Ann Powers, NPR Music critic/correspondent and World Cafe contributor, sat down with MusicRow to discuss her role at public radio and the life experience that led her to it.
Now a Nashville resident with husband Eric and teenage daughter, the Seattle native discussed her unique perspective on life and shares her advice to young writers in this MusicRow bonus Q&A.
To read Powers’ print feature, visit musicrow.com to purchase the 2017 Country Radio issue.
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With your undergraduate in creative writing and masters degree in literature, how does your training serve you in your career today?
In an age where we are all scrolling through feeds rather than reading books—having a foundation in literature and books is hugely important. Studying creative writing as opposed to journalism was important because it gave me a sense of language. I knew I was never going to be a hardcore news reporter. I knew I would be an arts writer. Not that I’m against [journalism] school, especially for people now because its important to learn multimedia tools for the 21st century. But for me, reading a lot and learning how to use language were the most important things.
For me in critical theory—which isn’t for everyone, the language can put people off—it gave me a framework of thinking about culture that I use in my work now. Many non-academics think of the academic world as impossible to grasp, or snobby. I think its really useful to see the big picture of how culture works, how music works in connection to politics, identity and the other arts. Studying literature helped me understand music’s literary side, particularly useful in understanding singer-songwriters.
How did writing for your local outlets help lead you to New York?
I really had a sense of my career, as it were, as a local thing—writing about bands in the Bay Area. I was writing for LA Weekly, so West Coast. I met my now husband, Eric Weisbard. He was from New York, and he inspired me to try to write for The Village Voice from San Francisco. That’s how my career really took off. I had just got my masters in literature, writing for SPIN during my first semester of a PhD program in the early 90s. John Gross of the New York Times called to ask if I wanted to move to New York and write for the Times. In my family, the story goes: I answered the call and said, “Well John, that’s really great but I’m in school studying Beowulf. Goodbye.” From the other room, Eric made me call back and consider the offer. Within a month I was living in New York. I think I was 28. Had that phone call not come, my path may have been very different. I would have probably become a college professor.
Is there a lesson you would impart to the next generation from that experience?
When young people come to me to say they want to move to New York to be a journalist when they’re 22, I’m like ‘Why don’t you find out what’s happening in your own town and if something’s not happening, maybe consider just writing something. Because that’s going to be a better seedbed for your talent.’
Being able to work at alternative weekly [newspapers] gave me a chance to try out a lot of different things, interview amazing people, try different forms and learn how to do it before I went to the major stage. It was almost like the minor league in baseball. You could learn your chops in a sympathetic environment, among your friends.
With your work now, is there a common message you hope gets across?
I’m interested in connections. I’m interested in how a music world arises out of the efforts of many different kinds of people and the facts of many different circumstance. I try to look at artists within that context—within their community. In Nashville there’s no better illustration of a real community where people can work together in the flesh. I love that about this city. There’s also this imagined community—the books you read, the movies you watch, and the people who came before, toward whom you aspire. When I write I always try to consider all of that.
I’m also interested in the stories that might be overlooked or the meanings that might be just under the surface, or the ways we use or love music. An example would be a piece I recently wrote about music and grieving about this past year—and how we lost so many amazing stars—and how the sorrow was also creating an opportunity for fans to create archives and share not only memories but materials. So out of the death of David Bowie comes great websites that collect all of his incredible music and images and performances.
Its been said Garth Brooks raised Nashville’s profile in the 90s where major outlets began to pay attention to Music City. Do you feel a similar uprising today with Nashville as the ‘it city’?
First, let me say I was part of that movement in the 90s when Garth changed peoples ears and minds about Nashville. I first got in to country music through the insurgent country scene that came out of punk and new wave in the 80s, so Rank and File and later Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, people like that who were connected to alternative sounds in country. There was a lot of that on the west coast. I interviewed Buck Owens when I was like 23 years old because I got in to Dwight Yoakam. However, in the 90s, when my career was a little further along—Eric and I lived in Oakland, California. We had this car with only an AM radio and listened to the country station all the time. Having that car between 1990 and 1992 meant it was that moment—Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, Shania Twain. We just became fascinated with this new mainstream of country music. And I think for people like myself who had been raised on rock, here’s a moment Garth was doing Billy Joel songs and flying around the arena.
That was a totally different moment from now. That was a moment of mainstream crossover and the biggest megastars country could produce. Now the music industry landscape is completely different. Obviously the corporate industry has been challenged to the bone by downloading and then streaming. Things are much more diffuse and non-hierarchical.
What interests me now is the way Nashville remains the center from that mainstream music industry and is in fact the strongest center—in some ways stronger culturally than L.A. or New York as far as having an identity and commitment to artists—being able to break artists in conventional ways like radio, touring and ever-more-consolidated major labels. We’re still getting really great music out of major labels, like Maren Morris, Little Big Town or Sam Hunt. Those are people I think are really pushing the envelope and challenging the conventions of country music in their sound as well. At the same time, you have all this stuff happening at independent labels, like Margo Price on Third Man Records, or self-releases. Every day I hear a new release from an artist in this town that blows me away that they just put out by themselves or a tiny label. Kelsey Waldon or Erin Rae. This is why it is not just a cliché to say Nashville is the best music city in the country. Within industry terms, all levels of the industry are operating and thriving here. As a journalist I can find those kinds of stories.
Where do you see Nashville still having room to grow?
The one huge caveat to all that, of course, is Nashville’s music scene is dominated by white artists. I’m interested in artists of color, hip-hop, R&B and latino. One thing I’m hoping for the next 10 years, as the city grows and changes, is a diversification in the music scene too. For artists who’ve been here a long time, like Jason Eskridge for example, or new artists will get more Nashville recognition. That would be the final step in making Nashville truly world-class—diversity is the final piece of the puzzle for Nashville.
I do think as Nashville grows, there will be more opportunities for writers too. I hope national and international publications look to Nashville writers instead of flying someone in who doesn’t know anything about this town or understand the workings of the scene to report for two days. I hope that happens enough where writers here who can make a living.
Read Ann Powers’ feature in MusicRow’s Country Radio print edition, available at MusicRow.com.
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