CMJ Music Marathon 2005: Blues from a red state

NEW YORK – “Decline seems to be a really useful thing for music,” opined Simon Reynolds, author of “Rip It Up and Start Again: Post Punk 1978-1984,” at a panel discussion at CMJ Music Marathon entitled “How a City Becomes a Scene.” Reynolds was speaking in economic terms – financial decline allows for cheap housing and rehearsal spaces that are staples of booming art districts – but one suspects the same might be said for culture.

The most vibrant musical community to emerge since Seattle has not flourished in a cultural hotbed such as New York City or Washington, D.C., or in an international intellectual enclave such as London or Paris. No, the epicenter of a sort of aural counterculture is found in the middle of Bush country in Omaha, Nebraska. Best known for steaks and the emotionally stark suburban landscapes Alexander Payne painted in his films “Election” and “About Schmidt,” you wouldn’t think this slice of heartland would produce the movement to rule them all, and its figurehead to boot. You’d be wrong, though.

Meet Saddle Creek Records and Conor Oberst, the newest “new Bob Dylan”- that modern American archetype that seems to reemerge in a different skin every six months or so.

Like John Prine and Elliott Smith before him, Obest has been handed, or more realistically burdened, by the moniker, “the new Bob Dylan.” While no singer deserves this albatross, Oberst meets its expectations best. That is, his failure to measure up is less pronounced than others’. This might sound like damning with faint praise, but we’re talking about Bob-freaking-Dylan. Oberst has released a steady stream of gorgeous albums since he was 14, his latest, I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning being damn near perfect. But Bob Dylan comes along only once.

Let us not quibble with legacies now, though, not after Oberst and his motley band of heartland troubadours in denim pretty much took over Manhattan. Like his cultural godfather, Oberst was subject of a documentary screened for marathoners (Spend an Evening with Saddle Creek) as well as a panel (the aforementioned “How a City Becomes a Scene,” while not specifically about Omaha, immediately brings the Midwestern city to mind).

Watching Spend an Evening with Saddle Creek, it becomes clear that all the warm and fuzzy press clippings about the label are actually true. The majority of bands on the label feature people who have known each other at least since high school, and most of the rest are cultivated not so much from professional contacts but from friendships. A bizarre incestuous dynamic is at work with the label, as marriages and relationships span the group and everyone seems to play in everyone else’s band (or at least in everyone’s numerous side projects.)

Just because some non-Nebraskans now grace the label doesn’t mean there’s been any loss of identity. Reynolds commented, “The idea of a scene that’s based on a place is going to kind of erode.” While Omaha remains central to the Saddle Creek feel, it’s not all there is to it. The label has scooped up bands from California and Georgia, and like Dylan before him, Oberst has recently become a Midwest transplant in Gotham. Los Angeles’ Rilo Kiley, one of the first “outsider” bands to join the label (who have since signed with Time Warner,) clarified things for everyone in their song The Execution of All Things: “Then we’ll go to Omaha to work and exploit the booming music scene.” Omaha nourished Saddle Creek, but it has become more of an ideal than anything else.

Saddle Creek is built around this ideal, this loose confederation of attitudes and ideas that center on playing what you want with your friends and not caring what anybody else thinks about it. One gets the sense that had this group of individuals grown up in a less restrictive place, the iron-clad bond that holds them together even when they’re apart might not have been as strong. Somewhere else, they would have found other outlets, but in a place that forced them into an insular community, all they had to look to was themselves, their music and each other.

While everyone at Saddle Creek has enjoyed a certain level of success notable for an independent label, especially Cursive and the Faint, Bright Eyes remains the focal point, and Oberst remains in the spotlight he was pushed in to over a decade ago. A new Dylan he’s not, but he is a clarion voice of dissent and disarming emotion for an age that desperately needs it. Here’s to Omaha.

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