In Bowling Green, Kentucky, there is a shortage of spare drummers. The local indie rock scene has grown so big that anyone in this college town of 60,000 who can keep a beat is currently embedded in a ridiculously-but-carefully named band like Morning Teleportation or Buffalo Rodeo. And many of these bands are starting to tour around the country, making names for themselves on a national level. How did this Southern town become a Mecca for hipster music?
"When a band like Cage breaks out, it shows everyone that you can try something crazy. You can leave Bowling Green."
Journalist Craig Fehrman trekked to the source to find out. In his new Kindle Single, Home Grown: Cage the Elephant and the Making of a Modern Music Scene, he finds that a unique combination of factors has created the perfect environment for great new bands to emerge. The most important ingredient, he writes, is Cage the Elephant itself, a local band turned megatour headliner that refuses to forget its roots, and now works hard to promote other Bowling Green acts..In the following interview, edited for clarity, Fehrmanwho's previously written for Gelftells us how he ended up in small town Kentucky, why musicians are like basketball players, and why some bands make it and others don't.
Gelf Magazine: You're basically a polymath, covering everything from books to politics to sports. But I haven’t seen that you’ve covered much music before. How did you decide to write about Cage the Elephant?
Craig Fehrman: Well, the reason I'm a polymath is that I get more excited by ideas than by narratives or reportorial beats. It's an ugly vestige from my academic days, sort of like the word "vestige."
Anyway, when I find an idea I like I just dive in. I grew up in a small town in southern Indiana, and I've always been fascinated by creative types who grow up in the middle of nowhere and then manage to "escape." It seems like this happens more often with musicians than with anyone elseI wish someone would do a study on this, actuallyand at some point I decided I wanted to understand how and why it occurred. So I started reading up on various rock bands, looking for the right case study. Within ten minutes of reading about Cage, I knew their relationship to Bowling Green was an even better story than I'd hoped for.
Craig Fehrman: Hmm. I think the most obvious element is that rock's a more populist form. A lot more people listen to radio rock than read literary fiction or watch Criterion Collection DVDs, right? Especially in places like Bowling Green. Music also hits you at the perfect timeif you're going to do something stupid like pursue a career in the arts, what better time to try it than at 18 or 20? That's when most people are most into music. Also, the basic equipment remains easy to find. (Every pawnshop in Kentucky's got you covered.) Finally, and this is total speculation, but I wonder if it has something to do with the size of your average band. It must be easier to push yourself when your four best friends are pushing, too. If you're a writer, you're doing it almost totally alone. If you're a director, you're going to need way more than four friends.
Not that this stopped the legendary horror director John Carpenter. Did I mention he's from Bowling Green? And that my Single has a long exclusive interview with him?
Gelf Magazine: How much of "making it" in the music world is tied to talent, as opposed to, say connections or smart touring or whatever?
Craig Fehrman: In many ways, my Single is a 20,000-word answer to that question. There's no question Cage got luckybeing born in a town an hour outside of Nashville, developing the right sound at the right time, and so on. But there's also no question that they're terrific performers, songwriters, and brand managers. They got help, but they worked hard. They played more than 150 small-time showsand that was in their high school band, the one before Cage. Maybe their biggest talent was just being stubborn. One of the guys put it this way: "I remember thinking, no one’s going to discover us in Bowling Green. Some guy from L.A. is not just going to be passing through. We knew we had to leave. We knew we had to give ourselves no other option.”
Gelf Magazine: Why did you decide to tell this story as a Kindle single? What was the process like?
Craig Fehrman: Honestly, I tried pitching this story to magazines first. While I've been reading and enjoying Singles since Oliver Broudy's The Saint came out in 2011, I thought of this as more of a 5,000 word story. But it was hard to find the right fitone kind of magazine thought Cage was too "pop," while another kind of magazine thought writing about their hometown was too "boring." Eventually, I emailed Dave Blum at Amazon. I'd never met him before, but he was nice enough to read my pitch and invite me to New York to talk.
