I love music. In a world of chaos, it is the only thing that can make me feel somewhat simpatico with existence. In a world of vices with their inherent negative tradeoffs, music is one of the few things that can bring you immense joy and pleasure without some sort of negative counterbalance, like a hangover, or addiction or health concerns, or emotional entanglement. And something tells me that if you’ve found yourself on a niche website called “Saving Country Music,” you probably feel similarly.
Expressing what music means to all of us is the ever-present challenge of a music writer. Whether it’s music as a concept, country music in general, or a song or album specifically, attempting to describe the deep emotions music makes us feel is the evergreen struggle of the music journalist, but one that is rewarding in the fleeting moments your words rise to meet this challenge. Music expresses emotions mere words just rarely can, so the written or spoken medium is ultimately at a disadvantage. It’s also one of the few things left that can bring people together across the cultural divide.
A few days ago, someone sent me a video of professor, thinker, and author Jordan Peterson talking about music on The Joe Rogan Experience. Even as toxic and polarizing as the name “Joe Rogan” is at the moment, “Jordan Peterson” takes it to another stratosphere, specifically from all of the incessant articles and think pieces about the toxicity of these two men, the characterizations of them being from the alt-right, and other hand wringing that goes along with merely mentioning their names before whatever subject at hand is even broached.
But in the 14 years of covering country music, and when composing the some 7,100 articles I have published on this site alone, I have never seen a more stunning explanation of not just what music is, but why it is so important, and why it affects us all like it does, than the one Jordan Peterson delivered on The Joe Rogan Experience. Jordan Peterson is considered by his critics as one of the most cold-hearted and callous intellectuals of our era from his severe adherence to the doctrines of self-reliance, and his ruthless dismantling of identity politics. To see him break down emotionally is hard to even comprehend, no matter what the subject matter or context happens to be. For that subject to be music makes it all the more exceptional.
And for all of the examples that Jordan Peterson could have cited in his explanation of what music is and why it moves us—concertos, Russian symphonies, soaring pop stars like Adele or Jennifer Hudson—for his muse to be Kelley’s Heroes, which is the long-standing house band of Robert’s Western World bred from the Don Kelley Band of all outfits—Robert’s being the very home and epicenter of the country music revolution and the last bastion of sanity on Lower Broadway—makes the moment even more exceptional, and specifically germane to this website.
Whatever you think of Jordan Peterson, or Joe Rogan, just try and clear you mind for a second, and as a music fan, watch this:
Of course, Joe Rogan had a somewhat basic contribution by citing Jimi Hendrix. Not that Jimi Hendrix isn’t an example of what’s being spoken about, because he is. But it’s just such a default example, as opposed to the specific example Peterson cited of “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” from Kelley’s Heroes, at Robert’s Western World, with who knows what virtuoso on guitar, maybe Daniel Donato, maybe Brent Mason, maybe Guthrie Trapp or Johnny Hiland, or Luke McQueary, or any number of guys who’ve filled that iconic spot in Kelley’s Heroes over the years.
But it’s Jordan Peterson’s words that ring so true, as he chokes back the emotion like he’s standing in the Robert’s Western World crowd as he speaks, overwhelmed by the joy and communion that music, and music only, can communicate.
Music is an analog of the structure of existence itself, and it calls to you to take part in that … And then music does something else too. It puts you on the border of chaos and order, because a boring song does exactly what you expect it to do, and gets dull very quickly, and an unlistenable song is so random you can’t follow it. And so what you want is predictability, with a leaven of unpredictability, and that puts you right on the edge. That’s the zone of proximal development.
And everyone is so taken by that because it lifts them out of the normality of their existence. You see this joy just transfuse them. And that’s because they got an intimation of genuine meaning. And it’s not amenable to rational criticism, which is the thing that struck me as so miraculous about music, and why it has this element of salvation. It puts you directly in touch with the meaning that sustains you in life, and it shows you what that would be, which is something like to observe the harmonious interplay of the patterns of being stacked upon one another, and then to bring yourself into alignment with that.
