Southern Roots and Healing: E-mail Interview with Mark Kemp
Posted by A.C. Rhodes on July 7, 2008
By Steven Ward
Mark Kemp is a freelance music writer based out of Charlotte, N.C. But his resumé is much more impressive that that. Kemp edited the now-defunct alternative music magazine, Option; worked as a senior music editor at Rolling Stone; was a music editorial vice president at MTV Networks, and was the entertainment editor of The Charlotte Observer.
As impressive as his resumé is, Kemp’s crowning achievement was his 2004 memoir, Dixie Lullaby — A Story of Music, Race, and New Beginnings in a New South. Dixie Lullaby tells the story of Kemp’s Southern upbringing, how he experienced race relations in real life, and how race played a crucial role in music’s past and future. The book is also the story of a Southern music journalist’s rise at some of music’s most important magazines on both coasts.
During the following e-mail interview, Kemp talks about how he entered the world of music journalism, his memoir, race, and what it’s like to love Southern Rock when you are editing an ubercool alternative music magazine.
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SW: We have something in common. When I was a young police reporter at a small daily newspaper in North Florida, I talked the editors into letting me write a weekly record review/music column on the side. Tell me about your experiences as a police reporter at a small daily newspaper — how you got to start writing about music there and all that helped your future career as music critic.
MK: First, let me tell you how I got that job. I was fronting a punk band in my college town — Greenville, North Carolina — and working part-time at a deli when I got a call from the city editor of the Burlington Daily Times-News. I’d sent them a resumé a few months earlier, after graduating from school with an English degree. But I’d totally forgotten about it. The editor asked if I would be interested in a job as police reporter. I was a hippie punk rocker — not exactly the kind of guy who fancied spending a lot of time around cops. It sounded like some kind of weird karma to me. But I did want to be a journalist — either a rock journalist or some kind of gonzo political reporter like Hunter S. Thompson. The guys in my band were pressuring me to stay with them, but I was already enough of a critic to realize that I was much better at writing about music and listening to it than actually making it. So I took the job, and it was one of the better decisions I’ve ever made. Personally, I think all music critics and music journalists should log time reporting real news in the real world before sequestering themselves in the ivory tower of criticism. I think it gives you grounding, helps you understand music in relation to the real world, people who work real-world jobs, struggle to pay their bills, try to figure out how get their kids fed and taken to school. And it certainly helps you with technical stuff like clarity, storytelling, and asking the right questions. Because what we do — pop music journalism — really isn’t as world-changing as we sometimes act like it is. I mean, come on, whether our focus is Britney Spears, Steve Earle, or Throbbing Gristle, we’re writing about entertainment, purely and simply. Which is noble. It might even make people think about other issues if we put it in that context. But in the end, it ain’t world-changing. It’s entertainment.
Back to your question, though: At the Times-News, I would get up every morning at around six o’clock and compile the daily police blotter and then spend the rest of my days following up on bigger stories: murders, drug busts, heinous domestic crimes, traffic fatalities, that sort of thing. At night, some of my fellow reporters, the city editor, and I would go out to local bars, get piss drunk, and get into long conversations about music. This was ’83, ’84 — a pretty heady time for music in North Carolina. Bands like Fetchin Bones, Let’s Active, the Flat Duo Jets, the Right Profile were playing almost every night in clubs from Chapel Hill to Charlotte. Most importantly, though, R.E.M. had just recorded its first couple of albums in Charlotte, and their manager, Jefferson Holt, had grown up in Burlington. That was my ticket — my “local angle” — to writing about music for this small paper in a conservative textile town. Not only that, but Jefferson’s mother was a well-known Democratic state senator from Burlington. My editors didn’t know much about R.E.M., but they knew Bertha B. Holt, so I eventually got kind of carte blanche to write about R.E.M. whenever I wanted to. I was pretty persuasive about the music stuff, so to make me shut up, I think, they also gave me a weekly column to just kind of ramble on about whatever other music was turning me on.
SW: You wanted to move to New York City so you could write about music full-time. You landed a job as an editor at the science magazine Discover. That was a big help in getting you to NYC without having to starve. How did you get that job right after leaving a small newspaper and how and where did you start getting freelance music assignments while in NYC?
