Music Elites and the Oliver Anthony Conundrum – The American Spectator

todayAugust 22, 2023 5

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One of our young staff, Luther Ray Abel, raised an interesting point the other day in one of our subscriber-only letters about the kinds of issues that divide conservative intellectuals, causing long-time friends to turn on each other and become ex-friends.

Always one for comity and all hands on deck, it occurred to me: Is the quarrel Abel referred to, between one of our contributing editors and a fella at National Review Oliver Anthony, critical to our survival as a free society? Or is it of the academic politics variety, wherein intensity and stakes are inversely proportional?

There was a time when disputes between intellectuals (some of whom might be academics, and vis-à-vis), made headlines and provoked editorials in newspapers and on the radio. And there were consequences, as when Martin Luther’s 95 Theses made their way into the mass media of his day. Today this sort of thing, faith and works and other topics, might make a 30-second segment on a non-bicoastal late-evening news roundup.

There was a time when a quarrel between eggheads in the pages of Commentary magazine about the quality of Tennessee Williams’ plays, or a debate about Gandhi’s influence on Indian history, carried on over several issues of Encounter magazine; it would actually and in actual fact “trickle down” — to use a term from economics — into the “wider culture,” whatever that is. It touched people no less than those who won the World Series.

Now, pff.

Still, the question this time is interesting, and given its source — a hillbilly with a resonator denouncing the bicoastal elites for wrecking lives and undercutting the American Way — this one might have legs and leave tracks; you never know. The NR guy, according to our young reporter, disparaged the music and, with it, the themes it carried. Our man replied not so — this is the voice of the people, yes, and just wait, they will sing it as they reclaim their country.

Could it be your NR guy is a snob? After all, the founder of his publication once observed that it would be better to be governed by a random sample taken from the Boston telephone directory than by a committee chosen from the Harvard faculty. William F. Buckley Jr. may not have listened to resonator music, but he certainly trusted the American people, within reason.

On the other hand, might our man be expressing “irrational exuberance” (another economic term, which is kind of funny given that I’m an economic illiterate) for reasons of his own?

It sounded like a fake debate to me; are not songs about banks of marble with guards at every door as old as our country?

My brother, the walking music encyclopedia — and a highly talented and original composer — caught up with me and observed that I was missing the point. Yes, of course, he said, you go back to the country tradition and, for that matter, folk and rock and blues, and you hear undertones, or explicit tones, of protest against the powerful wicked.

But the context here, he explained, is that this particular song, which was a big hit, appeared just after another song that was a big hit was slandered by bicoastal critics as a racist rant. 

Don’t you get it? he said. Anything sounding like a cri de coeur from the heartland of America, the bien-pensants, the wokes, are going to dump on. The Left, he reminded me, controls the agenda of what is permissible taste. That must be why your man has risen to the occasion. (READ MORE: A.A. Milne: The Birth of a Classic)

I allowed how he could be right, but still, I wanted to know what this was like, music-wise. Sometimes a musical piece seizes you quickly, and other times it takes a while to reach you. I’d say if you listen to Hank Williams or George Jones or John Prine, to take obvious examples, or Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard, you would react the first way.

You could say this of Doc Watson, too, certainly Ray Charles in his country phase, and many others. They are in a deep and rich tradition that, unlike political carnival barking, makes America great, along with the Grand Coulee Dam and a Cajun gem, “Jole Blon,” which our man didn’t mention though he must know it, residing as he does by a bayou.

Of the second type of reaction, maybe this is the kind you might be tempted to dismiss as sentimental, derivative, and uninteresting until you catch on to its less immediately apparent qualities. To be charitable and, like Bill Buckley, to never speak ill of a fellow conservative, I might at least wait to see if the NR guy revises his view. Me, I am holding back because I’m a music illiterate as well as an economic illiterate. I have learned over the years that there is some righteous good music out there that maybe I either dismissed or enjoyed for juvenile reasons when I was a juvenile, but whose subtleties I came to appreciate under my learned brother’s musical tutelage.

For example, I could list some Bob Dylan songs, but I might also mention some touching Tracy Chapman songs and also, to show the breadth of it all, some by such legends in their own time as Mark Knopfler or Van Morrison — the great Van — that might strike you as half-baked when you first hear them, and then with time you realize they are gems of genius.

Speaking of Tracy Chapman, she was also in the news around the time Oliver Anthony became an “issue” because one of her songs made a big hit on the country charts when a musician named Luke Combs covered it. (READ MORE: James L. Buckley, 1923-2023, RIP)

In woke reporting, it was a matter of equity (or justice or whatever) on account of her version, 30 or more years ago, never getting no respect, but this other fellow, who performs in the same country style that the cultural commissars, according to my brother, dismiss as deplorable, reaped the rewards. They said this white redneck was stealing from a black woman.

But Chapman said this was not so; she likes Luke and his cover, and she did, too, get rewards due to the economics of the music business. More to the point, she was delighted her song was being heard by a new generation and getting big fun (namely, Hank Williams, “Son of me gun we’ll have big fun on the bayou…”). This reminded me of the beautiful way she and Luciano Pavarotti sang one of her songs years ago.

Observe that Roger McGuinn and the Byrds sometimes covered Dylan numbers, and it would not necessarily be heretical (though it might show poor taste) to think they improved on the original. As we see in “My Back Pages”:

Regarding covers and other borrowings, I would point out that Antonín Dvořák is sometimes accused of culturally appropriating the work of his close collaborator, Harry Burleigh. Burleigh was a great man, of a generation when Americans of color with such names as Louis Armstrong and Robert Johnson and Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith and Marian and Etta James and Fats Waller, and countless others, ranged across forms and styles in a burst of musical genius unseen since Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

And this fabulous creative range, don’t forget, involved Americans of other-color as well, of course, with such names as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller.

And so my question, my question — I forgot what it was. I think my original question was, whatever you do say, one way or another, about White Men, excuse me, Rich Men in Richmond, isn’t all country music protest against the selfish wicked, whether rich or poor?


Well, no, it isn’t; it is about heartbreak and family, too.

As is much else, even from long-dead white men.

Whom pretty young girls still love.

So my advice is: With all due respect, get a life.


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