In a couple of paragraphs, Jordan Peterson explains what I have failed to explain in over 7,100 articles posted to this website. But I keep trying. And the principles about music that Jordan Peterson conveys here guide my hand every day as I try to share the gifts of music with an audience, because as Peterson also infers, your experience with music is heightened when you share it with another.
But there is a problem with all of this, isn’t there? For some, perhaps many who just read the preceding paragraphs, all the wisdom, all the beauty conveyed in that very intimate and expressive moment is tainted by the two individuals involved in it. Some, if not many, likely bailed before they even got to the quotes, or even bothered to watch the video. “Transphobe,” “Anti-Vaxxer,” “Alt-Right,” is what was triggered in their minds, irrespective of anything else. Similarly, some may see the name “Neil Young,” and immediately think “Commie,” “Censor,” “Liberal.” And this is the problem with all of society at the moment. And even though only one of these individuals is a musician, it’s specifically a music problem now too.
– – – – – – – –
Aside from recognizing the name, and having some periphery notion that he had something to do with the UFC, I really had no idea who Joe Rogan was until October of 2014 when Stugill Simpson appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience for the first time. Not really being a TV guy, I’d never seen an episode of Fear Factor, only caught parts and pieces of News Radio (when Joe Rogan still had hair), and had no clue he was a standup comedian at all. This occupation is apparently how Joe Rogan and Sturgill Simpson met.
“Dude! Sturgill’s on Rogan! Sturgill’s on Rogan!” I heard from probably a dozen readers that day in 2014, which meant virtually nothing to me, because I didn’t know Joe Rogan had a podcast either. This was a few months after Sturgill’s album Metamodern Sounds of Country Music had been released, and was setting the independent country world on fire. So I found the podcast on YouTube, cued it up, and my jaw hit the floor. 2 hours, and 56 minutes long? Are you kidding me? And I thought episodes of This American Life were involved. I’d never committed that much individual time to anything that didn’t feed me, fuck me, or help put a roof over my head.
But I listened. To the whole three hours. And it was awesome. And make no mistake, that Joe Rogan podcast episode in 2014 was monstrous for helping to put Sturgill Simpson on the map. It might have been the most significant moment in Sturgill Simpson’s entire career. Sturgill also appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience in April of 2016, and in March of 2018.
Shooter Jennings, Chris Stapleton, Gary Clark Jr., and Susanne Santo are also some names from the country and roots world who’ve appeared, and received a big boost from The Joe Rogan Experience, not to mention the mere mentions of artists such as Colter Wall, Tyler Childers, and others by Rogan on the podcast or on social media that has been significant in the development and growth of these artists and their careers, and independent country in general. You can watch the sales and streams spike in coordination with Joe Rogan mentions, and this is from a guy whose podcast really doesn’t have much to do with music at all, though he has had other music personalities on in the past too such as Jewel, and especially from the hip-hop world with guys like Snoop Dogg and Killer Mike.
Since the beginning of Saving Country Music, shining a spotlight on critical moments when celebrities and influencers shout out up-and-coming artists has been an emphasis, because so often this is when careers are made. Recently, Joe Rogan was at The White Horse in Austin, TX, which is Austin’s equivalent to Robert’s Western World in Nashville—a true honky tonk specializing in authentic country music. Rogan shot a video of and shouted out a local artist named Ellis Bullard, who just released a debut single called “Roller Coaster,” which right now sits atop the Saving Country Music Top 25 Playlist, and does so irrespective of the Joe Rogan shout out. Ellis Bullard has been working the honky tonks hard for a while, and is about to release his debut album. The video Rogan shot has now been viewed over a million times.
