On Genre

"There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind . . . the only yardstick by which the result should be judged is simply that of how it sounds."—Duke Ellington

Before I became Stereophile's editor—when I still had time for such things—I would occasionally pack up a camera and some lenses, get in my truck, and drive, usually south, in pursuit of good images and sounds. I'd spend a couple of weeks on the road, stopping to take pictures whenever I came across a picturesque town or valley or an abandoned drive-in theater. I'd try to end the day in some city or town that was likely to have live music. A couple of times on every trip, I'd find myself approaching an especially musical place: Clarksdale. Memphis. New Orleans.

On one such journey, as I approached Nashville, I put out feelers by email and on social media: Where should I go in Nashville to hear live music? Yes, the Opry was at Ryman, but there were no decent seats left. Where else should I go?

"Make sure you go to the Station Inn, if possible," wrote Stereophile Deputy Editor Art Dudley in an email. "That's where a lot of the greats hang out, and there's always good music being made there."

I grew up in a thin-strip-of-Florida city along US 1 and the Atlantic coast—go a few miles inland, toward Okeechobee, and there was nothing but farmland—and the schools I went to reflected this division: city and country. We city boys rejected music that made us seem unsophisticated. For us it was prog, jazz, maybe a little punk rock or new wave for those of us who had heard about it. We rejected music redolent of soil, crops, and cows—embarrassing in retrospect, but we were just kids after all.

The Station Inn is a bluegrass spot—no, it's the bluegrass spot. And while I had matured some since my high school days, and come to like some country music—I was from Alabama after all—I was scarcely acquainted with bluegrass music at all.

Still, that night in Nashville, I arrived early at the address on 12th Street South, parked on the street, paid my $10 cover, took a seat front and center at a communal table, and waited for the music to start. The headliner that night was Shad Cobb (vocals, fiddle), who has played with Willie Nelson and Steve Earle. Cobb was playing in various combinations with five other musicians who came and went: bassist Todd Phillips, a founding member (on second mandolin) of the David Grisman Quintet; Jenny Leigh Obert, who has played fiddle with Emmylou Harris; Wes Corbett of Joy Kills Sorrow on banjo; Ashby Frank, who played with Bill Monroe at age 11, on mandolin; and Jake Stargel, who has worked with Ricky Skaggs, on guitar. Just another Tuesday night in Nashville.

If, in my dotage, senility has taken me and I have lost my mind, play this music for me and my toe will start tapping and a smile will cross my face.

The next night I returned to the Station Inn, this time for Missy Raines (bass and vocals), with a different group of top-notch musicians—session players, I think. If I'd stayed another night in Nashville, I would have gone to the Station Inn again.

I learned something from that experience—something important. I learned that genre doesn't matter. Bluegrass has many things in common with other music, music I've loved for years. For example: Bluegrass consists of sounds. It's made up of notes. It has rhythms. It is played on instruments that, being mostly made out of wood, have interesting timbres and textures. At its heart is—well, heart.

There was a moment on the first night, while a quartet was on the stage—fiddle, bass, guitar, mandolin—when I thought "This is almost like a string quartet." The music was more rhythmic than Mozart, more upbeat than Schubert, but the timbres and textures were similar. A string quartet can be lonesome, too.

At the Station Inn, most of the instruments are miked, but it's done very well so that little of the instruments' character is lost. Microphones and speakers can add their own signature to a live-music experience; they are part of the way the music sounds. Good is good, as Cheryl Crow sang and Kevin Costner once said in a made-for-TV movie. Like the character of a recording, well-executed sound reinforcement is just another aspect of music that can be considered and enjoyed.

There's a lot of other music out there, and much of it is good. With few exceptions (John Cage?), it is all made up of sounds. It is played on instruments and sung with voices. It has timbres, rhythms, and textures—unless it doesn't, in which case it is of no interest to me.

My favorite music has those things, the more the better, and my favorite recordings capture them vividly.

We all have our favorite artists and our favorite genres of music. But audiophiles are unique, or at least unusual, in our appreciation of music as sound. This makes it easier—indeed, easy—for us to cross genres, to appreciate other kinds of music, as I did those nights at the Station Inn.

