Amarillo Ramp: Minimalism and Country Music on the American Highway
By Michael BlairDecember 9, 2015
Left: Robert Smithson in Nancy Holt and Smithson’s Mono Lake, 1968-2004
IN JULY 1968, the artist Robert Smithson — en route to Mono Lake, California, in search of burnt volcanic rocks — stopped for a night in Las Vegas to see a Waylon Jennings concert. In Nancy Holt and Smithson’s travel movie Mono Lake, you can see Smithson rolling down desert roads in cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat, chain-smoking next to a tinny transistor radio blasting Waylon’s 1966 hit “Stop The World (And Let Me Off).” One hand pushes a lit cigarette up to his lips, the other flicks through a pamphlet titled “Rock Hounding Out of Bishop.” For a downtown minimalist like Smithson, it’s a startling get-up. He’s far from the cool, turtlenecked Donald Judd who appeared just two years earlier in the haute spreads of Harper’s Bazaar. This Smithson’s a cowboy and a rock hound, posed with as much come-at-me bravado as the portrait of Walt Whitman stenciled onto the frontispiece of Leaves of Grass. It’s 1968, after all, and everyone is headed west and tossing their blazers to the wind. Seen somersaulting down hills of loose ashen rock and filtered through the fuzzy colors of a home movie, Smithson could fit equally in a frame of Easy Rider or among the crowd at Monterey Pop Festival. Standing at the edge of a radically new kind of art (now interchangeably called land art or earthworks), Smithson seemed primed to throw in his hat with the utopian spirit of psychedelic rock. Instead, he tunes the radio over to Waylon’s “folk-country” working-class anthems. Just one year after the Summer of Love, Smithson chose Vegas and Waylon’s “Stop The World (And Let Me Off)” over San Francisco with flowers in his hair. What drew an artist like Smithson, who was fleeing the white walls and white collars of the New York art world, to the whiskey-soaked, hard-driving honky-tonk of Waylon Jennings? What might this specific meeting say about the connection between minimalism and country music?
Robert Smithson in Mono Lake
Donald Judd with Julie Finch in Harper’s Bazaar, 1966
Smithson himself didn’t leave many clues. Beyond tapping his boots to Jennings in Mono Lake, he hardly mentioned country music in the writings and films produced to supplement his artworks. Recent assessments of the artist, however, have begun to trace the wider-brimmed outline of his cowboy concerns. The catalogue of a 2004 retrospective at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art included a list of Smithson’s vinyl collection that wedged Waylon alongside out-there San Francisco fare like Captain Beefheart. In a 2010 New York Times review of two gallery exhibitions documenting the history of Max’s Kansas City, Randy Kennedy described the famed downtown club as the kind of place where “earth artist Robert Smithson held court with Waylon Jennings.” It’s unclear to what extent Smithson and Jennings could be called actual friends, but, at Max’s, their association folded neatly into a downtown New York bent on erasing distinctions between high art and low pop. In this 30-block alternate universe, artist Dan Graham explored the spiritual underpinnings of rock and punk in the video Rock My Religion and future Lightning Field earth artist Walter De Maria played drums in an early lineup of The Velvet Underground. Yet Smithson ultimately chose to ditch the open-ended New York world, lighting out for less happening territories like northwestern Utah and southern Texas. Whether his drinks with Waylon at Max’s encouraged this move or not, Smithson’s journey out of the city meant going, to a certain extent, country, and entering a cultural landscape far different from the one he knew in New York
Even as Waylon stood at the vanguard of the Nashville scene in the late 1960s, country music remained a thoroughly regional music. When Smithson made his California rock-hounding trip in 1968, most if not all contemporary country came straight out of Nashville’s slick, factory-line studio system. The guitars sounded twangy and the lyrics sounded homespun, but the production garnished songs with gobs of bubblegum strings, background singers, and every other kind of multi-tracked studio accoutrement imaginable. Nashville had none of the freeform directness of rock ’n’ roll and it didn’t have much lowdown, vernacular mystique either. Those in search of an older, weirder American sound steered their station wagons clear of Nashville and drove into the Deep South on “record hunting” excursions, tracking down long-lost 1920s-era country blues and “hillbilly” rags pressed on huge beeswax cylinders that spun at 78 revolutions per minute. What Nashville country did have, however, was a large, dedicated blue collar audience who lived throughout the American West and South. More than any other pop music genre, country firmly tied itself to a particular set of people living in particular places. Jennings, who got his start in rock ’n’ roll as a member of Buddy Holly’s band, hated the overblown Nashville sound; but he loved the way his Nashville records opened the door to packed honky-tonks in south Georgia and west Texas, where drinkers and dancers knew every word to every song he sang. By going commercial, Jennings got to go back underground.
As Jennings’s tours took him through forgotten cities and towns in the South and West, he might have crossed paths with his old Max’s Kansas City artist friends who continued to venture out to these unknown locales and the abandoned, once-industrial landscapes surrounding them. Though each artist provided different reasons for their move, most agreed that, out in the country, they could find new space for work increasingly interested in placement and time. Nancy Holt bought up a tract of land in northwestern Utah to install Sun Tunnels and Michael Heizer motored up Nevada’s Mormon Mesa to scope out the site of Double Negative. Even Donald Judd of Harper’s Bazaar had, by the early 1970s, packed up his Plexiglas and begun installing it permanently in Marfa, Texas. Smithson stopped first in his home-state of New Jersey, then worked his way out to California, Utah and, finally, Texas. The farther west minimalist artists went, the more they began to appear in the outlaw guises of country musicians. Their cowboy attitude aligned them with a masculine, working-class western culture that found its other lasting expression in country music.
