Out Here in the Middle

While talking with my friend Ron as he drove through Nebraska, I quoted him a James McMurtry song: “Out here in the middle where the buffalo roam/we’re putting up towers for your cell phones.” If you don’t know how that sounds and can’t place it within his critique of politics in “flyover country,” stop what you are doing and listen.  

First I wanted to talk with Ron about it, and about other McMurtry songs one needs to get the full benefit. But he didn’t know the reference—which made me spiral into rage against a culture that can allow for that.

Then I wanted my own mixtape for an upcoming car trip in flyover country. But I discovered that half my McMurtry library is not in a form that works for mixtapes in my car, period. The other half is not in a form that allows me to do it easily. So here I am, venting.

Capitalism Vs. Quality of Life

First the problem writ large. One of the evils of capitalism is manifested in the music industry—so many brilliant musicians cannot make a living, have unconscionable struggles to gain a foothold, or can’t launch careers in the first place, because of its business model. This is deeply upsetting and corrosive to our quality of life.

No doubt in the past there were also enormous related problems—absurd and unjust double standards between the overhyped and the supposedly unmarketable, the hacks who got paid and the worthy who were robbed and/or forgotten. But today’s business model creates an extreme version of the problem.  

It is not that we lack for superb new music—there is more than ever, fueled by technologies that enable anyone with a laptop to produce and disseminate records. Sadly this comes with a downtrend in synergies from collaborating on live music. It also enables a lot of mediocre music to circulate, which makes it hard to separate wheat and chaff.

Still, it’s easier than ever to access all of it via Apple Music, YouTube, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and the like—and if we could forget about the musicians not being paid, that could almost translate to a golden era of instant access to unlimited archives of brilliance. So why does feel it unsatisfying?  

The Dinosaur Recalls Changes

I learned to listen and separate musical wheat from chaff—the overhyped vs. disrespected and then, for artists I loved, their life-shaping gems vs. their missteps and filler—by making mixtapes and listening to them in my car. I’m such a dinosaur that I started with cassettes. I remember a world before the internet, structuring listening that was less fragmented and distracted.

Such practices are hard to sustain today. Part of the problem is the explosion of wheat and chaff—so much new music plus a lifetime of songs to revisit, and everything just one click away from everything else.

Making it worse is the tendency to approach music (both producing it and listening) one individual song at a time, rather than within the arcs of full albums or careers. Algorithm-driven playlists like Spotify are the antithesis of how I want to listen.

Then—supposing we could bracket this today and just focus on McMurtry—I can’t search my I-Tunes library elegantly in my car. In fact, I can barely do it on a laptop, since I-Tunes has devolved from the kryptonite that fueled fueled Apple’s rise to world dominance to a despicable piece of marketing technology. Even if I do manage to search for McMurtry without endangering all my passengers, I-Tunes doesn’t stream consistently in my car in large stretches of my road trips in flyover country.

If I want to curate mixtapes for thumb drives that sort of work (highly inelegantly!) in my car, I must exclusively use songs I purchased. I-Tunes is engineered to make this frustrating, with special emphasis on driving me insane if I dare to preview a song on their streaming source before I purchase it. Everything is structured to make me swim against a current that flows by collecting tolls for blanket subscriptions that I can’t curate in ways that make sense.

All this is before blighting the lives of the musicians and degrading the sound quality to enable streaming. (Let’s give credit where it’s due, Bandcamp is great for supporting artists directly, if you first know where to look.)

In short, if my experience is at all generalizable, our golden age of streaming is killing a golden goose. I spend less on music, despite paying quite a bit for a music subscription, and I care less about what I buy—all before the problem of broke musicians.   

The Case of McMurtry

It’s McMurtry that’s triggering me today. (Tomorrow it will be a rapper, jazzer, or a songwriter who is not white and male.) Here we have one of the most brilliant songwriters of our generation—more deserving of fame and wealth than most people nominated for Grammys plus almost everyone amid the top ten thousand bankers and music executives in the country.

Yet he has been sidelined as someone whose work, considered as a commodity to market, has marginal value. I recall him claiming that, when touring, he barely breaks even. Friends draw a blank when I mention the cell towers and buffalo—lyrics that for me are like lines from Shakespeare or Bob Dylan that are a natural part of an educated person’s speech.

I am outraged that our musical-industrial complex barely supports artists like McMurtry. And of course thousands of others are far more screwed; we don’t even know their names.

Silver Linings of Neoliberal Streaming: McMurtry in Four Clicks

However, since we live in that semi-golden-era for surfing in the archives, let’s pick out a few songs. First up is “Out Here in the Middle” with the buffalo. Listen for how it captures the ambivalence of loving the midwest (“where the center’s on the right/and the ghost of William Jennings Bryan preaches every night”) while not forgetting how it is ravaged by capitalism and other problems. Here’s the link again.

Next is probably his best, “Ruby and Carlos”—among the great lyrics of all time in this genre and a centerpiece of his resume as a songwriter’s songwriter.

Now we turn to “Choctaw Bingo,” a fan favorite in circuits where he plays (I heard him in a beer tent at a Harley Davidson dealership). Think about Succession—featuring a dysfunctional family you can’t stop watching—but far more down-scale and behaving badly at a family reunion in Oklahoma.

Finally, “We Can’t Make it Here”— the closest thing he’s had to a hit, but not the sort of hit that music executives market, especially in country-adjacent radio formats. It is fascinating to consider how it relates to up-and-coming folks in the leftward parts of country/alt-country/Americana who still have a smallish shot at a market niche. They are standing on his shoulders.      

We can easily extrapolate from this song’s Reagan-era takedown of how deindustrialization has destroyed jobs and quality of life, with politicians alternately cheering or claiming they can’t do anything about it. This remains our world, both writ small as trends that destroy musicians’ livelihoods and writ larger as insurrectionists run free, Congress refuses to address our broken health care system or climate change, and Republicans organize for one-party minority rule.

But then, as McMurtry says, out here in the middle “we’ve got justifications for wealth and greed…nobody steals, nobody cheats…now we’ve even got Starbucks, what else you need?” Few artists can teach us as much about this “middle” better than he does.

MBE standard notice: The time I spend on this blog is not in addition to a Twitter and FaceBook presence, but an alternative to it.  If you think anything here merits wider circulation, this will probably only happen if you circulate it. 

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