I left Los Angeles around midnight with few possessions. Little did I know I’d soon be in the land of the flyover people. It’s a sad place. They call the USA a fast-food nation, yet, driving across it, in many parts you can’t locate a Starbucks for more than two miles off the interstate without a GPS system and a prayer, the latter of which are plentiful. My destination was Omaha. I hoped Nebraska might offer some relief. No more cowboys or casinos. No more endless mountainous country. Just corn and flat, fertile land.
I intended to write about Omaha’s grassroots music scene and meet those responsible for Saddle Creek, the record label at its heart. The collective has grown to have an outsize influence on the inbred world of independent rock, drawing the attention of A&R executives on the West Coast and magazine editors back East. Last year the buzz culminated when one band, Bright Eyes, began to get some mainstream attention for their record Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. It was featured inThe New York Times Magazine and Rolling Stone, and the group appeared on the David Letterman show, where Dave joked about the fact that you could buy the record on vinyl.
The “group” is actually the project of one 23-year-old manchild, Conor Oberst, and whoever he can get to join him. Last year his collaborators began to grow more interesting. On the professional side, Sony Music gave him a publishing deal, putting him in the company of Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. On the personal side, Peoplemagazine photographed him kissing Winona Ryder in a Los Angeles parking lot, soon after two sold-out shows at the Henry Fonda Theater. Lifted has sold well over 100,000 copies, a staggering number for an indie.
For some, however, the actual music has been the source of much vexation. Oberst’s voice is a distraught, post-adolescent warble. Though it’s rightfully gotten him tagged as a Gen Y Bob Dylan, Oberst’s persona seems like an adaptation of Dylan at his worst — impetuous, portentous, yet without gravitas. For many over the age of 21, that’s enough reason to dislike him. There’s no denying, however, that there’s something special in the music, something bold, and forged at the intersection of ambition and youth.