MK: Actually, I took a leave of absence from the paper ostensibly to attend a magazine and book publishing institute at NYU and then come back to the paper. But I think my editors pretty much knew I probably wouldn’t be returning. I got the Discover job after going through the publishing program. It was pretty ironic that my first experience at a national publication would be writing about science, considering I’m so math and science deficient that I carry a calculator just to figure out what to tip the wait staff at restaurants. Anyhow, I became good friends with this guy named Tom Waters, a fellow Discover assistant editor who actually was good at science and math. We had a weekly ritual: every week we would go down to the local magazine store at lunch to pick up the latest copies of The Village Voice, The Nation, Pravda, Maximum Rock & Roll, Spin, Rolling Stone, or Option. One day, one of the senior editors at Discover — Andy Revkin, now the environmental reporter for the New York Times — told me he was friends with the publisher of Option. It was the break I was looking for. I loved Option because not only did it cover cool underground bands like Pere Ubu, Sonic Youth and the Pixies, but it also covered hip-hop and free jazz and music from around the world. It was my favorite music magazine. So I started writing for Option — everything from news and trend pieces on topics like the embattled art of digital sampling and the burgeoning New York City anti-folk scene to features on hip-hop groups like Stetsasonic and cover stories on Morrissey and Michael Stipe. I also wrote ten or so album reviews every issue. At the same time, I was able to get a few pieces into Spin, the Village Voice, and one piece, on Michelle Shocked, in the last issue of the old Creem. That was a real thrill, since I’d grown up reading all the great Creem writers like Lester Bangs and Jaan Uhelszki.
SW: How did all your music freelancing turn into editing Option magazine? And looking back at Option now, how you do you think it stood up against Spin, Rolling Stone, and other music magazines.
MK: That came a few years later — around 1990 or so. By then I was a regular Option contributor and had written several cover stories. When the original editor, Richie Unterberger, decided to move on, he and the publisher, Scott Becker, asked if I’d be interested in interviewing for the job. I’ll never forget the day I got the call from Scott. It was one of those situations where I calmly said, “Sure, Scott, I’d be willing to come out to Los Angeles for an interview,” then hung up the phone and jumped around the apartment like a pogo stick screaming, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” I was elated. Option was the very magazine I wanted to be part of at that particular time in music history, because it really was on the cutting edge of all kinds of interesting music and it had been since the mid-’80s. Scott and Richie had created a wonderful publication that had a considerable influence on music-industry taste-makers. I saw Option as like the Velvet Underground of music magazines: a small amount of people read it, but everybody who did either started their own magazine, formed a band or eventually became an A&R rep for some record company.
In terms of its standing up to Spin or Rolling Stone I think Option had a very different mission. Its circulation was nothing like theirs, and its readership was basically hardcore music fans. It covered all kinds of music but intentionally didn’t cover the more mainstream stuff, even what I personally considered good mainstream hard rock, like Guns ‘N Roses. But Spin and Rolling Stone had the mainstream covered. That’s just not what Option was about. You have to understand, this was before Nirvana. Things changed pretty dramatically after Nirvana.
SW: Why did you leave Option?
MK: Because of Nirvana. (Just kidding.) Actually, to a certain extent, that’s true. When I got to Option, I made some changes that some readers weren’t so happy about. I felt that even though we were known for covering alternatives to the music Spin and Rolling Stone were covering, we still needed to grow our readership. Scott and I would get into these philosophical conversations about why we were doing what we were doing. Basically, I asked if he wanted Option to just preach to the converted or also help convert nonbelievers — and raise circulation. I had always liked turning my friends on to music they may not have listened to otherwise, and I felt that was one of the nobler missions of a music magazine. For some reason, Scott trusted me and gave me space to experiment with the magazine. He was open to my suggestions and we had a lot of fun instituting new ideas. My main push was to get more familiar faces on the cover. As much as I loved and/or admired musicians like Ornette Coleman, John Zorn, and Pere Ubu’s David Thomas, I felt that putting those obscure faces (to most people) on the cover sort of sent out the message that Option was an exclusive club. It seemed to say: If you like mainstream music and don’t know too much about more obscure stuff, move on, this is not for you. I thought we should do more visually inviting covers with more known, but still relatively left-of-center acts at the time, like Ice-T, PJ Harvey, Nine Inch Nails. That way, as I saw it, more people would pick up the magazine and maybe then discover stuff they normally wouldn’t know about. We also tinkered with the inside, introducing playful, entertaining blurbs at the front of the book and shortening the lengths of the longer feature stories from 6,000 words to around 3,000. I knew some long-time subscribers would balk and leave, but I didn’t think many would. It’s kind of like Hillary Clinton supporters refusing to vote for Barack Obama: some irrational people are going to do irrational things like that, but not most. Most people will grudgingly swallow what they consider a bitter pill for the greater good. I mean, if you stopped reading Option because we put Nine Inch Nails or Courtney Love on the cover, then you’d be depriving yourself of great stories inside the magazine on issues like pirate radio and musicians like the Dutch free-jazz saxophonist Peter Van Bergen, experimental U.K. electronics duo Voices of Kwahn, and avant-garde singer Anna Homler. Some people are willing to cut off their nose to spite their face. But not most people.
