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Visitors to the Library of Congress, that temple of grammatical correctness, might be surprised to hear the phrases “y’all,” “ain’t” and “bless yer heart.” But those countrified expressions recently took center stage at the Library. And they’re fixin’ to make more frequent appearances in years to come as the Library’s dignified tone takes on a bit of a twang.
On Dec. 4, the LOC Jefferson Building’s Coolidge Auditorium hosted a concert as part of the Country Music Association Songwriters Series, the second country show held at the Library in 2010. Organizers have tentatively announced a third iteration of the series for the spring, and all signs point to a country music presence at the Library of Congress that is more visible than ever before.
Country music isn’t new to the LOC. In fact, Susan Vita and Dee Gallo, both employees in the Library’s music division, said the Library has the world’s largest collection of country music. That collection is made up primarily of copyright deposits — the “birth certificate of a song,” Gallo said.
But bringing actual country music performers to the Library was more of a risk, if only because country music doesn’t have the same fan base in Washington, D.C., as it does elsewhere in the country. Moreover, the Library’s concert venue traditionally hosts classical rather than contemporary musicians, but that has changed in recent times.
“If you look over the concert series offerings for the last 10 years, you’ll see we now do a balancing act between classical chamber music, American musical theater, jazz, we have blues and other things sometimes, and now, country,” said Vita, who is the head of the music division. “Because we’re not the classical music division — we’re the music division, and consequently, we try and reflect what we have in our collections.”
Gallo, the LOC music division’s supervisory librarian, found a compelling reason to bring live country music to Washington. She discovered that country music isn’t just a soundtrack for beer commercials.
In a study of music-themed research topics presented at the American Musicological Society, Gallo found that research is moving away from Euro-centric music and toward American styles.
“People are doing equivalent research on country as they’re doing on Beethoven,” she said.
The LOC and the CMA were brought together early this year by Jim Free, country music’s D.C. lobbyist and a friend of the Library. The CMA held a board of directors meeting in Washington in the spring, and Free worked with Vita to arrange a series of presentations and a one-off concert to coincide with the meeting, Vita said. Last week’s show built off that performance.
The Dec. 4 concert, headlined by Grammy-nominated quartet Little Big Town and featuring songwriters Bob DiPiero, Lori McKenna and Brett James, showcased some of country’s best acts while staying true to the LOC’s mission of telling the stories behind the songs.
The CMA Songwriters Series, which is in its seventh year and organized nine shows in 2010, has a similar purpose. The concerts were born at Joe’s Pub in New York City and are meant to give songwriters a venue to perform their own material. The combination of performers onstage was different at each event, and the only holdover was DiPiero, a gregarious songwriter originally from Ohio who serves as emcee.
“I wasn’t born in the South, but I got there as fast as I could,” he told the crowd Saturday as he introduced himself.
The artists took turns singing songs they had written — DiPiero has penned music for popular artists such as Tim McGraw, James is a star in the songwriting world and has worked with Carrie Underwood and Jon Bon Jovi, and McKenna has written for Faith Hill — and often sang along with their colleagues.
Some of the highlights included Little Big Town’s harmonious rendition of their most recent hit, “Little White Church”; James’ solo version of Kenny Chesney’s “Out Last Night”; and to close the show, a performance of the classic country anthem “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?,” with all seven artists performing together.
McKenna’s presence onstage added diversity to the show in a few ways. For one, she was the only female artist who performed solo, and her music, with its themes of raising a family, complemented DiPiero and James’ mainstream riffs on classic country topics like partying and chasing women. And McKenna, who grew up and lives in Massachusetts, is a true Northerner, prompting DiPiero to say, “She’s a Yankee, but we like her anyway.”
Over the years, DiPiero and other artists have found that their music resonates with fans, whether they are performing in the Deep South, along the Pacific coast or in Washington, D.C. Country music, they say, has nothing to do with geography — or labels.
“After shows, when we’re talking to some of the fans, what we get most of all is, ‘You know, I don’t even like country music, but whatever it is y’all are doing, I like,’ DiPiero said. “What we’re doing is just stripping it down to a great song by a real voice. At that point, it just comes down to good music or bad music. There’s no genre. You can hear the twang, but with a guitar, it could be a rock song, a folk song, country or something else.”
DiPiero, who performed at the Library in March and will return in the spring, expressed his excitement about the partnership between the Library and the CMA in a uniquely Southern way.
“I feel like a missionary, preaching the hillbilly gospel,” he said.