A few pieces of news struck me last week. Apparently the new biography of Buck Owens paints him as a sometime-unscrupulous businessman, and Sugarland lead singer Jennifer Nettles’ comments on former band member Kristen Hall’s contributions to the band make her sound more than a little arrogant. A little earlier in the week, John Berry admitted to having been “a rude and arrogant individual who wasn’t much of a team player, I’m afraid. It was my own fault that they dumped me off the label”. Much as I would like to believe all my favorite artists are nice people, I fear he is unlikely to have been unique.
So that conjunction led me to think about how our perception of an artist’s personality affects our appreciation of their music. My gut reaction was that art is not an aspect of morality, but thinking about it more seriously -and honestly – it is a more complex issue. For me, it depends in part on how much I liked the music to start with.
Both George Jones and Keith Whitley were destructive alcoholics who must have been very difficult to live with in real life. Knowing that does not affect my love of their often sublime music at all. George in particular actually used his alcoholism to create great music many times, in classic songs like ‘A Drunk Can’t Be A Man’, right up to ‘Ol’ George Stopped Drinking Today’. After he sobered up he even felt able to refer back jokingly to that period in songs like ‘No Show Jones’ and the video for ‘Honky Tonk Song’.
In contrast, I’ve never been able to think kindly of Troy Gentry since the tame bear-killing incident. But I was never a big fan of Montgomery Gentry to start with – I quite liked some of their singles but they never made it to my purchase list. Their chart success does not seem to have been much affected by the controversy – unlike the reaction of some Dixie Chicks fans to their political storm.
It has been suggested that Sara Evans’ messy divorce contributed to her slowing career in the last few years, and the breakdown of LeAnn Rimes’ marriage, and that of her new boyfriend, has attracted a lot of online opprobrium. Only a minority of country stars seem to find divorce hurts them professionally; perhaps it depends on the level of publicity, and who is perceived to be at fault, or perhaps it depends partly on their fans’ level of investment in their public persona?
Country music is so often rooted in real experience that sympathising with an artist’s real-life tribulations often feeds into our appreciation of their music – think of Loretta Lynn’s autobiographical songs about living with a philandering husband and Tammy Wynette’s many tales of marital breakdown which mirrored her own chequered marital career. There is an added frisson listening to Vern Gosdin’s deeply sad Alone album knowing it was largely inspired by the collapse of his marriage. Hearing that an artist wrote a particular love song for his or her spouse (for instance, when Trace Adkins wrote ‘The Rest Of Mine’ for his wedding) often makes it strike home with a little more emotional force. But then if the relationship fails, does the song stand on its own? I confess personally to finding Vince Gill’s ‘I Still Believe In You’ less resonant as a love song after he left his first wife (for whom it had been written) – but my own reaction is also colored by that song’s conection for me with a failed relationship of my own. Many years later, I can appreciate the song’s beauty again in its own right.
In parallel with these thougts about whether an artist’s bad behavior affects how their music is perceived, I have noticed that many younger fans appear to believe that their special favorite should be immune from criticism because of that artist’s sterling character. Personally, I think being either a nice person or a total jerk does not affect musical ability – although either may conceivably limit someone’s ability to convey a full range of emotions in a song. But what we know about the background does often affect us, sometimes subliminally.
What do you think? Have you ever soured on an artist because of their offstage actions?