FTRA’s nostalgic shindig
There is a strange sense of nostalgia in some music. Certain old records—78s especially—seem to conjure up the demons and angels of an era that at times seems so long ago as to seem an utter fantasy world. Certain musicians plumb this vein of nostalgia, writing songs about some perceived better, simpler life. Gillian Welch works this field. Dave Alvin does too. And so do the Freight Train Riders of America (FTRA).
Every six months or so, FTRA (www.ftraband.com) brings together some of its friends under the auspices of the Holler Inside, a sort of mini Grand Ole Opry held at the 24th Street Theater. Last Friday night, the fourth Holler brought to the stage FTRA, the Neighbors, James Finch Jr., Noah Nelson, the Green Brothers, Scott McChane and Damon Wyckoff.
It was, truth be told, an amazing evening, but it was also, in a sense, an evening of “play acting,” as various California musicians brought their best high lonesomes to the stage to cry for an Appalachia many probably have never seen. This is great music, to be sure, but it is (mostly and arguably) not music about life in 21st-century Sacramento. What this ultimately meant was that many of the musicians on stage tended to adopt particular personas—personas ultimately alien to their lived experience.
Some bands, especially the Neighbors, seemed conscious of this schism. Coming on like refugees from Disneyland’s Country Bear Jamboree, the Mike Blanchard-fronted six-piece string band seemed to work the theatrical aspect of the music—dressing in clean overalls and sporting Sadie Hawkins smiles. The effect was endearing, although the message was still problematic. It is one thing, after all, to sing songs in a traditional vein, but when bands lift their identities from one particular ethnic, social or economic group, at one point does the line between tribute and disrespect blur? After all, Appalachia is a real place, and it is a long way from 24th Street. It is a difficult question.
It is also problematic in the sense that this is great music performed by great musicians. Furthermore, it is music very much in the public consciousness, in large part because of the incredible success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. How else can this music be heard but in the kind of “tribute” setting FTRA has arranged? How else can it be made but in deference to some old, near-foreign culture?
Scott McChane’s set (www.scottmcchane.com) was particularly interesting to consider in response to this question. Accompanied by his brother Adam on acoustic bass, McChane ran through a set of lonely, acoustic-based songs that tended to veer sharply from the mountain-man posturing and relied instead on his own experience and songwriting talents (and his beautiful voice, which sounded at times like a sad, lonely Cat Stevens). The audience was perhaps befuddled by the change in the evening’s flavor, but the set was brilliant precisely for this reason: This is where California acoustic music is, a remarkable statement in an evening focused on the spirit of a music that once was.