Like most people, I can write a biography from the songs that have accompanied my journey on this green orb.
Sweet tones of a guitar form some of my earliest memories. I grew up on my dad’s acoustic versions of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Sr, plus his collection of records and 8-tracks for performers like the Nashville Brass and Jim Reeves. Dad played both the guitar and harmonica, self-taught. He owned a beautiful powder blue Fender electric guitar and amp which he sold for money shortly after losing his job. At the time, I didn’t realize just how sad that was. Anyway, his trusty acoustic served for the Cash and Hank Williams covers, providing companionship for his low tenor.
Country music and church music were the staples of my upbringing, with classical piano music squarely at the center of my piano lessons …. plus whatever music entered my head from listening to WCVI radio in the mornings as the household got up and got moving. WCVI is the epitome of the local small-town radio station. The DJs had thick local accents; the news was shocking only to the extent that you probably knew the people being mentioned in the crime reports; the music generally hit the Top 40 mix, like this gem from my middle school memory:
My parents weren’t Fundamentalists. They were just truly “old-school.” My dad loved 40s and 50s pop music, so he listened to the one station in the area that defined “oldies” older than any station I’ve ever encountered. As a man in his 30s when the Sexual Revolution of the 60s upended everything familiar, rock music just wasn’t where his heart felt at rest. For him, it was taste. Michael Jackson’s brilliant moonwalk provided a curiosity rather than an offense, but he still wasn’t impressed.
My half-brother nearly sent my dad into apoplectic fits with his KISS records in 1979. Since Dad married into fatherhood of two teenage boys in the mid-70s, and since that whole transition was a wee bit rocky, I think Ed took the chance to rattle Dad’s cage. Thumping bass and squealing guitar riffs shook his end of the house (which was literally across a 2 foot hallway from my dad’s bedroom door). Inevitably there would be a lot of arguing and a lot of shouting and some door slamming. Thus I was introduced to hard rock. (Metal, maybe? KISS seems so tame now!)
Confession: At 4, I thought Ed’s music was pretty cool. Plus he had these awesome blue and orange lights hanging in his room. It was dark and interesting and loud. LOUD. Very loud. “Stan’s music” I was told. The pentagram and makeup confirmed it. I guess my dad was influenced by the Christian vibe around him after all. And I grew up in a world with nothing but piano and organ hymns on Sundays and country music on the weekdays, punctuated by angry sermons about the evils of rock and roll.
College is often a time for expanding one’s musical tastes. Since I went to Bob Jones, where rock music was Satan and anything more exciting than Yanni was banned (actually, Yanni was banned too for being “New Age”) my musical tastes didn’t expand by much there either. My roommates introduced me to soundtracks for films I’d never seen (Man from Snowy River) and films that I loved (Patrick Doyle’s soundtracks for Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing), and others that didn’t stand up to repeated listening (Gettysburg).
I encountered most pop tunes and mainstream rock as a matter of daily life until my move to BJU. Though I went home in the summers during my undergrad years, grunge wasn’t on my radar (except that all the Korean kids at college were wearing flannel that looked like they’d slept in it, so BJU made a rule banning “Grunge” clothing). By the mid-90s I had fallen into a deep cultural black hole. For me, watching I Love the 90s is an educational endeavor.
We crawled out of Greenville and into a new life around 2002, and as my conscience unwound itself from the strictures of Fundamentalism, we began to explore the radio dial. My students were listening to pretty much everything, so I mounted an expedition into Top 40 to figure out what was going on. I don’t think Matchbox 20 or Dido counted as “edgy,” but one must start somewhere.
Not usual in the life of a teacher, my students became my guides through music both on the dial and off. I met plenty of hip hop and country and mainstream pop, but the fireworks really went off when someone played me an album by From Autumn to Ashes, a hardcore emo band. The “emo” part of the music wasn’t particularly appealing, but I loved the sound: driving drums topped with guitar riffs and a tenor vocalist, punctuated by screaming. It took a long while to acclimate, but that’s where I found my taste for metal/hardcore.
Later, thanks to friends with excellent musical tastes, I also discovered Radiohead, (old) Muse, the Chili Peppers and eventually excellent but lesser-known acts like The Bad Plus and Snarky Puppies.
And that explains why a 2013 list from last.fm of my “top artists played” looked like this:
Don’t laugh, but I didn’t listen to truly great bands like Zeppelin until well into the 21st century. *looks ashamed* Maybe my cultural malnutrition serves as the drive to experience and enjoy the best of what’s out there.
It’s definite that if you start talking while “Stairway to Heaven” is playing, I’ll shoot you a dirty look and probably consider disowning you as a friend if you can’t shut up.
And this doesn’t take into account what we’re all able to discover now on Spotify or iTunes radio or the stuff I track down on YouTube. Like right now. (Currently listening to the Hyperlight Drifter soundtrack. It’s great.)
And really, that brings up the question, In this world where music is all around us, seeping into our lives on every front and every moment thanks to radio in the car, earbuds at work, iPhones in our pockets, what challenges us forward in our musical tastes?
Are we stuck in the trenches of our favorite genres? Locked into whatever the music services decide to shove into our ears?
I still have so much to learn (but at least I’ve picked up some knowledge of classic grunge). Like ….Jazz. I need to learn more about jazz….. Our resident musician loves polyrhythmic, progressive stuff ranging from Periphery to Tigran Hamasyan.
I’ll even begrudgingly acknowledge now that not all Christian music sucks. Just most of it. A post for another day.
It’s pretty amusing to look back at my own musical biography. Maybe you’re still listening to the classics of your childhood. Thanks to our 2015 world, we can put our hands on playlists built by mood, geography, genre, or friends’ preferences.
We consumers live charmed lives blessed by technology and access.
Get out there and listen.