But you asked why I left Option, didn’t you? I left because I felt that after five years, I’d accomplished about as much as I could there. I guess I felt that if I continued, I’d start repeating myself. Also, I’d been free-lancing for Rolling Stone on the side and was ready move on to writing about more mainstream music — not exactly Celine Dion, but I had to admit that I also liked writing about acts like the Black Crowes and Sublime, even if I wasn’t as big a fan of them as I was of, say, Beck. And the success of Nirvana had absolutely turned the industry upside down. By the mid-90s, you actually could write about exciting new music in Rolling Stone. And, truth be told, I wanted the experience of writing for the magazine I’d grown up with. Warts and all, I always loved Rolling Stone. I always thought that whether or not Jann Wenner had his fingers on the pulse of great new music, he has the mind of a journalist, he knows a good story when he sees one. So I left Option to focus on my free-lance work and I recommended to Scott that he hire one of our star writers at the magazine, Jason Fine, to be my replacement. When Jason arrived I worked at home, having been given the title of executive editor briefly, before Rolling Stone came calling.
SW: You became music editor at Rolling Stone. How did you get that job, and did it truly have something to do with you dating Jann Wenner’s niece?
MK: Lord no, it didn’t have anything to do with my dating his niece. I didn’t even know his niece until after I left Rolling Stone. What happened is, David Fricke, Rolling Stone‘s music editor at the time, decided to step down and continue as a senior editor. He wanted to focus on his writing and not on managing other editors and writers. So, he recommended me as a candidate for his position. I got a call from the magazine’s managing editor at the time, Sid Holt, who asked if I was interested in interviewing for Fricke’s old position. The job ultimately went to Keith Moorer, who was the editor of Request Magazine and had more experience with a larger-circulation publication. But Rolling Stone eventually hired me as a senior editor under Keith. After a crazy series of events involving my buddy and fellow senior editor Jim DeRogatis, both he and Keith were let go and I was promoted to music editor.
SW: You wrote in your memoir, Dixie Lullaby, that writing for Rolling Stone was your dream job. Did it turn out to be that?
MK: Well, yes and no. I mean, nightmares are dreams, too, right? Actually, working for Rolling Stone wasn’t a nightmare at all. It was a bit stressful. Jann certainly is a mercurial boss and crazy shenanigans go on there all the time — particularly during that transitional period at the magazine. But I had a lot of fun working with Sid Holt, Fricke, staff writer Jancee Dunn, my childhood friend Holly George-Warren, who headed up Rolling Stone Press, and the magazine’s brilliant former art director Fred Woodward. And Jann. As much as he infuriated me at times, he’s a fascinating character who has better judgment that people tend to give him credit for. And anytime I felt Jann was just completely out of touch, he would do something or say something that reminded me of how much of a music fan he really is and always has been. We may not always agree on what constitutes good music, but he’s genuine in his love of popular music. I remember one morning, real early, I was in my office working on the liner notes to a box set by Phil Ochs. I had just received the latest Beatles Anthology collection — No. 3, I think it was — and Jann walked in. I motion for him to come over and listen to some of the alternate versions of songs like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “The Long and Winding Road.” He sat down in my office and just started grinning like a kid, waxing nostalgic about his experiences with the Beatles and closing his eyes and nodding his head — just basically digging the music at his very core. Stuff like that, for me, kind of exploded the barrier separating Jann Wenner, the ruthless and mercurial magazine mogul, from Jann Wenner, the star-struck kid who started Rolling Stone so he could meet his idols. It was kind of endearing. Which isn’t to say he also couldn’t be brutal and unreasonable at times.
SW: What did you do at Rolling Stone as music editor and what writers and editors were you working with at the time? Also, what kind of influence did they have on you then and now?