Ellis Bullard could very well be one of the next big artists to break out in independent country music, in part due to Joe Rogan. But just like the Jordan Peterson video, I was reluctant to share the news initially. Simply mentioning Joe Rogan would have immediately instigated a culture war fracas, and Ellis Bullard would have been an afterthought. That is the reality of anything involving Joe Rogan at the moment.
– – – – – – – – – –
In many respects, Neil Young suffers from the same fate as Joe Rogan, and Jordan Peterson—being immensely popular to many, while others experience an immediate visceral negative reaction by the mere mention of his name. Despite his polarizing nature, Neil Young deserves to be considered as one of the most important and prolific songwriters and musical performers of our time. Specific to country music, Neil Young’s string of albums Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After The Gold Rush, and Harvest released between 1969 and 1972 is as solid of a country music or country rock run of albums from any artist in any era, native to country music or otherwise. Of course, this is an opinion, but it’s an opinion of a staunch country music critic, not a rock critic with some country knowledge.
It was also the opinion of multiple country artists of the era. Waylon Jennings took Neil Young’s song “Are You Ready For The Country?” and reworked it into an Outlaw-era anthem, and made it the title track of his 1976 album. The Trio (Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt) covered Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush” on their second album. Neil Young featured Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me” on his After The Gold Rush album. Legendary steel guitar player Ben Keith was featured on Neil’s Harvest.
And of course, the songs “Southern Man” and “Alabama” can be found on these Neil Young country albums also—two of his most polarizing songs in his catalog, not because they lash out and criticize The South’s history of racism, but because they stereotyped everyone from the region with the same broad brush, without distinction or nuance. This was the issue Lynyrd Skynyrd took with them, and ultimately became the inspiration for “Sweet Home Alabama,” though later, the relationship between Young and Skynyrd was less heated, and more mutually respectful. Neil Young is an activist, and has been his entire career. He came up protesting the Vietnam War and helping lead the counterculture revolution playing in Buffalo Springfield. Nobody can be surprised that at 76 and in 2022, Neil Young is still standing for what he believes in, however you may feel about those beliefs.
In some respects, even if you are a Joe Rogan fan, you can’t blame Neil Young for ditching Spotify in protest. If the only thing you knew of Joe Rogan was what you read in the mainstream media instead of actually listening to his podcast—which is the state of the vast majority of Joe Rogan’s detractors (as pointed out in a now viral tweet by Edward Snoden)—you would think he is the most detestable human being on the planet. Hitlerian in scope.
But how many three-hour episodes of The Joe Rogan Experience has Neil Young sat through? The answer is likely near zero, similar to the people who will share hit pieces written and produced by the same legacy mainstream media Joe Rogan’s homespun operation is trouncing in ratings by 4 to 5 fold on a regular basis. Joe Rogan isn’t just bigger than any given cable news show by multiple multipliers, at any given time, he may be trouncing all cable news shows combined.
This right here—the above graph—is one of the many reasons there is a full on assault on The Joe Rogan Experience at the moment, and why there has been for the last couple of years. Cable news and the mainstream media are out to character assassinate Joe Rogan to hopefully earn back some of that market share they’ve lost to him.
But if these critics were familiar with the podcast, they would know that the vast majority of what happens on The Joe Rogan Experience is not only harmless, its often superfluous. The lion’s share of episodes are Joe Rogan interviewing his comedian buddies, UFC commentary, man bro car/cooking/hunting/exercise talk, and general interest stuff that might be conversationally entertaining, but not always particularly enriching unless your interest is generally aligned with whomever the guest is. That is why despite being drawn into the Joe Rogan podcast world by Sturgill Simpson’s appearance and other interesting personalities over the years, I never really became a Joe Rogan podcast guy.
But that doesn’t mean that Joe Rogan won’t drop a deep, heady episode with an important guest with a transformational perspective, or a few of them in a row. Some Joe Rogan podcasts can be downright life-altering with the amount of earth-shattering and perspective-changing information conveyed in them. It is these episodes that have made him so powerful, and also, so reviled and feared by his detractors and competitors.
