Louisville and "The Buzz"

By Paul Moffett

In case you haven't heard, Playboy magazine labeled Louisville a "Music Mecca" in the "Buzz" section of their April issue. Two other cities were also listed: Bristol, England and Austin, Texas.

This news has been met with responses that range from outright disbelief to unrestrained glee and all points between. The Courier-Journal's Jeffrey Lee Puckett, in a fit of journalistic integrity, questioned the music editor of Playboy. He determined that Playboy's admittedly subjective poll of music writers around the country was, after all, a misconception, based primarily on those music writers' tastes for and knowledge of for Squirrel Bait and Slint, Kinghorse, Love Jones and Rodan. Those media writers knew nothing of Days of the New and Edenstreet.

We are invited, therefore, to mark down Louisville's "Music Mecca" label as more over-the-top hype of this boring, middle-class city, right up there with the "World Class City" motto of some years back.

Perhaps we should. Perhaps we shouldn't.

Two factors generally drive "hot music scenes": youth and numbers, usually in the form of a large population of young people at a university with many living on campus or in the middle of a large, densely populated city. In Austin, Texas, the average age is around twenty-four, particularly when the University of Texas is in full swing and there are thirty-something thousand students looking to be entertained. In Louisville, the average age is closer to thirty-four.

Also, Louisville does not have that large university with lots of on-campus housing. U of L is a "Metro" school, with students who live away from the campus and go home at night. There isn't a 'bar strip' near the school where bands could find steady paying work.

The Playboy listing and the C-J article both focused on 'new' popular music, of the sort suitable for airplay in one of the giant commercial radio formats. In short, the music of the young, who buy most of the recordings by new acts and go out to nightclubs and concerts to hear those acts.

The problem with assessments like Playboy's is that Louisville is a musical 'niche' city, rather like the many neighborhoods that dot the town. Any given neighborhood is small in population but add them together and you have a city. Ditto the music scene.

Consider that Louisville is home to the National Quartet Convention, which brings some twenty thousand people to town every year for a gospel music trade show. Of course, gospel music isn't 'really' part of a music scene and gets little respect from 'real' musicians. Contemporary Christian music is likewise ignored, although anyone with unbiased ears who hears Louisville resident and multiple award winner Larnelle Harris sing can only sing his praises in return.

Take note of the resurgence of bluegrass in Louisville, the town where a quarter of a million people or so showed up for the Bluegrass Festivals in the late Seventies and early Eighties. After years when you couldn't hear bluegrass in town except on the radio, the International Bluegrass Music Association's trade show has moved to downtown and the three-day Fan Fest was a great success.

Observe that Louisville is home to several large barbershop choruses, both men's and women's grous, from which have come several internationally ranked quartets. That 'scene' is strong enough that the Louisville Thoroughbreds own a former church building that they have converted into a rehearsal hall.

Tally up the number of musical organizations that have existed here for years: the Kyana Blues Society; the Louisville Mandolin Orchestra; the Bach Society; the Dulcimer Society; the Pedal Steel Society; the Louisville Jazz Society; the Chamber Music Society and so on and on. These groups seldom attract the attention of the music media.

Then there are the "real" music organizations: the Louisville Orchestra and the Kentucky Opera, both well-respected around the country. The Louisville Orchestra's series of recordings in the Fifites were internationally known.

Louisville stages events like the Kentucky Music Weekend, the Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Jazz in Central Park; every Derby Chow Wagon and last year's Rockin' at Riverpoints Festival. Think of an event and, as often as note, there's live music being staged at it.

In spite of the absence of a large university, Louisville manages to have three public stations, two of which play music that is not enthralled to commercialism. The rest, of course, are dominated by out-of-town companies in league with the large record labels, but even some of those stations sneak in Louisville-orginated music now and again.

Louisville is, finally, a source, a wellspring of music. Everybody and her aunt plays an instrument, every other house on the block has a songwriter inside, scribbling away. Live music, professional and homemade, is as much an integral part of Louisville as the Derby or more so.

So, is Louisville a music mecca? The answer is unequivically "yes," whether or not the recording industry finds what it seeks here. We would be happy if they did; the cash flow from such deals would improve things considerably, but live music in Louisville will continue to be ubiquitous, regardless of what happens with the rockers and the record companies.