MK: After I became music editor, I basically worked with managing editor Sid Holt on choosing the music cover stories. I edited some of them and he edited some. I — along with my editorial staff — decided on the mix of profiles and news items for the front-of-the-book Rock & Roll section, and I managed the music section editors and staff writers. Among my proudest accomplishments were hiring a couple of solid editors — Nathan Brackett, a former Option writer, as the reviews editor, and Jason Fine, whom I’d not too long before recruited to replace me as editor of Option. Both are still at Rolling Stone and they’ve made the magazine better. Also, it was a real honor being able to serve as David Fricke’s editor. His writing had greatly influenced mine. I remember writing an early cover story for Option on Lou Reed and John Cale that was totally influenced by my reading of David’s work. When I was still developing as a writer of features — not so much reviews — I would comb David’s work to get ideas of what kinds of questions to ask and how to organize my stories. He had a huge influence on the way I handled the nuts and bolts of writing. So, to get the opportunity to be his editor was quite an honor. Another honor was being able to edit a cover story on Puff Daddy by one of my longtime favorite Rolling Stone writers, Mikal Gilmore. I remember working with him on the piece for hours — well into the early morning. That experience remains one of the highlights of my editing career. He’d written about 12,000 words that needed to be cut to maybe 5,000 or 6,000, tops. It was just so satisfying having that tug-of-war with him over what parts to use, what parts to move, what parts to hone. And he later told me it had been a good experience for him, too. We really clicked in that editor-writer relationship and I learned a lot from it. Those were the good experiences at Rolling Stone — having the opportunity to work with and learn from so many of the people I’d grown reading — Fricke, Gilmore, Chuck Young, Gerri Hirshey, Anthony DeCurtis. Just listing off those names now gives me chills. Those experiences had a big impact and helped me ultimately when I sat down to write my book several years later.
SW: Tell me a little bit about your experiences working at MTV?
MK: Now that was a nightmare, but it wasn’t MTV’s fault. By the time I got to MTV, I was having all kinds of personal problems — old demons that I had invited back into my life after several years of keeping them at bay. That, coupled with the fact that the television world was very alien to me and not very satisfying, sent me spiraling out of control. The reason I had gotten into music journalism in the first place is because I truly love music and I love storytelling. At MTV I didn’t feel like many of the people I was working with cared too much for music and it was extremely discouraging. There were highs — I got to meet President Clinton, I got to do a long interview with Eric Clapton in London around the time of his guitar sale, and I got to sit down with Lenny Kravitz’s father on the White House lawn and watch Lenny rehearse with Al Green for a performance at the “VH1 Concert of the Century.” He was just a proud dad who turned to me at one point and said, “Lenny may look cool up there, but Al Green is one of his heroes. He’s really beside himself with excitement.” And I got to co-write a documentary on rock & roll feuds with Kurt Loder. But I was also struggling badly with other issues including a separation and divorce and… ugh, that just was a very dark period in my life. After my departure from MTV, I started going out with Jann’s niece, Megan, and that was a healing experience. She inspired me and encouraged me to write my book. I still consider her a dear friend and we’ve remained in contact with each other.
SW: What was it like editing the entertainment section of The Charlotte Observer after editing stints at Option and Rolling Stone?
MK: Relaxing. It was fun. It was just so good getting back into print journalism after the MTV experience and working with younger writers on developing their voices. And I had a great editor there, Mike Weinstein, who trusted my judgment and gave me lots of freedom to make the entertainment coverage as good as it could be. I also got to revive the old weekly pop-music column that I’d done for the Burlington Times-News so many years earlier. My writing had improved, though.
It was exhausting the first couple of years, because I’d get up at five in the morning and work on my book and then go to work at 10 o’clock and work sometimes until seven o’clock. Believe it or not, though, I managed to have a life. Days just seem longer here in the South. I had a motorcycle and I’d spend my off time riding it into the mountains or to the beach or to see my parents, who live in a small town about an hour-and-a-half away. It was nice reconnecting with home after 15 years living in New York and L.A. The readership of the Charlotte Observer was very different from the readerships of Rolling Stone or Option. As limiting as it felt at times, it was nice to be able to write for a totally general audience and to write or edit stories about stuff like the Dixie Chicks controversy, on the one hand, and the rise of local artists like Fantasia Barrino, on the other. Those were big stories here, and covering them from the perspective of being here felt good. I still write for the Observer sometimes, between doing reviews for Rolling Stone and other places.
SW: In Dixie Lullaby, you wrote that you felt weird loving the Southern rock bands of your youth and present bands like The Black Crowes while editing a hip, alternative rock magazine. I can really understand how that must have been hard but I don’t think Lester Bangs would have approved (you remember his love for Wet Willie and Black Sabbath at a time when no critic liked that stuff). I’m assuming you eventually got over that as you got older.
