Baltimore-based writer and filmmaker Travis Kitchens (@kitchens_travis) has had and very interesting last few weeks to say the least. After posting a scathing review of a February 1st Jason Aldean concert at the Baltimore Arena in the local Baltimore City Paper alternative newsweekly, all hell broke loose and the review was eventually censored after two advertisers put heavy pressure on the paper’s parent company. To make matters worse, the paper was currently in the process of being sold, and numerous controversial layoffs and other censored stories have been the talk of Baltimore’s journalism community.
Since not much was known about Kitchens, and since his censored review has raised numerous questions itself, Saving Country Music reached out to the freelance writer to clear up some open questions, and get his perspective on the City Paper censoring. It’s also important to point out that Travis Kitchens is originally from Kentucky, since his use of the term “redneck” in the review drew some people’s ire. Kitchens also likes to point out that City Paper sent him to the concert per the request of Jason Aldean’s PR firm.
What was your working relationship with the Baltimore City Paper? Freelancer? Staff Writer? What else do you do?
I’m a freelancer for City Paper, brought on by Baynard Woods. The Aldean review was my second live show review, the first being a Shooter Jennings show. I will still be writing my bi-monthly column, Strum Und Twang, on local country music events, after the transition to the new owners. Besides writing, I’m a documentary filmmaker and video producer. I have spent the last three years researching, shooting, and editing a film about country music titled, High On A Mountain. It focuses on the development of early country music, especially the migration of southerners to northern cities like Baltimore for factory jobs during World War II, using the microcosm of one artist, Zane Campbell. His aunt is a pretty famous country songwriter, Ola Belle Reed, and his family tree is full of musicians and songwriters going back almost 100 years. The entire trajectory of country music is contained in his DNA, and he’s a really fascinating visual artist and songwriter himself. I also have gotten into some producing work as a result of the film, so I guess I’m a record producer now too.
When you went to the Jason Aldean concert, did you truly think there was a chance that either you might enjoy it, or find something redeeming about the experience?
Yes. I go to a lot of different shows spanning pretty much every genre of music. However, I don’t listen to many of the big time country stars they play on the radio these days. I thought this would be an opportunity to see and hear one of the big timers for myself. I’m not a country music purist that thinks only traditional country will do and plenty of artists have put on quality arena-size shows through the years. I like rap, and I like country, so I’m not opposed to them being mixed on any ideological grounds. It’s just that Aldean is not a quality singer, songwriter, musician, or rapper. I haven’t read one serious review or comment on a review that contradicts this. As a cultural event that attracts a large number of people, it’s sort of interesting to think about why the people are attracted to his show and music, but that’s a different topic.
Clarify the use of the term “redneck” in the review.
The term “redneck” has been used by my friends, relatives, and people around me my entire life as a term of endearment and a means of self-identification. Aldean asked the crowd, “are there any rednecks in here tonight,” and the entire crowd roared. It seemed appropriate.
When you first turned in the review, was there any concern about its content? Is it out of the norm to see a review of that type to be featured through the paper?
No. The City Paper is staffed by professional journalists. Baynard Woods, who edited my article, expected me to give the show an honest review, and I did, and told me that he “loved it.” I haven’t read that many music reviews from City Paper because I attend most of the local country music shows. But I don’t think mine was a typical review because Aldean’s show is not the typical show. From what I understand, the tradition of alternative weeklies has been to give uncredentialed writers a platform to say what they think, and in that sense I don’t see my review as unusual.
How much do you think the review played into the layoffs at Baltimore City Paper, or any of the other decisions that were made as the paper prepares to be sold?
As far as I know, the layoffs had nothing to do with my review, that was a consequence of the Baltimore Sun buying City Paper. Whether or not they caved on pulling the story because they didn’t want to compromise the deal at a sensitive moment is another question, but I don’t know the answer.
How did you feel when the review was taken down?
I was surprised. Mainly because Aldean is such a big name why the hell would anyone care if I thought his show was a joke. Honestly I was a little flattered. Being banned or censored for being truthful is the highest honor for an artist. Though me being censored in this case has a lot to do with the circumstances, and not that I said anything particularly brilliant or that hadn’t been said before.
What did you learn as a writer, reviewer, and journalist from this experience?
Not much, though it confirmed several things. I thought some people would be angry if they had a chance to read it, because I was honest and my characterization of the show was accurate. Several people commented that I “needed to go back to school and learn how to write a proper review,” or something along those lines. I understand where that attitude comes from. Journalism, to a large extent, and the “experts” you see and hear in the media are now just vested interest, working for one side or the other. If you have school debt and kids and whatnot, and most people do, you can’t afford to tell the truth. I worked in the corporate world long enough to know how it works. You kiss up to private power and people like Aldean that have a ton of money and influence, and eventually you move up. If you go around being honest and accurate all the time, you will be shitcanned before you know it. That’s the value in independent media like Saving Country Music and Baltimore Brew. And even though City Paper was coerced into pulling my article, I’m impressed by several of the people there and their courage and commitment to telling the truth in the aftermath. They didn’t have to do that, and it would have benefited them to completely disown me.
If you had to name one positive thing about the Jason Aldean concert, what would it be?
Well I think the fact that people are getting together to enjoy something is a good thing. Unfortunately in this instance that thing is abominable. As far as I can tell, the corporatization of country music mirrors the corporatization of everything else in this country: communities, schools, worklife, other forms of art. The fans of this music, whether they know it or not, are participating in the dumbing down and stereotyping of an entire region of people. There is as much diversity in the south as anywhere else, if not more, but you don’t see that reflected in this music. It deadens the mind and kills interest in discovering your own past and culture. There are strong undertones of the “us against them” attitude prevalent in contemporary politics. It’s disempowering and promotes the idea that the only values in life are getting fucked up and buying more products. It also promotes the myth of progress in music. Aldean and Florida Georgia Line both said numerous times that night, that they (meaning themselves and the crowd), were “changing country music history.” I agree with them. Wal-Mart also changed history, significantly in small communities like the one I come from, and it’s been completely destructive in some of the ways I already mentioned. The more consolidated and bureaucratic something becomes, the less humane it becomes, because no single person feels responsible for the overall outcomes. Country music is the opposite of that. It is the stories of everyday people and the full spectrum of real human emotions. It’s ironic that they use outlaw/rebel imagery and language in the music, because the effect, and it’s intentional, has been to create a bunch of moronic conformists by parading some buffoon in front of the crowd who supposedly shares their values and interests. Nothing could be further from the truth.