Photo: Sean Smith
Back in 2010, in another lifetime, when I was overseeing communications at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), I helped lead the Obama administration’s crisis response to the BP Oil Spill—a slow-motion, five-month long saga that threatened the well-being of the nation’s Gulf Coast, and not for nothing, the president’s re-election chances if we did our jobs poorly.
The DHS post was my reward for having been a capable communications staffer on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. When I started in the role, I didn’t know much about crisis management, except for what I had observed growing up in a family with four unruly siblings and, later, from the political campaigns I had worked. But I was surrounded by some of the most creative, dedicated, and passionate communications professionals I’d ever encountered—and in Obama’s first year, between natural disasters, swine flu, an attempted terrorist attack, and unyielding politics, we all sharpened our skills.
As the BP disaster unfolded in real-time, complete with the 24-7 gushing Spill Cam, we worked hard to show media outlets the historic scale of the government’s response. A reporter’s job is to find conflict and suffering, and to point a finger at the culprit. Our job, back then, was to battle for context to be included in their reporting. Yes, those birds died from the oil that, ahem, BP spilled, and truly it is awful, but don’t leave out that these birds were rescued and cleaned, and these volunteers and resources are being deployed to minimize additional harm.
It’s easy to adopt a gallows humor in such circumstances, working around the clock in an intense, high-stakes environment. Moments of levity help maintain your perspective. One day several weeks into our cause of projecting what we knew to be a robust, competent, and effective response to the crisis, CNN ran a graphic on TV that blared, Breaking News: “Everything is Dying.”
Watching with my team, we all had the same guttural reaction. Laughter. We ached for the devastation taking place in the Gulf, but there was something perfectly absurd about the headline—it captured the spectacular hyperbole surrounding the tragic event, and the challenge we faced in trying to reassure people that our efforts to lessen its impacts were working.
My colleague snapped a photo of it on his Blackberry, and the picture became a totem for us. Before emojis, GIFs, and Internet memes, we’d respond to bad news by sending each other the blurry image. We’d write “everything is dying” in emails or blurt it out in meetings. Even years later, with the BP spill in the rear-view mirror, and the public giving the Obama administration high marks for its handling of it, it remained an inside joke. When the first baby was born to someone in our group, the new mom alerted us via email with the subject, “Everything is Crying.”
With the clarity of hindsight, however, I can now see the CNN graphic for what it also represented—an ugly harbinger for what was dawning, the start of a new era where journalism would be hijacked by social media, clickbait headlines, hot takes, outrage, and serial misinformation. Dialogue would give way to trolling. Reasoned evaluation reduced to an all-is-lost nihilism.
There are stories and pockets and bushels and rivers of beauty and awe and truth and miracles all around us. There might even be hope. It’s just rare that it’s reflected back at us.
There is much to fret on in our world, to be sure, but when assessing today’s widespread pessimism, cynicism and hopelessness, future scholars may very well find that a driving factor was our modern information ecosystem, a societal echo chamber that instructs us to be afraid and to mistrust and to even hate ourselves—all the while screaming at us through clenched teeth: Everything is dying!
And yet, despite it all, there are stories and pockets and bushels and rivers of beauty and awe and truth and miracles all around us. There might even be hope. It’s just rare that it’s reflected back at us.
Last fall, I wrote an article for Grammy.com about a music scene that is rumbling and stampeding and spilling over its banks with wonder. The piece highlighted Colter Wall, Charley Crockett, Sierra Ferrell, Vincent Neil Emerson, Bella White and others, and asserted that a sparkling, important revival was taking place.
The truth in this music is evident and accessible, but like all exquisite art, there is also something elusive about it. For starters, no one can even agree on what to call the music. The industry lumps it into the Americana category. People in and around the scene often refer to it as “underground country” or “independent country.” I recently heard it called “prestige country.” When I asked Vincent Neil Emerson about it, he laughed and said it’s just a “good songs revival.” As someone responsible for writing many of them during this boom, it might make sense to go with Vincent on this matter.
Whatever its name, there’s no arguing that the music is finding an audience—and growing cultural recognition. I detailed that evidence in the September article, and it’s continued apace since then. Charley Crockett recently performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Melissa Carper was profiled in Rolling Stone. Colter and the boys just played in front of 5,000 fans in Dallas. Molly Tuttle won the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.
Some people have compared this music scene to the Outlaw Country movement of the 1970s, when Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and others defied the Nashville corporate tastemakers and established something authentic. In many ways, the comparison to today’s cohort fits.
But the story is more nuanced than that. The depth of talent, insight, alienation, individuality, heart, craftsmanship and rebelliousness of these artists calls to mind not only other country music peaks, but what took place in San Francisco during the late ’60s, or Seattle in the early ’90s. And if you focus squarely on the lyricism—and reflect on what it conveys about the time we’re living in—the aperture widens, and these artists may be the equivalent of Kerouac and the Beat writers of the 1950s, or Hemmingway and the Lost Generation in Paris a century ago.
Saddle Mountain Post is launching to chronicle this movement, to examine and honor the music, to explore its thematic threads, and to spotlight people and ideas from the vibrant community that has developed to support and absorb the music.
In part, the site will strive to resemble a small-town newspaper, where the goings-on at the Book Fair, Rotary Club, and ballfield are more important than the police blotter, or who can shout louder than who. At the same time, hopefully, it will read like a first draft of critical history, and include interesting voices from inside and outside the community.
All the while, and in all ways, the highest ambition will be to mimic the toil of the music—to tell good stories, to find something true, to zoom in on the liberty of the present and celebrate what’s living.