debates, papers were presented on punk and hillbilly music's influence on alternative country (giggles ensued at the mention of the Butthole Surfers as a reference) and an examination of Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. The motives of field recorders such as John and Alan Lomax were scrutinized to some degree, as well as a cold look at current and future examples of the music's assimilation into pop culture by the likes of Natalie Merchant, who recently "studied" the Lomax recordings (taking courses at Bard College) to get back to a roots-based sound, and techno-pop artist Moby, who used Lomax samples in his wildly popular album Play. There's an exhibit of related materials currently on display at the SFC.
As the dialogue continues on O Brother and its fallout, bear in mind musicologist Harry Smith's Grammy acceptance speech in 1991, video of which was screened during the symposium: "I'm glad to say my dreams came true. I saw America changed by music. And all that other stuff you all are talking about." The room at Wilson Library, filled to capacity with professors, purveyors and fans of this music, roared with laughter.
The rock and pop circles in the Bull City are merging further with upcoming recording activity at Pox World Empire Studios. Home of The Sames, the studio-cum-label will soon be releasing an overdue five-song EP from in-yr-face live thrillers Jett Rink, who will be at the Basement on April 19 with two other Durham denizens, Des Ark and Blackstrap. Listeners will finally be able to test their sound on the home speakers. But how will it compare when they aren't being dwarfed from the stage by towering singer Viva (he stands approximately 6-foot-4, folks; 6-foot-10 with the hair).
Look for a compilation from Pox in the coming months that plates up a delicious taste of both Triangle and regional pop rock. This record will especially serve to define these contemporary Durham bands and their nascent, mostly straight-ahead-rock scene. The lineup thus far is Jett Rink, Asheville's astute art-rockers Piedmont Charisma, along with The Sames, Chapel Hill's Pleasant, Durham new new wavers Gerty, and possibly the melodic pop of new Merge signees The Rosebuds. Working title: "Too Bad the Scene Is Dead."
Also on the radar at Pox HQ is a recording session for a long-player with Chapel Hill's yelping bandits Pleasant, as well as the start of a Sames full-length.
Recent San Francisco-to-Durham transplant Sandra Covin is making some beautiful sounds as Farblondjet on The Butt Vicinity, recently released on Rebel Carload Records. She deftly constructs instrumental numbers using acoustic guitar to great effect, with lilting vocal melodies on other songs.
New sounds in an old haunt
The recent addition to Chapel Hill landmark Skylight Exchange, Nightlight, provides new late evening fare after coffee shop daytime hours have past. Nightlight honcho Isaac Trogden and Robert Biggers of the group Cold Sides have recently spawned a new music series in the space. Dubbed "Recess," it features local artists taking a stab at experimental, challenging music, and happens approximately once a month. First installment is Thursday, April 10, with sets by Trogden, Dave Jordan, Crowmeat Bob, Spacelab (featuring Anne Gomez and Bob Wall), Sandra Covin and Chuck Johnson.
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to contact Chris Toenes' Durham-Chapel Hill Line.