Back in the mid-late ’90s and early 2000s, I was a big Dave Matthews Band fan. I traveled to the Gorge twice to see them, not to mention Boston, New York City, Camden, N.J., and Washington D.C. At one of those Gorge shows, they filmed a video (“Grey Street”), in which I can be seen holding a large sign for a split second, and I even got to catch the band play with Al Green at Soldier Field, Chicago. I never got a “Dancing Nancies” tattoo or anything, but I shamefully admit I thought about it.
Somewhere along the way, my extreme fandom faded away. I can’t remember exactly which city it was — Raleigh, Charlotte, who knows — but I know what caused it: cover songs. It was 2003, the year Johnny Cash died, and DMB was on stage playing “Long Black Veil.” I was in love with the classic and realized I only knew this legendary song thanks to Dave Matthews' introduction over the years; I had never heard the original version. The same goes for other songs DMB covered: John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Willie Nelson’s “Ain’t it Funny How Time Slips Away,” The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” and Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s “Cortez the Killer.”
Y’all, I didn’t know jack. And it was embarrassing.
That’s when I packed it in and started digging. How could I say DMB was my favorite band when I didn’t have a clue about the music that came before them? Yes, they were my favorite band, but compared to what? How could I love a band when I knew nothing of the people that influenced it? I knew I couldn’t show my face as a fan of any kind of music until I could at least pick out a freakin’ Bob Dylan cover. Bob Dylan, for fuck sake! And so I dove into the past.
For at least a year, I didn’t care much for modern music. I had my hands and ears full with the Beatles, Dylan, Cash, and Young. I befriended people who didn’t like DMB, and I mimicked their listening habits, falling head-over-heels for acts like the Beach Boys, the Kinks, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, Wanda Jackson, the Cramps, and Otis Redding.
The more I discovered, the more I wanted to know — and the more I learned, the more I learned I had a long way to go before I could consider myself an authority. I simply couldn’t stop at absorbing, for example, Dylan’s records. ‘Who influenced him?,’ I’d ask myself. And so would begin another fantastical adventure down a different rabbit hole that had me flying through Dylan’s autobiography and listening to the music of Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, and Little Richard.
My point to all of these confessions is not to embarrass myself with my fangirl past but to point out that I’m seeing the same trend among young musicians and music writers today. A few weeks ago, I tried to compliment a local guitarist by saying I could hear “some crazy 13th Floor Elevators action” in a few songs, to which he replied with utter confusion, “Who are the 13th Floor Elevators?” Nor did another local band know anything at all about Kraftwerk, despite the fact that they sound a lot like the German electro-music pioneers. And I read an article this morning by a music writer who apparently didn’t realize that the song “Sunday Morning,” covered by a currently popular pop-radio act, was in fact a Velvet Underground song. And over the past couple of years, I’ve had several conversations with bands who claim that acts like the Strokes and the Killers are their all-time favorite bands — not to knock those bands (I know the words to most of their songs and love every one of ’em), but it just made me wonder, they’re your favorite band compared to what? Compared to similar sounds of acts from the past five or 10 years, or compared to the Kinks and the Rolling Stones and the Stooges?
I don’t claim to know everything — I still have a very, very long way to go. Every day, I feel like I still don’t know jack in the grand scheme of things. In fact, it wasn’t until the past couple of years that I really even made it around to really absorbing John Prine’s records, or Nillson’s, or Queen’s, or the Doors’. Suffice to say, I’ve been busy for the past dozen or so years, and it took a while for that enlightening musical journey to ever begin in the first place.
But I’m glad I didn’t waste any more time in discovering, for instance, my now all-time-favorite record, Pet Sounds. While I don’t regret having my first experience with Pet Sounds happen with a portable CD player, my feet sunken in the sands of Folly Beach, hungover and solo on a Sunday morning, I also sorely wish I’d let that sunshine into my life a lot sooner. And I’ll never deny Dave Matthews or my affinity for that whole era of my life, but that obsession is long gone. As soon as I began to dig, I couldn’t go back — I didn’t need to. I had all I needed at the time in Johnny, Bob, Neil, and Brian.
And so I hope to encourage young people out there reading this to slow down on the rapid consumption of the many amazing, worthwhile artists at their fingertips today. I get it, and I’m guilty as charged, too. Hell, it’s my job to be in-the-know, but I’ll never again get so caught up that I forget to fill my days listening to the many incredible acts who influenced, say, Shovels & Rope (see Wanda Jackson, the Cramps, T-Rex — the list goes on).
Instead of having a fear of missing out on the fresh-new rock, indie, electro, folk, or Americana hotshots, don’t delay in beginning your own journey to discovering the same music that molded those very same artists. Your new-to-you favorite band could be one listen away.
Kelly Rae Smith is the Music Editor for the Charleston City Paper.