Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ms. Mankato about (pretty) volunteerism

Natalie Davis was crowned Miss Mankato on Saturday. One of the weird parts of that, for me, is that I actually had a hand in crowning her. Anyone who knows me is having one of those "really?" moments right now. I'm not a beauty queen. I'm plain spoken, plain dressed, plain everything! So at first, it was quite strange for me to be there as a judge. But I have to say, I was surprised by what I learned.

Many of those girls were passionate about volunteerism and charity. It's not a requirement that the contestants be from Mankato or even go to school here, so some were new to the community. Yet, they had taken the time to set up appointments with various non-profits and other organizations so they could talk about their platforms and spread the word about the causes they were passionate about.

Certainly there were swimsuits and perfect hair-dos and high heels and pretty gowns. It's a pageant, and as many girls said, Ms. America is a business and they need a face on that business that can attract positive attention. But it was also about community and charity, and I was glad to see that.

Davis certainly had the whole package. She's beautiful, and she sang the highest operatic notes I've ever heard -- in person, at least. And she was also passionate about autism awareness. Having a brother with Asperger's instilled in her a drive to raise awareness about the disorder, and she has been doing a great job of it for years. Any organization in Mankato who receives a visit from Davis will certainly learn a lot.

Here's a bit more from Davis' website:

Natalie Davis is the current Miss Mankato. As an aspiring Miss Minnesota and Miss America (and of course, as a loving big sister), Natalie is dedicated to increasing awareness of Autism Spectrum Disorders in order to help her brother Trevor and others diagnosed with the disorder survive and thrive in today's society.

Natalie also works on behalf of the Miss America national platform, Children's Miracle Network (CMN), which raises money for children's hospitals across the nation. Gillette Children's Hospital, Minnesota's CMN hospital, is an happy place for kids to be during what could be a very tough hospital stay.

In addition to doing volunteer work, Natalie enjoys emceeing events, acting, modeling, and singing as both a soloist and as a member of the St. Olaf College Chapel Choir. She is looking forward to her third year at St. Olaf College, where she is majoring in Chemistry with concentrations in Education and Biomedical Studies.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Country is just pop in a cowboy hat

I'm not sure what the allure was, but I found myself tuning into the CMAs (in the background, anyway, while catching up on some reading) to watch Gwyneth Paltrow sing. I'm not even that big of a fan of Gwyneth. I think she's a good actress, but I don't follow her work. Yet, still, something about a movie star adding another "threat" to her resume had me interested.

I'm not a fan of country music, at least not contemporary country. I like Willie and Waylon and many other old-school country artists because what they sang, and the way they sang, was simply what came out of them. I have a hard time finding contemporary country artists that can say such a thing. Like pop music, it's a formulaic sound, with equal parts twang, porch stories and guitars.

Loretta Lynn was honored at the CMA's, and she seemed to exemplify the chasm between true roots country music and those of today. She grew up in a shack in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, learning to sing at church and reflecting that meager upbringing in every song she wrote. Even with her millions of dollars, she still could fit in easily in her old Kentucky neighborhood. She even had a replica of the shack she grew up in built on her land so she could go and sit and remember the good times of her youth, even though the family didn't have much. Marrying at age 13 or 14 to a man named Doo, much of her experiences learning to be a wife and mother are reflected in her songs. She says the majority of her songs are about her husband and their life together.

Her plain way of speaking, cutting right to the heart of things, is country music. The twang to her music isn't manufactured to make a song sound country. That's just the way she sounds. Loretta Lynn is country.

I don't have anything against some of the country artists honored at the CMAs Wednesday night. I've actually interviewed a few of them, including the big winner of the night, Miranda Lambert. She seems like a down-to-earth girl with a nice voice, and she seems truly humbled to have become such a success in the industry. Brad Paisley had his assistant call the newsroom at The Free Press to find out how to contact the winner of an essay contest we held: "Tell us how Brad Paisley's music has affected you personally, and you could win two tickets to the show." He wanted to invite the winner backstage to meet him. He also does a lot of great work for charity.

The Rascal Flatts are another story. I dislike their music, anyway, but I was talking to one of them on the phone in advance of their show at the civic center, and I said, "I really like that song Bless the Broken Road. I heard a great version by Melodie Crittenden a couple of years ago and loved it." And I'll never forget this ... He said, "No, that's our song. You couldn't have heard it before. That's our song." And I said, "Um, no, it's Marcus Hummon's song and a few people recorded it after him. You're just the latest to have done so." So then he said, "Hey Jay. That Broken Road song? That's our song, right?" And Jay yelled, "I dunno." ... So, needless to say, it doesn't seem as if the Rascal Flatts' music "simply comes out of them," considering they don't even know what music is theirs.

Anyhow, I guess my point is that with pop music, there's an understanding -- an accepted understanding -- that it's a business, a commodity. Katy Perry knows damn well "Teenage Dream" wasn't written because it speaks to her soul. It was written and recorded because it's a hit and it would sell records. She's fine with that. She's said that very thing. But there isn't that acknowledgment with a lot of these country artists, like the Flatts.

The music's formulaic, the twang is often manufactured, and many of the stories aren't reflections of their own experience (see Reba's "If I Were a Boy" cover during Wednesday's show). Contemporary country music is just pop wearing a cowboy hat.