Does Musical Geography Still Matter?

Sorry my blog posts have been a bit scarce lately. A few weeks ago, my super-cool 91-year-old dad (who sometimes posts here) went to Joshua Tree, tripped, and fractured his hip. So to help out, I’ve been shuttling the 400 miles from my home in San Francisco to West Covina, the right-wing, smog-shrouded LA suburb where I grew up, and where Dad still lives with his equally cool wife. (He’s mending well, BTW, and is running his physical therapists ragged.)

On my last road trip, I got to thinking about musical geography in America, and how it once defined our music. Not too many decades ago, we associated musical styles with the regions that produced them. Cities had sounds: Detroit. Frisco. Philly. Memphis. Do those distinctions retain any meaning whatsoever? Or has music succumbed to the mass-media homogeneity that transformed the once vibrant medium of radio into the soulless monolith of Clear Channel, and once-glorious roadside America into an bleak expanse of Walmarts and Olive Gardens?

Should you embrace your hometown influences? Or flee them? [Pictured: West Covina dipshits.]

Should you embrace your hometown influences or flee them? (The dipshits I encountered on my last visit to West Covina made a strong case for “flee.”)

My general question is rhetorical — of course we’ve sacrificed regional color to a beige, big-box economy! But there’s a more specific underlying question: Does where you come from continue to have any bearing whatsoever on what your music sounds like? Is it different for a middle-aged guy like me — who spent at least a few formative years at a time when musical geography mattered — than for young musicians coming up today? And most important, what about you? Is where you learned to play reflected in how you play?

I’d fled LA literally and conceptually by the time I was 20. (A stupid move, perhaps — I’d probably have a more successful career had I stayed.) But do I still have Southern California in my hands? Have subsequent decades in Northern California overwritten them? Or does that stuff even matter anymore?

It’s hard to tell, looking at myself. I conform to some San Francisco musical stereotypes but not others. (I’m freaky and free-spirited, but I hate meandering stoner jams.) Meanwhile, LA continues to represent much I loathe musically, but I bear the permanent mark of the kitschy SoCal pop of the ’60s my mom played when I was a little kid. The Association, Herb Alpert, the Fifth Dimension. (You know — the real sound of the ’60s.) And while I’m probably just flattering myself, I’ve always felt a kinship with the warped perspectives on roots music provided by outsider Southern Californians like Waits, Cooder, and Van Vliet.

How about you? Does your country, state, or city color your music? Can we hear where you’re from when you strum?

20 comments to Does Musical Geography Still Matter?

  • I grew up in NJ, about 30 minutes from NYC. I'm not aware of a NY/metro sound, and the later Jersey shore sound is something I never associated with, but NYC was, and is a very cool place for music.

    My mom was a New Yorker, and a jazz singer, singing with big bands back in the day. My parents had me very late in life (my dad was 57 when I was born!) so I grew up with a lot of older music around. But as someone into rock and prog rock, I'd have to say that the UK was probably the biggest influence!

    And thank you for calling those dipshits dipshits! 🙂 Some people these days makes me want to find some other place to live, but I'm afraid there are dipships everywhere.

  • You can probably find any genre of music being played in just about any place now. That said, I think there will also be local heroes that remain under the radar to the greater world. Living in Colorado, I have been a huge Dave Beegle fan for years. I would guess most people outside of this area have ever heard of him.

    In addition, I think certain genres have more appeal in certain areas, but I am not that well traveled. Is country music popular in New York City? LA? It is certainly popular here, especially as you get more rural.

    Just my two cents.

  • NotSoFast

    Gifted and unique musicians probably drove regional music, too. People copied them and added onto the repertoire (if they could – just wanted a piece on Errol Garner… man!). Once sound traveled on airwaves the same thing happened but to much larger “regions”. With television networks the regions became continents.

    I think anyone my age, which is probably close to yours, was more influenced by what they heard distributed (tv, radio, records) than from what they heard locally. Unless they happened to be close to some world changing musician or were one themselves. The Ramones and Sex Pistols had an initial localized influence.

    Or, if they came from a family of musicians, they may have picked it up there, like Luther Dickinson.

    Bob Dylan really wasn’t from Minnesota, you know?

