Caught in the Quiet
Listen to the Warm
The Nashville Sound
When you are young, pop music is everywhere—has been everywhere for the young since the advent of the radio and the car. Promising promises to the early adolescent and recalling past frissons to those old enough for nostalgia, such music creates its own calendar, memory bank, and even an identity for those inchoate young who take the measure of one another by what they like.
A scene from an early memory: I am six years old, at the seashore for the summer. It is early evening, and from a window I watch my seventeen-year-old aunt ride off in a red convertible with two of her swing era beaux. The roof of the car is rolled back and, from the car radio, the sound of a late Thirties big band hangs in the air until the car is far down the road. The people, the car, the music are a synthesis of the great open world. I don’t even like the music—but I sense that when you do like it, it’s because all kinds of exciting things are happening to you. Another day I argue with this aunt over a radio dial. She wants to listen to Bing Crosby while I want to hear a soap opera. “Mush,” I say. “Bing Crosby is mush.” I am wildly envious of my aunt who trucks in the living room, does the lindy at roadhouses—in short, lives—while I, tuneless, dig holes in the sand and read Nancy Drew.
I was right, then, about pop music. The impetus to be surrounded by it is less related to passion for music than to any number of other things—passion itself not the least of these. At fifteen, still spending Saturday nights at home to hear the Hit Parade, I briefly fell in love with a boy who was studying music at Yale and who loved jazz more than girls. He played a Bunny Berrigan record for me, and I became an instant jazz buff. “Listen,” I would say to people later, playing the same record from my own collection, “listen to what Berrigan does with those high notes.” But what really moved me was the way I had felt about the boy, now forever entangled with the soaring phrases, the lighthearted melancholy lyrics of “I Can’t Get Started With You.”
Looking back, I am aware that much of my life took place to music as if it were a film with a score: phonograph or radio interminably on, conversations held under the sound of music because sometimes when there was no music and we were driving or sitting around or drinking in a bar, an awkward silence hovered. Something necessary was missing. Things did not go on well without music. Then the radio or phonograph or jukebox would come on, and we would settle back into that sound which was a counterpoint to what we were saying—adding depth and nuance, filling in.
Pop culture is, perhaps most of …