There’s a sentence that’s deeply dreaded by those among us who try to get right with polydidacticism, whether in person or on dating profiles: “I listen to everything except country and rap.” Country and hip-hop—the two American musical forms with the longest and densest evolutionary tracks—are the genres most prone to criticism leveled against their supposed inauthenticity, the two genres that demand (or are perceived to demand) genuineness at an unprecedentedly granular level. Any medium or genre has, in the minds of cultural gatekeepers, to pass litmus tests; country and hip-hop have to pass an entire battery. Even the creators have to reaffirm their credentials to ensure that they’ve lived through their creative catalysts; notice how our subcategories are based on lifestyles, are “gangster rap” and “outlaw country.” Aside from the relevance-terriers like Taylor Swift and Drake, whose evolution is catalyzed solely by market share rather than creative shift, there’s no point in dissecting whether something is “lived” or “created.” We, as listener, allow a certain creative flexibility to our creators for most art (no one, after all, demands that speculative fiction authors be astronauts in addition to writers), but we have a hard time making that logical leap when it comes to the quintessentially American music of folk and hip-hop, two genres that have created full synthesis out of generations of elements without losing focus.
All of this got forefronted last month, as I watched Pearly Peach perform at a small coffeeshop in Hartsville. Pearly Peach, a four-piece folk outfit out of Cullowhee, NC, were starting up again after a hiatus; the band hadn’t performed together in eighteen months, and there was an initial idle disharmony (partially due to the venue’s poor construction—the stage space is heavy on the tin, creating a high bounceback), but one that was unpracticed rather than ill-prepared, with a willingness to experiment and test out new songs, including a lovely version of their “Palmetto Moon.” There’s a kind of shambolic and ramshackle pick-up-as-you-can nature to folk music—the music of the amateur, the dabbler, the polymath—that Pearly Peach embodies: a kind of sincerity that never falls into the twee self-regard that Americana acts tend to brush up against. In the loose-limbed performance—full of dropped beats and quick asides to the audience—they hit a rare kind of joy through connectivity, a freshness of performance that cut through the room. Indeed, the improvisational feeling of the show extended beyond that willingness to experiment with the setlist to the actual staging. Midway through a song, mandolinist Travis Lunsford dropped on the lyrics, prompting guitarist Ryan Prather to jump in for a full-band stumble-along. It was an honest moment, one where the tautness of live performance slips, and someone’s able to rush into the breach—an interesting contrast to later in the show, when Prather darted to the mike with a patterrap breakdown of everyone in the band and their roles and the swagger with which they perform them. That, in contrast, was an artificial note in an otherwise authentic performance; not a dealbreaker, and certainly still full of the kind of ramshackle joy with which Pearly Peach operates, but it was clearly honed and practiced, a memorable moment of something planned over a half-hour of freedom afforded by real, bone-deep love of the music. Authenticity may only come through living your art, but part of art is artifice, so acts like Pearly Peach, who are adept at merging the performance with the attitude, are worthy of praise. KRS ONE famously said the difference between “rap” and “hip-hop” is that “rap is something you do; hip-hop is something you live.” It’s a great rule of thumb, but it leaves something out: sometimes, if you do something long enough, it becomes something you live. It becomes who you are. That, then, is the real metric of authenticity: not how deeply something connects to an externally-applied definition of “real,” but the continued commitment of oneself to art.