  • NotSoFast

    “wanted” means “watched”. Autocorrect!

    • joe

      I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I curse the day I chose a WordPress comments plug-in without user editing. And if I ever figure out a way to change without losing the huge archive of comments, I will. Sorry!

  • That's an annoyingly interesting question.

    While I won't consider myself middle-aged until somewhere around 65, I caught a bit of the musical geography thing you mention. And, growing up in Ireland, it was pretty much impossible to avoid exposure to the more parochial and 'traditional' end of things. In the right hands, Irish trad and even folk can be a fine thing but, even in my youth, much of it veered towards awful stuff, cynically designed to attract retirement-age American tourists. It's all inside me, though—good and bad. Some musical osmosis, impossible to avoid. How much of it gets out is difficult to say (and, as luck would have it, my playing's poor enough that it's difficult to recognise what I'm trying to do consciously, much less unconsciously).

    The brain assimilates stuff, though. Maybe it's telling that we all occasionally catch ourselves humming a tune we hate. Stupid brain.

    Glad your dad's on the mend.

  • Jay Quackenbush

    I think i sound like a kid who learned to play in seattle and boston in the nineties. And i think i here northwestenr distinctions in a lot of the music from here. I hear a lot of guitar players on the jazz scene who sound either very boston/berklee or very new york to me. And there are lots of guys whomhave that whole la/mi vibe

  • John Doe

    I think it does. I’m from a suburb of Dayton Ohio which has a surprisingly rich musical history. Bands like Guided By Voices, The Breeders, and Brainiac definitely had a huge effect on the local scene while I was growing up. There was lots of Funk in the 70’s and punk in the 80’s. There has defiantly always been a pretty large community of musicians in Dayton that have always feed off each other.

    It’s a really interesting question though. If the internet was around in the early eighties would there have been bands all over the country that sounded like REM and the B52’s?

    Don’t you ever find yourself speculating about the background of people you are playing with or listening to based on their style? I know I have in the past.

  • Tubejockey

    In the mass media age, you can choose to be influenced by whoever you choose. But much like slang, when something cool springs up, it spreads locally first. I am a Montanan who plays blues/rock/jazz/funk/zydeco, and married to a gospel/pop/rock/opera vocalist. And my kids are very confused.

  • My favorite bands all came out of Minneapolis. Husker Du, The Replacements, Soul Asylum. There’s a compilation album out there called Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit, full of Motor City bands playing garage rock and punk. Bands like The White Stripes, The Dirtbombs, The Detroit Cobras, The Soledad Brothers, The Von Bondies, etc. There is definitely a signature sound there. That’s as recent as 2001. And here’s the thing — a lot of these modern bands play on each others records and share band members. So inevitably, they’re going to have a communal feel. If the same guys are playing on the same tracks from the same bands in the same city — it’s going to have a distinct vibe.

  • el reclusa

    I feel that local/regional influence on sound WAS a thing, but much less so after the late ‘9os, rarly Aughts. There *used* to be more aesthetic connection in these parts then, for sure. My first “real”, gigging band was at the tail end of that “KC sound” thing in 2001-3ish. Then again, everybody always said we sounded like we were from Chicago, so…meh. I dunno.

    There’s definitely some sense of musical community here- and a lot of folks are in multiple bands- but as far as aesthetic sense, not so much anymore.

  • At least here in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, there doesn’t seem to be a well defined regional or southern sound. Perhaps this is due to it being a “college town”. Folks come here, rather than grow up here, and so they bring their own interests and preferences with them. There’s a little mixing, but not as much as you’d think. Folks that like bluegrass stick together and make more bluegrass and the folks that play punk stick together and make more punk etc.

  • Frank

    Hi Joe,
    What a great question. My immediate and simplistic thought is that todays music is heavily influenced by our global environment. However, it is obvious to me that their is some local effect. One of the things that stands out for me is that their is some plurality of music styles. As a former San Franciscan it seems to me that your music style has been influenced by your locality, that propensity for individualism and exploration. I think that the ability to be influenced by the local music scene largely depends on how engaged you are with the local music scene. I live in France and not engaged with the blues scene so I have no idea what it sounds like here. Reggae however has a big influence on the music scene here. And local friends who have had an active rock band here for 15 years are heavily influenced by the english rock scene because of its proximity.