After that, he said let's do it. And I'm really glad he did, because once I got to Bowling Green I realized this story needed 20,000 words. Both kinds of magazine would have lopped off my favorite stuffthe profile of the obsessive radio DJ, the ode to the dive bar, the night I spent hanging out with the younger bands at a house show. But the really interesting thing is why Cage agreed to participate. They're a pretty big band, and a Single won't give them the kind of exposure a magazine story might. I just chalk it up as more evidence of how much they care about their hometown.
Gelf Magazine: Every time I hear a description of an iconoclastic lead singer, I think of Stillwater's Jeff Bebe, whom I imagine to be the preening id of the various rockers Cameron Crowe covered as a journalist for Rolling Stone. You have a lot to say about Cage's Matthew Schultz, but you don’t mention whether his outlandishness is self-aware. Do you think he plays to the stereotype?
Craig Fehrman: That's a good question. I think as a younger guy he may have done so, at least in interviews. One thing I learned while reporting this is that the parents of the guys in Cage, whom they'd often described as "Jesus freaks," were actually very supportive and even ex-musicians themselves. As Matt told me, "We played into that because we saw it was something the press liked."
But I don't think Matt plays into anything once he gets on stagehe's an insanely charismatic frontman, but in order to be that I think he almost has to become a different person. That in itself is sort of a rock cliché, but I think when you read about Matt's childhood, which was rough not because of his parents but because of his own issues with mental health, you see that he's always been a guy with two sides. Music's just the healthiest way for him to channel that.
Gelf Magazine: Cage the Elephant goes above and beyond in terms of promoting other Bowling Green bands with the Starry Nights festival, the small label, and the mentoring. Is this a unique thing or do other big time bands do similar things?
Craig Fehrman: Other bands definitely do this. For instance, David Bevan recently wrote a really cool Spin story about Superchunk and their famous Merge label in North Carolina. But I think Cage has started out awfully young. (Most of the guys are not yet 30.) The other thing is I think we'll see more and more of this behavior. It's becoming pretty clear that the Internet, far from nurturing "the long tail," has just consolidated the power of the biggest stars. So if you care about diverse music and new bandsand the guys in Cage clearly dothen you're going to need the stars to go out of their way to help the little guys.
Gelf Magazine: Is there a sports equivalent to the Bowling Green music scenewhere a bunch of factors combine to create positive feedback to produce lots of examples of excellence?
Craig Fehrman: Will you call me a homer if I say Indiana basketball? But seriously: per capita, the state produces way more high school hoops talent than it should. The cycle started a century ago, when Indiana's awful weather and farm-life rhythms made basketball the perfect sport. And while the passion has waned a bitit's not Hoosiers any morethere are still enough traditions, resources, and role models to keep the ball rolling. Indiana's AAU teams are awesome now. Nobody talks about that because they're too busy pretending Butler basketball is some kind of heartwarming Cinderella. But it all belongs to the same lineage.
Gelf Magazine: What do you think it means that residents of small American cities seem to feel such pride in their ties to celebrities, however tenuous?
Craig Fehrman: I guess there's a positive answer and a cynical one. The positive answer is that when you grow up in a place like Bowling Green your expectations and dreams can feel limitedit's easy to slip into the college-house-kids track. (Which is not a bad track.) But when a band like Cage breaks out, it shows everyone that not just success is possible, but failure is possible, too. You can try something crazy. You can leave Bowling Green.
The cynical answer is that everyone wants to be famous (not almost famous, I tell you, but famous!). I write about this at the end of the Singlewatching Cage throw this epic 23-band festival for their tiny hometown and then seeing these parasitic people crowd the backstage. I spent a lot of time in Bowling Green. The other musicians never hassled Cage, and Cage's fans never hassled Cage. It was only that group in the middle, a lot of whom probably hail from Bowling Green. They just want the fame.