MK: I believe you mean that you don’t think Lester Bangs would DISapprove. I don’t think he would disapprove, either. That was one of the things that was so admirable about Bangs. He just didn’t seem to give a shit about what critics were and weren’t supposed to like. Those were the years before political correctness made us squeamish about deviating from prescribed ways of thinking in a lot of areas, not just music criticism. But yes, I’ve gotten over my insecurities as I’ve become older and wiser. I think when I first moved to New York in my 20s, I just felt intimidated. I was working at a science magazine staffed with Harvard and Yale graduates, and I had gone to little East Carolina University; I had a southern accent and I was pretty naïve. I felt like I’d come straight from the farm. But today? I could give a shit. I like what I like and I can give you strong arguments supporting the worth of what I like. You know, one of the people who helped me trust my own instincts was my ex-wife, who also is a music journalist. She often went against the grain and sometimes backed up her opinions with good arguments and sometimes didn’t. But it didn’t matter so much to her whether or not the rock-crit establishment approved of her opinions. And I admired that in her. I felt the same way and I often went against the grain, but inside I doubted myself. I mean, god forbid that the Dean of American Rock Critics might consider my opinion about the latest Uncle Tupelo album invalid and give me a C-. It didn’t stop me from writing whatever opinion I had, but I’d sometimes torture myself for having an opinion that went against the rock-crit grain. Now, it doesn’t bother me one iota. I trust myself 100 percent. There’s no right or wrong to this stuff. And it’s not a sin or weakness to change your mind later. As I mentioned before, we’re not doing world-changing work here. We’re making educated value judgments about entertainment.
SW: Do you think most New Yorkers think of those of us who grew up in the South as sort of racist? It’s a horrible stereotype and you write in Dixie Lullaby about your shame when you heard people in the South talk that way.
MK: No, I don’t think most people do — at least not most people I know in New York. But people do make a lot of ignorant comments about the South and Southerners. It doesn’t really shame me anymore. I know I’m not responsible for the southern mindset, whatever that is at any given moment. But it shamed me when I was younger, that’s why I wrote the book. And I know it still shames many young Southerners because I’ve received numerous emails from them telling me that Dixie Lullaby changed their lives. That sounds dramatic, but that’s exactly what they’ve told me. And that is about the biggest, most satisfying compliment a writer can get.
SW: On the flip side, did New Yorkers embrace you as the cool, literary southern writer — you know, the young writer from the ultra literary land of William Faulkner, Roy Blount Jr., and Willie Morris?
MK: If any New Yorkers embraced me as a cool, literary southern writer, they didn’t let me in on it. No, I don’t think I’m in same league with Blount, although I did appear with him on a radio show down in your neck of the woods when I was on my author tour. He was funny as hell.
SW: Who are some of you favorite writers — music and otherwise — and why?
MK: In terms of music writing, I grew up reading Creem, Circus, Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone and later Trouser Press, so I looked to writers like Lester Bangs, Jaan Uhelszki, Dave Marsh, Lenny Kaye, Stanley Booth, Chet Flippo, Mikal Gilmore, Gerri Hirshey and the Rev. Charles M. Young as bigger than life — as big as the rock stars they wrote about. And of course, I also loved the rock star-like attitude of non-music writers from Kerouac to Hunter S. Thompson. In later years, I positively consumed the writing of Greil Marcus, Legs McNeil, Robert Palmer, Barney Hoskyns, and David Fricke, and in the late ’80s and ’90s, after I began writing myself, I always enjoyed reading Greg Tate, Mim Udovich, Jon Pareles, Chuck Eddy, to name a few. Some of my favorite music writers these days are Kandia Crazy Horse, Sasha Frere-Jones, Chuck Klosterman, Elijah Wald, and cranky old Jim DeRogatis. You ask why? Various reasons, depending on whether they’re mainly journalists or mainly critics or both. But generally I like good and/or entertaining and/or funny and/or informative writing, preferably a little of all of that. I also like reading what some of the no-name folks on blogs like MOG have to say. I hear a lot of people complain that music writing isn’t what it was in the (pick your time period of choice), and I have to say: Of course, it’s not what it was, it’s what it is. That complaint is the same as the old, “music today is not what it was.” It doesn’t mean anything. There was shitty music and shitty writing back in the day, and there’s great music and great writing today. Whatever era you live in, you just have to search for the good stuff and ignore the bad stuff. The bad stuff will be forgotten about anyway within ten or 15 years.
