This weekend I watched a couple of interviews with puppeteer, video artist, painter, Illustrator, and set designer Wayne White. For the past few years I have been rather obsessed with Wayne Whites work, mainly because he drew inspiration for a large installation he did at Rice of a giant George Jones puppet head, which he claimed was “the largest George Jones Puppet head ever created” That’s quite a an accomplishment, I don’t think anyone has ever built a giant puppet head of George Jones and I don’t think anyone will anytime soon.
Wayne White’s use of country music for his inspiration for this puppet head was of interest to me, as I had steeped myself in a healthy diet of country music and honky-tonks and really set to work to create work based upon this amazing musical genre. What I really like about White’s tribute to one of country music’s legends is that he made something that was not drenched in country music visual cues and clichés, instead he worked with the lyrics of George’s song “I’m ragged, but I’m right!” using the lyric “Well I got big electric fan to keep me cool while I sleep” Wayne thought about the time in Texas before air conditioning and all of the luxuries we have now, the past of Texas has a history to it and the lack of amenities is intertwined in Texas history, it’s also something that is intertwined into the hard living life of a country musician. So White decided to build a giant puppet head of George Jones and put a giant fan inside the head so when the mouth was opened up a COOL BREEZE came out and cooled the room.
Loads of contemporary artists are taking inspiration from contemporary rock music or electronic and making work that reflects the culture of those genres of music currently. What country music speaks to and is vital to being American and an American artist is about traveling a road less traveled. While country music is a populist music, there is a certain snobby attitude about the music from many, that somehow they are above the music or that the music lacks intelligence or that it’s for uneducated beer swilling rednecks. All of those assertions in some sense are based on fact, but it should be remembered in the early days of country music recording, with artists like Carter Family, this was the music of the masses, they sold over 300,000 albums by 1930, while Jazz and big band music did outsell country albums, it was mainly because of economics, the have and the have nots, many of those living in rural areas could not afford to buy albums during the great depression, radio and live performances was the typical way that many consumed the music. Most Americans were living in rural areas, and played many of the instruments that were featured on the recordings, so in a way the recordings and the music were a reflection of their way of life. What is missing from most of the criticism I hear from people about country music is a genuine understanding of the genre, lack of understanding of the harmonies, the chords, the instruments, the arrangements. While it’s not really my objective to make converts to country music in writing this, I would suggest that one spend some time exploring the rich history and life of country music.
That being said, I sincerely love and have a deep appreciation for country music, country music was my theme music when I lived in my VW van and trucked across the country, learning what I could about video art and the way the old universe tumbled and twirled. I made a lot of video and collage work based on country tunes that resonated with me while living on the road. Hank Williams; Lost Highway, became a video I made called Doghead 606, George Jones; She Thinks I Still Care, became, Hourex, Buck Owens; Cryin Time, became,
Maybe it’s just living in Colorado, but to me living in little old Denver seeing rock music and electronic music seems almost out of place with the space, it feels contrived, almost pretend, that the music doesn’t really resonate with physical place. To give an example I cannot tell you how funny it is to go to a Gothic nightclub in Denver and see all the kids in the middle of summer dressed in leather trench coats and mascara dancing around to industrial music from the late 80’s and early 90’s. It seems so out of place, Denver is so happy and so a place of possibility and a place were one almost has to be in a place of authenticity of the environment. True it’s always sunny, but the weather also changes from one moment to the next, you have to be on your toes with your wardrobe here, layers people, layers. But part of the culture of living in the west is the lack of “Culture” with a capital C, we have to make our own culture here, which is also a western attitude, we have to show those big city slickers that we have just as much of a life and just as much culture as they do in Chicago and New York City. It’s this DIY attitude that is really western, really country, really cowboy, really the authenticity of the west. Not dressing up like people in NYC and London in the 1980’s in horrible night clubs. Go out and make something, make it your own, look at what others are doing outside of our bubble and look at how it works within our bubble and make it better and make it our own. That is what country music is about, so yes, kids with laptops are country musicians, when they are mixing beats and creating new music, they are taking something and re-working the texture of the electronic landscape to make it new and fresh. Video and digital media artists are doing the same thing working with what is out there in the world, re-working it and making it new and fresh, throwing away the stodgy all academic notions of culture and creating a new culture.
Living in the American west I should be aware of my history of the music and culture that I came from and use those attitudes to help enhance my work. It’s so amazing driving across the plains of Colorado and seeing all the barbed wire fences and cattle, the truck stops, the tiny towns where a job putting together irrigation equipment at 9 bucks an hour is a DAMN GOOD JOB. This kind of thing is what has become important to me in my work, I read it in the poems I read, in the people I talk to, and in the music I hear, in the artwork I see. I really do want to be a cowboy in so many ways.