Blue Bird, Kill County and the Joy of Alternative Country | Cultural Criticism

Posted by jewalt on Mon, 05/20/2013 - 1:31am in Blue Bird, cultural criticism, josh ewalt, kill county, music, nebraska, spinoza

from Blue Bird's "Give Me Light" Love Drunk video, in which HN contributor Andrew Roger proposes to Jillian Liesemeyer

by Josh Ewalt

Nebraska’s music scene is no stranger to music oriented around endless suffering.

Sure, there’s hope to be found, but no one listens to I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning to celebrate the joys of social life. I’ve listened to The Good Life’s “Under a Honeymoon” more times than I’d like to admit. And these days, at age 27, the listening experience always ends with a vague sense of shame — just general dirtiness. How could someone my age feel such immature suffering?

On the other hand, there are bands like Blue Bird. Blue Bird’s music is unapologetically joyous. As Andrew Roger writes, Blue Bird’s Marta Fiedler “weaves her past angst into an upward gaze toward the light.” Indeed, Blue Bird believes. They believe in things like second chances. And love. And it all bursts through in their music. As Fiedler says in the live video for “Perfect Day,” even the band’s name is meant to symbolize “rebirth and second chances.”

Take “Everything Can Change,” the second track from the Metamorphosis EP. Granted, generally melancholic lyrics characterize the song, such as these early lyrics: “If you tell yourself that you are fine / They say you will feel it eventually inside / But I did, Lord knows I tried / But still something’s not right.” However, the final lines are equally hopeful and reassuring. They remind the listener that his or her “luck can always change.”

Their Love Drunk video for “Give Me Light” even includes a couple engaged in a marriage proposal. And, you know, it is OK. It’s nice. It makes you happy.

Blue Bird’s rare status in pop music, even and perhaps particularly in the state of Nebraska, requires a critical consideration: Where is the joy in music (remember the philosophical question posed at the beginning of High Fidelity)? Moreover, Blue Bird’s occasional forays into the alt country genre beg an even more specific consideration: Where is the joy in alternative country music, an entire genre built around the brute reality of suffering?

Go no further than the Trampled by Turtles line in “Whiskey” to find evidence of this point: “Whiskey won’t you come and take my sorrows? ‘Cause I can’t seem to do it on my own.” Alt country is a genre that is, and has been for some time, quite good in Nebraska. Where does that leave local music in terms of joyousness?

Burach Spinoza, the 18th century philosopher who maintained notions that God and Nature were one and the same physical entity, believed that joy was the measure of a life well lived (here is a rather old man sitting on a couch talking about Spinoza). Joy represented that moment when the physical forces of nature (God), which compose our bodies and its surrounding environments, are all in harmony. An individual feels joy when living in pure harmony with the physical forces of life. Joy, therefore, is the external manifestation of harmonious living.

photo of Kill County's Ringo by Angie Norman

And that makes me wonder: If joy is missing in local alt country music (Blue Bird being an odd exception), what does that suggest about the harmony of the listening experience? Are we channeling emotions through the listening experience that peddle suffering and a lack of harmony? If Spinoza thinks that joy is the measure of all human well-being, does that mean the genre of alternative country — including local manifestations of the genre like Lincoln’s Kill County — is out of touch with the harmony of the physical world?

Kill County might seem to suggest it is. It’s difficult to think of a song that emotes more honest levels of self-deprecation and misery — an overall lack of joy — than “Maggie,” the band’s quiet ode to a lost lover. The song’s speaker, given life by songwriter Ringo (Andy Allons), offers no excuses, hopes for second chances or beliefs that anything can change.

Recall the lines: “You got every reason to treat me like you do / ‘Cause I kept you lonesome and treated you cruel / Maggie, I know I’m to blame.” The truth is the speaker doesn’t deserve a second chance. If Maggie came back, it would be awful for her. The repetitive patterns of human life suggest that the speaker will merely treat her cruelly once again. This seems to be a song that peddles suffering and is consequently creating a listening experience that’s out of touch with the physical forces of the world.

But let’s take this a step further. The act of listening to Kill County can actually feel quite harmonious. I gladly listen to “My Friend Dirt.” I don’t feel shame or general dirtiness. I feel rather okay with the world. Maybe we have to find a different entry point into Kill County and the larger genre of alternative country (and in a more general sense, any genre of music): What is the joy of the listening experience? Where is joyousness in the sad themes of alternative country and local bands not like Blue Bird? What is the harmoniousness of this music? That seems to be a more interesting question, to not automatically presume that songs about whiskey and broken relationships and even more broken lives are absent of joy. There has to be joy here. It’s just hidden beneath the minor chords and minor lives and the lonely living rooms of lost lovers.

Maybe that is precisely it: The joy lies in having to search for it. The joy is having to figure out how to understand it. And maybe that is the difference between Kill County and Blue Bird. Blue Bird’s joyousness is easy to find. It is about “holding on” because everything changes. It is almost religious (not in a Spinozan sense; but in a communion sense).

Maybe joy is something different: It is the joy of alternative country. The joy of trains, and wandering, and farms and whiskey, and broken hearts, and the longing that accompanies long walks down dirt roads with a dog and a Budweiser. Maybe joy isn’t kids and families and picnics. What if that is too conforming? What if joy lies precisely in that moment when you break out of the normative life and live slowly?

Maybe there’s joy in sitting on a farm in Southeast Nebraska and not knowing whether it would be better to drink the rest of the Jack Daniels on the porch, or to walk out to the fire and share it with the others. Maybe joy exists in that choice and the slow deliberation on that choice.

And strangely, alt country and Kill County exist in the space created by that very choice. Maybe that is a choice in harmony with the physical forces of the world.

Josh Ewalt is a Hear Nebraska intern and also teaches and writes about rhetoric and cultural studies. Most of his significant moments have come from walking down dirt roads with a beer. Reach him at joshe@hearnebraska.org.