Q&A With NPR Music Critic Ann Powers

Adding to all of the hoopla surrounding the Drive-By Truckers’ homecoming residency at the 40 Watt this weekend, NPR Music’s Ann Powers makes a stop in town Thursday to have a public chat with DBT frontman Patterson Hood. Flagpole caught up with Powers via email to talk about her appearance on campus, the role of a critic in today’s media environment and the Athens scene right now.

Flagpole: How did the UGA event come together?

Ann Powers: I’ve known Patterson for a long time, since my husband, Eric Weisbard, and I stumbled upon the Truckers performing at a Pittsburgh insurgent country event in 1999. We’ve become better acquainted since Eric and I moved to Tuscaloosa when Eric got a job teaching in American Studies at UA. Last fall, Patterson came to town to do an on-campus event, and asked me to join him. After talking for a while and realizing we were both obsessed with the television show “Rectify,” we decided to focus that conversation on our favorite Southern musicians and writers.

This one we’re making both broader and more personal—each of us is going to choose an artistic touchstone from various points in our lives (18, 25, 35 and 45) and then we’ll discuss how those works shaped our own sensibilities. We will talk about books and movies, but music will be the main focus. 

FP: What is the role of a music critic in today’s digital environment?

AP: There’s just a sea of stuff out there. Critics help people navigate it. That can happen in a few different ways. We pull out choice stuff and share it with people. For example, being in Alabama meant I could turn many folks onto the Alabama Shakes and St. Paul and the Broken Bones early on. So we are the ears on the front lines, turning people on. When it comes to mainstream stuff, the function is different—it’s more about contextualizing and leading conversations. I’ve been immersed in popular music for 25-plus years, and I’ve studied a lot of musical history, too. I try to show how current pop events—say, the latest Grammy kerfuffle, or a monster hit single like “Uptown Funk!”—reflect both the long history of pop and the current cultural climate. And, hopefully, I provide some emotional illumination too, some wisdom about why music makes us feel what it makes us feel. 

You’re going to check out the new Kendrick Lamar album no matter what. Me telling you it’s good, bad or OK just doesn’t matter.

The main change in the digital environment is that people can listen to music instantly, so the evaluative role is less important when it comes to artists most listeners already know about. You’re going to check out the new Kendrick Lamar album no matter what. Me telling you it’s good, bad or OK just doesn’t matter. Me pointing out how certain sounds or musical structures work, what issues or ideas may have inspired Kendrick, or how his work speaks to other art works out there—that might be useful to you as a reader and a listener.

FP: NPR has become a wonderful resource for people looking to discover new music. What accounts for NPR Music’s cultural currency?

AP: Our staff is remarkable. Everyone is a massively passionate music fan with his or her own considerable expertise. This means we can have a truly eclectic set of offerings, and each is as rewarding as the next. Also, obviously, because we’re rooted in radio, multimedia is fundamental. “All Songs Considered” is the very model of a great podcast. Our video work, whether concert footage or our Field Recordings, rivals anyone’s. Our musical streams are curated so well. It’s just a ton of super high-quality stuff from people who breathe music and have the skill to share it in remarkable ways.

FP: Are you familiar with what’s going on in the Athens scene these days?

AP: I’m actually really excited about Jay Gonzalez’s The Bitter Suite. I discovered it surfing Kickstarter a few months ago. Jay is such an imaginative player on keyboards with the Truckers, and I love this thing he’s built, something more unified than are most albums but still relating distinctly to the pop song form—he took inspirations from bands like the Who and the Kinks. He’s going to perform with some local kids from Camp Amped, the Nuci’s Space after-school program. More widely speaking, obviously I love anything associated with of Montreal—Kishi Bashi, Yip Deceiver—and there’s this jazz band, Kenosha Kid, I’d like to see live. But you tell me!

FP: I’m guessing that you’ll be sticking around for DBT’s homecoming. What do you expect for these shows and your visit to Athens?

AP: It’s always great to see a band in a venue they love, surrounded by family and friends. And Nuci’s Space is a remarkable project, something that’s so important. So I’m just thrilled to be a part of that on any level. As for extra-musical activities, I’d like to go thrifting. I need an outfit for the big Tuscaloosa Mardi Gras drag ball, which is happening when I get back. I bet you have some good vintage shops in this town!