My experience at the Station Inn, and others like it, inform Stereophile's approach to music and music reviews. It's the thing that sets us apart from other music publications—Downbeat, Pitchfork, Gramophone—that are able to cover their genres more thoroughly than we can. Rock, jazz, bluegrass—musical genre matters far less than those musical and sonic fundamentals: notes, rhythms, sounds. As I develop our music section in the coming months and years, this will always be in the back of my mind, if it's not at the front.

It's not that I think genre doesn't matter. It's that I think other aspects of music matter much more.—Jim Austin

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Words make you think a thought ...... Music makes you feel a feeling ..... A song makes you feel a thought" ......... E.Y. Harburg :-) ..........

Ortofan's picture

... Chris Thile radio shows when they are being performed at The Town Hall in NYC?
For that matter, does he ever listen to (or watch) the broadcasts?

John Atkinson's picture
Ortofan wrote:
Has JA2 attended any of the 'Live from Here' with Chris Thile radio shows when they are being performed at The Town Hall in NYC?

I don't know about Jim Austin but I am a big Chris Thile fan and listen to the radio broadcast every Saturday. My wife and I attended a "Live From Here" show at Town Hall a few weeks back, and even chatted with guest comedian Tom Papa at the Bryant Park subway station as we were waiting for the D train after the show.

John (JA1) Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Stereophile could consider adding Michael Trei from S&V magazine to the reviewing team ........ MT reported about NYAS 2019 on the S&V website ....... Just a suggestion :-) .......

Ortofan's picture

... greater emphasis on music in place of the old acting company skits. Tom Papa's comedy performances are invariably hysterical.

Imagine him starting one of his routines by saying "Have you ever been waiting on a subway platform, minding your own business, when the person standing next to you introduces himself as the Technical Editor of Stereophile magazine? I have." And so on ...

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Are you planning on attending "Musical ministry" every Sunday organized by Kanye West, Ortofan? ....... Just kidding :-) ........

tonykaz's picture

Is it "we" or "I" see it ?

I wish it to be "I" not "we".

I could never quite get settled into where JGHolt was speaking from when he'd say "we".

Was he speaking for all Stereophile Staff? It's what I concluded but it didn't jell consistently, probably because it wasn't liquidly flowing or embraced by Stereophile's writers and/or readership ).


It certainly had a mysterious intrigue for Guest Writers to make a Statement like the declaration made by RSchryer of being a Stereophile more that he's an Audiophile. ( that one was brilliant, I thought )

"As we see it" always seems to prompt. It's been profound, it's been insightful, it promises a continuation of greatness not found in most of the commercial publications on the finest Book Stands. "As we see it" is a Bright Penny in a journalistic Sense, it seems to set the tone for all that follows and seems to encourage greatness.

I was just hypnotized ( a couple of days ago ) by a plastic Pail, Drum Soloist who captured a group of us with his performance, just outside an echo enriched Airport Pick-up area. I have no idea what Genre he was part of but he powerfully gripped us with his tapping away on various bits of noisy trash bits.


Music doesn't need a genre, except for library organization purposes.

Tony in Venice

ps. it's taking me a couple of days to "shake-off" that street busker's live entertainment from my front thought burners. Performers, like that, burn their way into our synapses, somehow!

jamesgarvin's picture

Perhaps I'm not entirely clear as to the ultimate message in this piece, and at the risk of missing the point, I subscribe to and have read Downbeat's reviews for many years. I generally pick up, on average, five or six cds per month from their reviews, and then additional cds from said artists' prior recordings. It is quite the rabbit hole.

It is true that Downbeat's reviews don't discuss the "sound" of the recordings. I can't recall complaining to myself about the sound of any of the recordings I've purchased based upon a Downbeat review. Though I may have been disappointed once or twice with the content.

I'm not aware of any music magazine which discusses the sound of the recordings under review. Frankly, I don't care. I buy the recording because of the music contained therein. I own a high end audio system to take the music, however it is recorded, and make it as best as can be under the recorded circumstances.

I've got some Charlie Parker on vinyl that sounds like it was recorded off a WWII era radio. I've got some Hank Williams, Sr., on vinyl which Polygram re-released about thirty years ago in their original glory. If you place the sound of the musical content equivalent to the actual musical content, and can't enjoy the latter without the former, I'd respectfully suggest you're missing the forest for the trees.

PAR's picture

JA2 isn't discussing the sound of a record. He is saying that the value of music is in how it manifests itself in performance; live or recorded. He quotes Duke Ellington "There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind . . . the only yardstick by which the result should be judged is simply that of how it sounds."