Joe Rogan didn’t set out to be the biggest thing in all of American media. Joe Rogan just wanted to smoke pot with his comedian buddies and talk about aliens. No big media moguls or corporations were behind ensconcing Joe Rogan as the most powerful man in media. That is part of the problem. He’s not a machination of their own hand. He exists outside of the American corporate kleptocracy, and the uniparty industrial complex. He’s not in the pocket of Big Pharma or the American defense industry.
From the beginning, Joe Rogan was the guy that talked about the subjects the mainstream media ignored, glossed over, or outright lied about. He was talking to Sturgill Simpson, not Luke Bryan. He invited on the guests everyone wanted to hear from, but others wouldn’t allow a platform, and on the political left and the right. He was a consensus seeker busting through the purposeful bifurcation of America that keeps us all fighting each other and engaged with mainstream media that slants to one side or the other. Joe Rogan was a counter-puncher, and the other voice in American media. It just happens to be that over the last five years or so, the American mainstream media has so beclowned itself and fallen so demonstrably from grace due to ideological contagion, a cage-fighting commentator and 2nd rail comedian became the most trusted voice in all of America. Maybe he was not always right, but he’s always real.
As the monopoly on attention that the mainstream media has enjoyed for generations began to erode, and their quick, soundbite approach to media became exposed by long form commentary, Joe Rogan’s listenership expanded immensley, the knives came out from his competition. Soon he was branded “alt-right,” even though Joe Rogan endorsed Bernie Sanders in the last Presidential election, and had Bernie Sanders on his show, along with other left-leaning thinkers on a regular basis, while endorsing ideas such as universal healthcare, universal basic income, the forgiving of student debt, and other left-leaning issues, counterbalanced only by support of the 2nd Amendment, and his opposition to COVID-19 restrictions.
But where the right accepted Joe Rogan for his political beliefs that were counter to their own, the left attempted to banish him for having the audacity to platform thinkers from the right, like Jordan Peterson, and for sharing non-mainstream-approved ideas. Joe Rogan’s adversaries looked to make his name a reprehensible utterance in polite society. But of course, it not only failed, if fueled curiosity in what Joe Rogan was doing. As his name became ever-present in hit pieces that ran parallel to the constricting of allowed discourse in mainstream media and on social networks, Joe Rogan’s listenership swelled. Similar to what we’ve seen with Morgan Wallen in popular country music after an incident where the singer was caught using the N-word in a private moment with a friend, the more the media attempted to undermine Joe Rogan, the more his popularity soared.
Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and others that have decided to exit Spotify are doing so because they believe Joe Rogan was sharing “COVID-19 misinformation.” But what few are bringing up is that Joe Rogan was an unequivocal victim of COVID-19 misinformation himself, or at least the attempted one. In September of 2021 when Rogan contracted COVID, dozens of media outlets falsely claimed that Joe Rogan took horse dewormer to rid himself of the disease. Rolling Stone, CNN, and scores of other media outlets made the Joe Rogan horse dewormer story the centerpiece of their coverage on September 1st.
Before Joe Rogan had controversial COVID-19 guests on his podcast such as Dr. Peter McCullough or Dr. Robert Malone, the media looked to enact the kill shot on Joe Rogan by knowingly falsely claiming he took horse medication, and refusing to correct the record afterwards. But if you go to kill the king, you better land the shot. And instead, the media simply perjured themselves, proved their lack of credibility, and had even more people tuning into The Joe Rogan Experience to see what all the hubub was about, and apparently, finding favor with what they found. It’s also fair to wonder if by making Joe Rogan the public face of the COVID-19 counter-narrative, they compelled him to invite guests such Dr. Peter McCullough or Dr. Robert Malone on the podcast.
