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Faking It

Some time ago, a guitarist friend of mine called me in a fit of mild despair. He had decided to begin writing his own material and couldn’t find the artistic confidence to write songs of the sort he was most interested in. This was in the middle ’90s, when the alt-country, No Depression thing was really in full swing, and inspired by Uncle Tupelo, the Jayhawks and the like, he was acoustifying in an Americana vein—and completely unconvincingly, to his own ears.

“I drive a Saab,” he complained. “I work in advertising. I live in the Berkshires, for God’s sake. What am I doing writing about the Kansan sunset?”

Authenticity’s often a thorny issue for art consumers. For example, in the pages of No Depression magazine, the bible of my friend’s favorite genre, there was a nasty little correspondence war being waged over whether or not Palace’s Will Oldham was the real deal or a precious faker, whether his version of the music of hill country and coal mine was permissible given his career as a TV and film actor. I think it was the dB’s Peter Holsapple who wrote in to suggest that Oldham would be “hoist on his own petard.”

So, to comfort my earnest and insecure pal, I cited a mutual favorite album, asking, “And what’s Springsteen doing writing about killing convenience-store night clerks?”

I suggested, “Just lie, man. Then put it to music.” To prove my confidence in my advice I suggested that we both write songs about Kansas, a state I’ve never even visited.

>From my shelves I pulled an atlas; wherein I learned that Kansas has rust- reddish soil and an aquifer named the Ogallala, which is critical to the agriculture of the southwestern portion of the state. I also picked up a couple of place names—Dodge, Great Bend, Wichita—and their geographic positions relative to one another. And I found out that Wichita was a big meatpacking city.

Research done, I used the four chords I knew to write a song called “Wichita Slaughterhouse,” which told of a rural Kansan boy who leaves his hardscrabble farm for greener pastures, only to wind up depressed and lonely as a Wichita boarding-house resident, spending his days working in the bloody slop of an abattoir and his nights missing the stony fields of home.

OK, so here’s a short list of things I know absolutely nothing about: Kansas (excepting the aforementioned tidbits, and the fact that my dad was born there); farming (from husbandry to hours of operation, the whole thing’s mysterious and frightening to me); aquifers (I don’t even know enough for parenthetical wise-assery); and slaughterhouses (I’m pretty sure I was supposed to read The Jungle in 10th grade, but after the first couple of chapters of My Antonia, I was done with assigned reading for that year). Oh, also tuning a guitar by ear and writing useful bridges, but that’s a talent issue—different problem.

To test the success of the song, I decided to play it live at a local bar that, at the time, was a favorite Sunday night haunt of musicians and songwriters. Inevitably, these very late nights broke out into very informal and sloppy open mic/jam sessions. It was a perfect place for a critique. Since most of the folks gathered were friends, I decided to fib about attribution, too, telling the audience that I learned the song from my grandfather, who in his youth had worked a Kansan rail line. Also a lie. In point of fact, my grandfather was himself in marketing and advertising; he represented a giant poultry concern. (Hey, is that sorta like farming?)

One of the audience members, a guy I grew up with, asked archly, “What railroad was that again?”

“Um, it was the M&M . . . the S&M . . . the Texas A&M, something like that. You know, the big one.”

The song went off without a hitch (with four chords, there’s only so much room for error), and fit in well with the tone of the evening. One guy did a song by Gillian Welch, another turned in a cover of an Uncle Tupelo cover of a Depression-era Louvin Brothers song.

Now, some of the people in the room may have been to Kansas; I don’t know, maybe someone in the room had farming experience. But I’m pretty sure that not one of them had survived the Depression (though a couple of the guys in the room were from western New York, and might’ve had a pretty good sense of it.) But in a roomful of Northeastern, mostly college-educated, mostly middle-class musicians not one of the rootsy, anachronistic songs suffered from inauthenticity. It’s just not a pertinent concept. My song made as much sense as any other and, I thought, wrested the metaphorical petard out of the hands of the sanctimonious gatekeepers, the self-appointed Granters of Permission.

I’m not saying that it was a good song (again, that talent thing), and it certainly wasn’t an honest song. It was as inauthentic as could be—and purposely. But whatever its problems and shortcomings, the song didn’t suck because it was fake.

The whole process, from challenge to performance, took a couple of months; in which time, my friend moved out of the Berkshires further north. So, it was some time before we could catch up again. I told him, with a note of minor triumph, I’m sure, of the experience. I was curious how his own writing was coming, if he had managed to complete his phony Midwestern ode. His tastes had shifted some, though. He was listening less to alt-country and more to—sheesh—Alabama.

And, he noted with pride, he had successfully completed some songs he thought were really solid—songs about fishing. He knew a lot about fishing.

—John Rodat

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