Judging if certain genres are inherently good or bad is misleading. It is all down, in the end, to how it sounds. The word "sound" here does not refer to audiophile criteria but how the musical content sounds or manifests itself when it is played.

Jim Austin's picture


You very nearly nailed it, but I'd like to push on a little beyond what you posted and beyond what I wrote. I think it's artificial, in a recorded-music environment (like a home audio system) to distinguish between "sound" and "audiophile sound." Because music is made up of sound, and the more of it you hear--the more of the sound that matters, that makes up the actual music--the better.

In recent years I've had several discussions with musicians, music scholars, and serious music listeners about their audio systems and why they don't seem to care how the music sounds. Perhaps it marks me as a hopeless audiophile, or maybe it's some bizarre psychological disfunction (or maybe that's the same thing): But I really cannot distinguish between music and the sounds it's made up of. Sure, there's a score and much music has a sort of abstract/symbolic--even mathematical (in the case of some classical music) essence. And yet, with very few (uninteresting to me) exceptions, music was made to be played, sung, and heard. It was meant to manifest as sound.

So, yes, I'm talking about "sound" as fundamental to music. But to me that doesn't exclude "audiophile sound."

Best Wishes,

Jim Austin, Editor

John Atkinson's picture
Jim Austin wrote:
In recent years I've had several discussions with musicians, music scholars, and serious music listeners about their audio systems and why they don't seem to care how the music sounds.

I've had the same discussions. I think that what is happening is that whereas all of us recreate the "sounds" of the instruments we listen to from the pressure waves that arrive at our ears - see my discussion of this at www.stereophile.com/content/2011-richard-c-heyser-memorial-lecture-where-did-negative-frequencies-go-nothing-real - some, especially musicians, need very little input to recreate perfect internal models of the sounds. One conductor I discussed this with could even "hear" the sound of the instruments as he read a score. Perhaps audiophiles are people at the other end of the perceptual spectrum, who need the maximum input in order to create those internal models.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Jim Austin's picture

One conductor I discussed this with could even "hear" the sound of the instruments as he read a score.

A guy named Beethoven comes to mind. :-)

The thing is, they know what violins, violas, and oboes sound like, and they may compose a sonata for a particular violinist, with a known sound. But in general those are generic sounds they're hearing in their brains, not specific sounds emerging from real musicians. Which is to say, I doubt they are ever surprised by the sounds they hear in their heads.

I wonder, though, if some of us have a fundamentally different orientation: Do you hear music top-down or bottom-up? Structure fleshed out with sonic details, or sounds built up into structure? The latter possibility is maybe dubious if you accept what some neuroscientists are saying about perceptual bandwidth and all that. I buy in to the idea that reality consists of a model that we frequently update against sensory input but find the numbers hard to accept (50 bits/s?) because of the way I seem to experience the world and music. (On the other hand, if those perceptual-bandwidth numbers are correct, then we must all be fundamentally deceived about the nature of reality, in which case all bets are off. Which might very well be true.

Jim Austin, Editor

Bogolu Haranath's picture

You may already know about this ......... AI composing music ....... Aiva Technologies, IBM Watson are some examples ....... Also see 'Music and Artificial intelligence' in Wikipedia :-) .........

Ortofan's picture

... the Acoustic Research catalog featured home photos of conductors such as von Karajan and Fiedler studying scores as they listened to the music being reproduced via systems with an AR turntable, amplifier and speakers.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Now we know why, Herbert van Karajan said 'perfect sound forever', after listening to the first release of CDs :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

As a side note ....... JA1 wrote an article 'Perfect sound forever?' in Stereophile in 1995 :-) .........

John Atkinson's picture
Bogolu Haranath wrote:
JA1 wrote an article 'Perfect sound forever?' in Stereophile in 1995 :-) .........

So I did:


John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Alas ...... Even after 25 years of publishing that article, 'Perfect sound forever' seems like a 'pie in the sky' :-) ........

monetschemist's picture

Another fine and thoughtful editorial; thank you, Jim. A band whose records aren't really "my genre" but who nevertheless really completely blew me away with their musicality and inventiveness was Dire Straits. Especially Communiqué. I know, Sultans of Swing was the best, but as an album... it's Communiqué. And reading this editorial, I sense the reason that I like that album so much are precisely what Jim is talking about here. To me the key is "would you go back because last night was so darned good?". If the answer is yes, then it's great music. "Would you put it on the turntable AGAIN?" yup that's it.