And Joe Rogan is right when he says that throughout the pandemic, there have been numerous ideas that initially if shared could have you stricken from social media, while they would never be discussed in the mainstream whatsoever, that ultimately proved to be true. As he said in his address/explanation/apology after Neil Young’s protest,
The problem that I have with the term “misinformation” is that many of the things that we thought of as misinformation just a short while ago are now accepted as fact, like for instance eight months ago if you said, ‘If you get vaccinated, you can still catch COVID and spread COVID, you would be removed from social media. They would ban you from certain platforms. Now, that’s accepted as fact. If you said, ‘I don’t think cloth masks work,’ you would be banned from social media. Now, that’s openly and repeatedly stated on CNN. If you said, ‘I think it’s possible that COVID-19 came from a lab,’ you would be banned from many social media platforms. Now, that’s on the cover of ‘Newsweek.’ All of those theories that at one point in time were banned, were openly discussed by those two men (Dr. Peter McCullough or Dr. Robert Malone) I had on my podcast that have been accused of dangerous misinformation.
I’m not here to defend the words, opinions, or characterizations of COVID data by Dr. Peter McCullough, or Dr. Robert Malone as expressed on The Joe Rogan Experience, or even Joe Rogan’s personal views on COVID-19 and vaccines, because I’m not a doctor, nor am I a COVID-19 expert. But what I will defend is the right for everyone to be allowed to express their opinion, because this is a fundamental right bestowed to all Americans.
It is distinctly anti-Democratic, illiberal, and un-American to attempt to stifle voices in opposition to you as opposed to defeating your positions in open dialogue. As Noam Chompsky once said, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” If you believe in the persuasion and validity of your position, and that it will win out when rigorously challenged in the marketplace of ideas, there is no reason to censor your opposition, especially since those censored ideas are only likely to crop up somewhere else where they won’t be challenged. It’s better to challenge those ideas head on when confronted with them.
Often when people look to stifle the voices of their opposition or work to assassinate the character of their intellectual adversaries, it’s because they know their arguments are flimsy, often because they’re not based in fact or truth, but strident ideology—the same strident ideology that confers you the grace to lie about someone or something, as long as you’re on the perceived right side of the moral arc.
Stifling voices also commonly happens to be decisively counter-productive. All that the attempts to disallow people from sharing dissenting viewpoints from the mainstream narrative about COVID-19 has done is made voices like Joe Rogan stronger. If Neil Young and others were successful in getting Spotify to kick Joe Rogan off the Spotify platform, or otherwise neuter him where he left under his own volition, what would happen? Would he just go away and be forgotten by history? Of course not. He would be welcomed somewhere else, or start his own proprietary network, and be even more popular, and more powerful for it. It’s also likely he would find that safe haven somewhere even farther to the right.
This is not to defend Joe Rogan and all of his opinions, only his right to have opinions, and to share them, and have others share his opinions through his platform. All Joe Rogan is doing is what Neil Young has been doing for his entire career (at least, up until recently), which is offering a perspective that is counter to the prevailing mainstream narrative, which even if it meets with widespread disagreement and condemnation, should still be allowed to be shared in the public marketplace, lest we allow bad ideas to prevail unchallenged, or fester in society. It’s also important that Neil Young is allowed his expression of protest, and leaving Spotify is his right.
Too often instances like the attempted cancellation of Joe Rogan take on the fever of a societal contagion, where people feel compelled to agree with the prevailing sentiment in their friend networks or sphere of influence, or end up being admonished or isolated themselves. This is how we saw the United States get into the war in Iraq under false pretenses, and eventually the cancellation of the (Dixie) Chicks in country music. The Chicks had the audacity to speak up against the prevailing mindset, and ultimately ended up on the right side of history.
Meanwhile, as we all scream back and forth at each other about the latest culture war clash, few are focused on how the military industrial complex and American mainstream media are a sabre rattling for a war in Ukraine that even the Ukrainian’s are saying America is overreacting about, and America has no vested interest in aside from helping to pad the pockets of defense contractors now that we’ve exited Afghanistan, which is suffering from historic famine in the wake of our exit.