In terms of non-music writing — you know, this really could turn into a laundry list, but here’s what comes to mind. While I mostly read nonfiction, one of my favorite fiction writers of the past few years is the late, great Larry Brown, whose Fay just knocked me out. Larry wrote with great pacing and used such colorful detail and had such compassion for characters most folks wouldn’t give the time of day to. He was one of those cool, Southern literary types you were referring to earlier. I also like the works of my old buddy Andrew Hubner, whose American By Blood is one of those wrenching, Cormac McCarthy-like narratives whose graphic, brutal details have the potential to keep you up at nights. For levity, I enjoy David Sedaris. He cracks me up. But frankly, I do more surfing the Internet looking for bits and pieces of stuff on whatever subject comes to mind. A Youtube debate between William F. Buckley and Noam Chomsky recently sent me back to browsing Secrets, Lies and Democracy and that sent me to browsing Howard Zinn’s People’s History. Gosh, there just aren’t enough hours in a day. I’m sure that I’ve left out a bunch of stuff I like, but I’m beginning to bore myself throwing out all these names, so whoever is reading this is surely getting bored with it.
SW: Who are you writing for these days. You had a column in Harp, which recently shut down. I see your byline sometime in Paste. Do you do stuff for other publications and do you think you have another book in you?
MK: I’ve actually been doing some writing for Rolling Stone again and I really like the new reviews editor there — Melissa Maerz. She challenges me in ways most editors don’t these days. She works hard to get the best from writers and I respect that so much. I miss my old Harp column, but I felt at the end as if I was doing more political ranting than I was actually coming up with good writing. And yes, I’ve done a lot for Paste and I’ve enjoyed that, too. I’ve also done a little writing for eMusic.com and regularly contribute to The Charlotte Observer. It’s tough making a living as a free-lancer. It won’t make you rich. But I love the freedom. I hope I have another book in me. I’ve been writing a lot about Spanish-language music and culture and it’s a topic that’s long been interested me, and it’s especially relevant today because of the immigration issue and the migration of Latinos into areas of the country that have not been traditionally Hispanic hot spots — like North Carolina. I’ve toyed with ideas relating to Spanish-language music and culture in the South, but I haven’t come up with a real solid angle yet. Who knows what I’ll come up with. But I’m sure I’ll come up with something because I thoroughly enjoyed writing Dixie Lullaby.
SW: Do you still listen to the Allman Brothers Band and other Southern rock bands today and what do you think about their influence on bands like Drive-By Truckers and My Morning Jacket? Is Southern rock cool again?
MK: After Dixie Lullaby came out and I did the whole author’s tour and all, I put a temporary moratorium on listening to Southern rock, whatever Southern rock is. But I’ve come back around to listening to the Allmans now and then. My partner, who’s Mexican American and grew up listening primarily to traditional Mexican music, has become an Allmans fan, having read my book. She likes Gregg Allman’s Laid Back more than the actual band, though. I like Kings of Leon and Drive-By Truckers a lot, and, sure, there’s a big Allmans/Skynyrd influence in the Truckers’ music, as well as the Replacements. I really don’t see the “Southern rock” influence so much in My Morning Jacket’s music, although I’ve read it’s there. I just don’t hear it. But no, I generally don’t listen to a tremendous amount of what you’d call traditional Southern rock on a regular basis these days. I wrote the book because I was interested in exploring the music of that transitional civil rights period in the South and its relation to my life, the lives of other Southerners, and the cultural changes it’s engendered in the years since. For a while, I kind of got ghettoized as this Southern rock expert, which felt a little strange to me since I’ve spent so much more of my career writing about indie rock, punk, hip-hop and world music. I mean, I understand why I’d get typecast that way for a while. I wrote a book about it — why wouldn’t I? But I’m willing to listen to and write about any kind of music that I find either good or challenging in some way, whether it’s the Allman Brothers, John Coltrane or Jessica Simpson (hey, she can be challenging, given the right story angle). I’ve always liked to keep up with good new music of various genres, and that hasn’t changed just because I wrote a book focused on Southern music.
Of course, I also listen to whatever I’m reviewing. And I listen to a bunch of music in Spanish — from the traditional Mexican singers my partner listens to, like Lola Beltran, to the more contemporary music of acts like Cafe Tacuba, Aterciopelados, Babasonicos, Superaquello, Juana Molina, and, most recently, Rana Santacruz, who’s just this amazing Tom Waits-inspired accordionist who experiments with traditional Mexican styles. There’s so much great Spanish-language music out there. I can’t wait until Americans begin embracing it more.