Obergaiman's picture

Thank you very much for this piece, Mr. Austin. Up to now, I have cared little for bluegrass, and country music in general; but your words remind me to be much more open-minded and sensible. It is so very easy to dismiss something just because it carries a certain label, belongs to a certain genre or category, etc.

I would also like to wish you all the best as Editor of Stereophile, together with many years of meaningful and productive thoughts, feelings and discussions.

My thanks, too, to Mr. tonykaz for his story of the plastic pail drummer, and how powerful and compelling music can render genre irrelevant.

In the spirit of quotation-sharing, may I please share two of my favorites:

"People mistake volume for atmosphere." - Andy Hamilton
"One thing about music: when it hits you, you feel no pain." - Bob Marley

ChrisS's picture

...several times in your articles, do you happen to own a Leica M?

Robin Landseadel's picture

I guess it must have been over 50 years ago, a literal Barn Dance. I think Kenny Hall was playing. I know I heard Kenny Hall playing at a club in Fresno's Tower District, late 60's, early 70's. Not exactly Bluegrass, more like the precursor to Bluegrass, Mountain or "Hillbilly" music, the sort of music that a classical music snob such as myself would find beneath their dignity. Needless to say, I loved it.

Found myself playing guitar with Kenny Hall four decades later. Kenny Hall was blind. He was also an avid hiker in California's mountain ranges, having developed his own personal version of sonar. He played fiddle, guitar and mandolin, memorized thousands of songs. Kenny Hall was more along the lines of Woody Guthrie, Utah Phillips and Pete Seeger, rough songs for rough times, would sing Woody Guthrie, Charlie Poole, Jimmy Rodgers. His version of "Deep Elem Blues" was "North Sanger Blues", North Sanger clearly being on the other side of the tracks, just south of Fresno.

The Wednesday night Jams with Kenny Hall were at the Santa Fe Basque Restaurant, in the enclosed patio. Our summers run well over 100 degrees, Kenny loved the heat. As the windows were just screens, plenty of street sound. The railroad track ran 20 feet away. A train would regularly come by and drown everybody out. Often during a train song, like "Cannonball" or "Wreck of the Old 97". I'm sure Jimmy Rodgers would approve. At minimum, four or five musicians would arrive, but sometimes over 30, with spillover well into the dining tables. Kenny stuck to mandolin. Kenny Hall was quite old, in a wheelchair, somewhat restricted as regards physical motion. But his ear was still extraordinary, being able to pick out whoever was out of tune instantly.

There were a lot of fiddlers, all different levels of training and musicality. One would warm up with Bach Partitas. Another collected Mexican Polkas and Swedish Dances, another was mining really old Americana. I already knew, from experiences recording symphony orchestras and other ensembles performing very old, pre-electronic, music, that there was a great distance between what one can gather from a microphone and what one experiences as a direct witness to the event. And here I was, six feet away from a hot fiddler, leading the group like a concertmaster.

This goes back to Audiophilus Nervosa and "You Can't Get There From Here". Analog representations of violin sound can smooth out the rough, the hard. Digital gets the rough particulate matter of a fiddle's sound, sometime exaggerating it. But nothing gets it all, the first bottleneck is the microphone and it's all downhill from there.

Kenny Hall died September 18, 2013 just shy of his 90th birthday. The Jam continued without him, I moved from Fresno in July. There's a local Bluegrass Jam that meets up once a month, I've been to every one since I arrived in town. Very different group of people, though a lot of the music is the same. There's slide Dobros, clog dancing and some mighty fine soloists in Olympia's bluegrass jam. It's mostly I-IV-V and you can jump in anytime. It's the absolute sound, the real deal.

The Bluegrass Jam is every third Sunday @
New Traditions Fair Trade,
300 5th Ave. SW, Olympia, WA 98501.
(360) 705-2819.

tnargs's picture

There are several reasons why musicians make terrible judges of sound quality, and the comments by JA and JA2 have touched on some. It has been known and spoken about for decades.

One sense I got from the article on genre, was that no matter what the genre, there are terrible examples and excellent examples of performance and creativity, and even production, and by being non-dismissive one can thoroughly enjoy the best of any genre.