It’s likely to be months and years before we are able to get far enough away from the COVID-19 pandemic to where we can truly judge all the decisions made with a cool mind and deep data. Until then, we should welcome criticism of consensus opinions. After all, dissenting viewpoint have already proven to be right on numerous occasions.
And yes, the way Spotify compensates artists and songwriters (or doesn’t), is certainly a dynamic to this story, but it also isn’t. When Neil Young decided to use his protest to partner with Amazon Music to offer four months free to new subscribers, the idea that any of this was about artist compensation in the streaming era went out the window.
Remember, when Apple Music first launched, Taylor Swift initially refused to allow her music to be on the platform because they were offering a free trial period as well. Apple Music later backed down. Now Neil Young and Amazon are using the same free trial which takes money directly out of the music economy as a promotional incentive against Spotify. Meanwhile, the effects on Spotify by the exit of Neil Young and others will be marginal, while the next place this story may turn is how dark money from private equity might have instigated the whole thing as a way to bank off of Spotify’s temporary stock plummet through hedge fund shorts.
But one fair concern here is how if artists and fans choose to flee Spotify for other platforms, and start to self-curate and stratify across streaming networks along ideological lines similar to how cable news networks cater to one side or the other, it will become just another bifurcation point of American society. We won’t even be able to stream music on the same platforms anymore, repulsed by our neighbors who dare listen to that service that Joe Rogan is on, or dare listen to the one he isn’t on.
It’s also unclear how much longer all the COVID-19 rhetoric and infighting will even be relevant anymore. Very likely, the pandemic is on its last legs, and countries like England and Denmark are already opening up in full and easing all restrictions. A recent Monmouth poll says now 70% of Americans are ready to move on. How we all feel about restrictions, masks, vaccines, and mandates may have a shelf life of weeks as Omicron streaks through the population, and quickly dissipates leaving the disease endemic … though of course, we’ve told this before.
– – – – – – – – – – –
The simple fact is that Joe Rogan and Neil Young probably have a lot more in common than they don’t. They’re both anti-establishment figures. They both have made careers challenging prevailing narratives. They both are distrusting of higher authority, and have made their names expressing as much. I would love to watch Neil Young on The Joe Rogan Experience. I think they would find a lot of common ground, and have a lot to discuss.
Because the thing is, most of this modern polarization boils down to bullshit. When two people meet face to face, in-person like what happens on The Joe Rogan Experience, all the acrimony sowed by social media and today’s journalism landscape tends to melt away. Adversaries become friends, differences are diminished in relation to similarities, and sometimes, alliances are even formed. That is what commonly happens on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and that is what the mainstream who relies on polarization is most afraid of.
The greatest sin of today’s media alignment is how it has turned us all against each other for the betterment of bottom lines and business models, and a side effect is the impinging on the ability of music to bring us all together through the principals Jordan Peterson so brilliantly and eloquently expressed on Joe Rogan’s podcast. As soon as music becomes the wedge between our similarities as opposed to the bridge between our differences, we will lose something way deeper than the ability to enjoy music together in a shared experience.
When you go to Robert’s Western World in Nashville, you see all kinds of people: genuine redneck honky-tonkers, throwback country & Western hipsters, and tourists from who knows where and all walks of life, and they’re all there enjoying the gift of music together.
Something tells me is that if you put Joe Rogan, Neil Young, and Jordan Peterson all together, standing in front of the Robert’s Western World stage, enjoying a Recession Special of a fried bologna sandwich, a Moon Pie, and a PBR, watching some of the greatest talent in the entire world like Brennen Leigh or Sarah Gayle Meech, the brotherhood of man would prevail. Maybe that’s fantasy. But if a rendition of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” can bring Jordan Peterson to tears, perhaps just about anything is possible through music.