The Truth Will Make You Odd

In Gramophone Dreams #79, I described how my mother started me on a path where I am compelled to look and touch and listen and read my way to "good taste in everything." "Books and manners," she called it. She viewed these social proficiencies as something people put on like clothes.

But for me, taste has a deeper significance. I see it as regulated by an internalized moral and socio-spiritual code that forces me to recognize how little I know about whatever subject I am judging. With fine art and music, that code compels me to ask myself why I prefer one artist, style, or genre to another. This why-oriented introspection is important because when I take this type of inventory, it is easy to see how much a lifetime of experiences—drugs, deejays, hot rods, unruly girls, and my cohort of white suburban buddy-pals—have influenced my taste in everything, especially cars and music.

Recently I've been thinking a lot about the late Art Dudley and how Art worked humbly and relentlessly to get me to appreciate contemporary bluegrass, especially the work of renowned flat-picker Tony Rice. Back then, my contempt for contemporary bluegrass was equal to my contempt for contemporary country. Both seemed faux and shallow.

Even after reading Art's 2016 article for Fretboard Journal entitled "58957," wherein he tells the fantastic story of Clarence White's—then Tony Rice's—"big hole" Martin D-28 guitar, I wasn't convinced. I loved Art, so I kept trying to grasp Mr. Rice's virtues, but I kept seeing him as a cool-minded technician, admired by legions of aspiring flat-pickers not as a high-lonesome minstrel like Carter Stanley or Doc Watson but as a man with talented fingers. And then there was the mullet issue: My mother never approved of mullets. I did not listen long enough or sincerely enough to recognize the high levels of expressive power I perceive in Tony Rice now.

"58957" (image courtesy of Fretboard Journal).

I recognized the scope of my error while watching a YouTube video of two young bluegrass artists, Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle, playing "Blue Railroad Train," the famous Delmore Brothers' song from 1934. This popular bluegrass anthem has been covered by (among others) Doc Watson, Jorma Kaukonen, and Tony Rice, but I never gave Rice's version an honest listen—until last night, when the Ghost of Art D sat next to me watching videos in my darkened room. Art guided me through a long, slow, respectful listen that took my mind out of its iron cage and showed me the depth of Rice's feeling and the height of his musical achievement.

As I sat in the dark with vaporous Art, I realized that Tony's mullet was more like a declaration of independence than a fashion fail. With Art at my side, it was easy to see what I never saw before: the transcendent levels of humble sentiment expressed in Rice's performance of "Blue Railroad Train." That video showed me that Tony's pickin' was more church than circus. His version conveyed the reverent spirit of traditional bluegrass combined with his own unique and authentic cultural identity. Finally, I saw that Rice's style was integral and essential to his music's artistic effect, like Lou Reed's or Björk's to theirs. Tony Rice may not be authentic high lonesome (or high fashion), but he is high sentiment, and that's all any picker needs to sit close to God or at least be loved by me. While listening to Tony with ghost-Art,

I realized how my previsitation bluegrass taste was really a form of I'm more authentic than you snootiness. Now I see how Art's appreciation of Rice came from his own more holistically engaged pursuits. Art had seen him perform live, had studied Tony's licks, and had a framed photo of his wife, Janet, backstage with Tony (top photo). I regret that my snootiness prevented me from sharing the thrills of Tony's preternatural picking with Art while he was still alive. We could have seen Rice play live together. Art would have introduced me. I could have asked Tony if bluegrass's frantic rhythms are really based on hounds chasing frightened rabbits.

Even as a teen, I knew that shared taste in "things" and shared musical experiences are social catalysts and human bonding agents. But only now do I understand that if I listen with respect and patient attention to any music I'm convinced I don't like, I will likely change my mind.

One morning sometime after Art's passing, I was reading a Flannery O'Connor short story and stopped abruptly, saying "Whoa!" As I was reading, I realized that Flannery wrote an awful lot like Art. The resemblance was so strong that I immediately texted Janet and asked her if Art was a fan of Flannery O'Connor. She told me that visiting O'Connor's childhood home in Savannah, Georgia, was the last trip they took together. Janet sent me a souvenir bumper sticker with images of two peacocks and Flannery O'Connor's famous quote, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd."

When I meet up with Art on the other side, those will be the first words out of my mouth, whereupon we'll both laugh and scream like teens in praise of our favorite storyteller. Then I'll ask Art if he remembers watching Tony Rice videos with me

Glotz's picture

Of course he will.

Lazer's picture

What a beautifully written article. Herb is a writer of great talent and depth. He is the first thing I read in Stereophile every month when I bring the most recent issue in from the mailbox. I love you Herb.

jond's picture

that was lovely.

jimtavegia's picture

Very nicely stated. He had a great approach to our hobby.

Chris Noto's picture

Herb, I mine your work, in Stereophile and elsewhere (YouTube!) for insights into good living, recommendations of all kinds of music, and your thoughts and experiences with hifi hardware. I got to the Tony Rice video to find that another one of your fans had already commented "Herb Reichert sent me." :)

Anton's picture

Great post!

Dennis in NJ's picture

Thank you Herb for the truly touching and memorable words about Art Dudley. It is amazing and sad at the same time about the similarity of Flannery O'Connor's and Art's style of writing. Amazing that two authors were so gifted, and sad that both are no longer with us to enlighten us (in their own disparate ways).

Alex Halberstadt's picture

beautiful, Herb

Glotz's picture

and to remember there is 'no accounting for taste'!

It's a reminder that has be pummeled down my throat for the past few years by my favorite radio station manager of the Mighty Ninety-One: WMSE's Tom Crawford in Milwaukee. He consistently reminds us that 'guilty pleasures' always have great truth imbedded in it, and music snobbery is our own prison.

It reminds me to listen with less eye-rolling and upturned noses... lol. Ear twitching? Ah, whatever. More open to joy and new experiences despite prejudice.

Herb Reichert's picture

that was my point, "music snobbery is our own prison"

it separates us from friends and limits our ability to be compassionate


samueljohn's picture

Thank you again for the beautiful prose. Your tribute to Art is a reminder for all of us to keep friends close and hear their passions, which will become our own.
Happy New Year and look forward to your continued musings.