  • Matt Hathaway

    Hi Joe,

    I think Bukowski said something along the lines of “in the future there will be fewer geniuses because people will be less isolated.”

    Not exactly the same thing you’re hitting on here…but maybe a close cousin.

    Anyhow, hope you are well & hi to E!

    ~ Matt

  • NicPic

    I don’t think it really matters any more…I grew up in the Greater Cleveland area… Here the big difference has been between the east side (where I’m from), And the west side. In the 70’s and 80’s the songwriters came from the west side and the more accomplished Musicians seemed to spawn in the east side. And there have been some great acts that have conglomerated. There were great bands Like the Adults from the west side and prog rock bands like Crack the Sky and Phill Keaggy’s Glass Harp that spawned on the east side. Theres guys around town who were semi famous like Michael Stanley. Marc Cohen and Benjamin Orr (the Cars). Cleveland in the 70’s made the careers of bands like Rush,Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush, Heart and James Gang (with Joe Walsh) just to name a few. Many played at the late Hank LoConti’s Agora Ballroom. Every Wednesday there was a featured simulcast via WMMS at the Agora called “The Coffe Break Concert” at noon. Many National acts like Bon Jovi got thier big breaks here.

  • I know this topic is old, but I've been thinking about this subject a bit lately, so of course I have thoughts I want to share.

    I grew up during what might be the last big "regional scene gone international", the Seattle scene of the early to mid 1990's. Of course, calling it the "Seattle" scene was a bit of a misnomer to begin with. First of all, it was really a Portland-Olympia-Seattle scene. Nirvana might be most representative of the scene in general (at least amongst the names who became nationally and internationally known), but most of the local bands one might go see at the time were much more influenced by The Pixies than Neal Young. The guy who crowned Young the "godfather of grunge" was from San Diego, not Seattle. People around my age who I meet, who started playing in the late 1980s to mid 90s, yeah, you can tell where they're from when they strum. I can't tell you how many people got hooked on guitar simply because Nirvana riffs were so damned easy to learn.
    By the way, Kurt Cobain was quoted as saying that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was his attempt to sound like the Pixies. If you compare the main riff to the chorus riff from The Pixie's "UMass", the influence is obvious. It's gotta be just a coincidence though, unless Kurt saw the song live, or heard it before release, as Nevermind was released only a day after Tromp Le Mond.

    However, when I talk to people who started playing only five years or more later, we can have long conversations about their influences without them ever once naming an artist who came from anywhere within a day's drive. That saddens me. When I want to feel better, I go here:, and get all nostalgic about my youth.

  • joe

    Interesting, Ritchie — thanks! I totally agree about the Pixies/Nirvana connection. Though the Pixies is turn took a lot from Hüsker Du. (The story goes, Charles’s first ad seeking bandmates said he was going for a cross between Hüsker Du and Peter, Paul & Mary.) I always associate what we now think of as Nirvana-style dynamics with Hüsker Du. Which takes as to Minnesota. Where there was definitely a regional sound in the ’80s, even if you don’t include Prince.

  • I was growing up in the SF Bay Area back when Metallica and thrash were becoming a thing, but we knew there were great punk and thrash bands in NY and LA, too. We traded bootleg cassettes as often as possible to hear new bands from other cities doing similar things to what we were at the time. Look at punk. You had Bad Religion out of SoCal, the Ramones out of NYC and the Clash from the UK, among many others, of course. A few years later we had OpIvy/Rancid, from the Bay Area using reggae influences like the Clash did, originally a very UK sound. I think there are regional flavors that develop in places but after the cat is out of the bag, well.. There are always some new Monkees to your old Beatles.

    • joe

      Oh, you’re taking me back. I was a young guitar teacher back in the ’80s, and when my students brought in thrash records like Kill ’Em All and Bonded by Blood, I flipped. I had precisely zero interest in metal before then, but the attitude and angularity won me over. It’s easy to forget how radical it was, that infusion of punk intensity. I’ve never been a metalhead, but I’ve been a thrash sympathizer since the get-go.

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