Waylon Jennings, 1965
Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels, 1976
In part because country and land art both lay claim to an otherwise artistically discarded southern and western landscape, the two art-forms inevitably pressed up against each other. Driving through Amarillo, Texas, you’ll pass Smithson’s unfinished earthwork Amarillo Ramp on the way to the office where Buddy Holly first applied to become a card-carrying professional musician in the mid-1950s. These connections are less conscious appropriations of each specific medium than they are reflections of the styles, sounds, and shapes of the landscape that both land art and country music share. The thrill of encountering an earthwork next to a square-dance isn’t quite the same as seeing a soup can painted on a canvas. Country music and land art interact because they stubbornly insist on placing themselves in the same desolate expanse of wilderness and sticking around for a long, long time.
In “Art and Objecthood,” the modernist art critic Michael Fried’s famous 1967 potshot at minimalism, Fried argues against minimalism’s move off of gallery walls and into the wilderness of “real space,” calling it “basically a theatrical effect or quality — a kind of stage presence.” Fried objects to the way minimalist works allow the outside world of people, places, and things into the work of art. He prefers to call minimalism “literalism,” because of the work’s refusal to distinguish between the sacred space of the painting and the everyday world of the object. “We are all literalists most of our lives,” Fried writes. “Presentness is grace.” According to Fried, real art lets us trade in the banal trinkets of everyday life for something greater. Why place a cube in a cornfield that’s already filled with silos and tractors?
If he’d been listening, Fried might also have rejected Nashville country music’s “theatrical” attention to its audience. As more and more suburban, middle-class listeners turned their attention to rock, country musicians made a strong appeal to those people and places that kept listening to them. Merle Haggard and Jennings name-checked forgotten, working-class towns like Muskogee, Oklahoma, and Luckenbach, Texas — places from whence their remaining listeners hailed. When performed for a hollering audience in Phoenix, Waylon’s cover of Sonny James’s “You’re The Only World I Know” sounds less like an entreaty to some abstract Nashville belle than as a sincere, somewhat lonesome admission to the crowd spread out across the bar. Fried would have hated this kind of overture to the audience and to the towns and landscapes of the West, precisely because it opened up country music to interactions with disparate, seemingly separate art forms like land art. Both country music and land art came from vastly different cultural landscapes but ended up arriving at the same geographical one.
The shared western landscape of country and land art looked and sounded surprisingly industrial for what we might think of as the “country.” Smithson’s first stop out of New York was his hometown, where he took readers on “A Tour of The Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey.” Carrying a square-framed Instamatic camera, he captured the used-up remnants of the industrial past — old sewage pipes, empty parking lots, the blasted-out rock quarries formed by strip mining. When asked why these of all places held his attention, Smithson replied:
I know when I was kid I used to love to watch the hurricanes come and blow the trees down and rip up the sidewalks. I mean it fascinated me. There’s a kind of pleasure that one receives on that level. Yet there is this desire for something more tranquil—like babbling brooks and pastorals and wooded glens. But I suppose I’m more attracted toward the mining regions and volcanic conditions — wastelands rather than the usual notion of scenery or quietude, tranquility — though they somehow interact.
On Smithson’s early trips to these industrial “wastelands,” he collected heaps of rock to bring back to white-walled New York galleries. There, he’d encase the rock in stacked containers that looked like Donald Judd boxes. From these works, Smithson developed his dialectic between “site” and “nonsite,” defining a site as an unbounded place where materials and information came from and a nonsite as the enclosed spaces where this material and information could be presented to an audience. In Smithson’s dialectics, sites like strip-mining quarries stood for “open limits” and “a series of points” whereas nonsites like New York galleries stood for “closed limits” and “an array of matter.” In response to the tension sitting in between these bounded and unbounded dialectics, Smithson trained his attention on decaying materials that moved entropically from states of order to disorder. Smithson’s eye went to crumbling dinosaur fossils, hot asphalt flowing down eroded rock, buzzing flies, and overgrown reeds blowing over the edges of swamps. He sought out “places where remote futures meet remote pasts” and often found them on the edges of cities and towns, in half-abandoned spaces where grass grew out of cracks in the pavement.
Robert Smithson, "Dialectic of Site and Nonsite," note from "The Spiral Jetty" essay, 1972
From Robert Smithson’s “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” 1967
Places like strip mine quarries or old honky-tonk dives told a story about the way audiences interacted with and altered their landscape. In a manifesto written in the form of a concrete poem, Smithson urged that:
…ART CAN BE-
COME A RESOURCE, THAT MEDIATES BETWEEN THE ECOLO-
GIST AND THE INDUSTRIALIST…
He thought of his cowboy rock-hounding as more than a way to cut against the prevailing trends of the art world, but a way to reach into the economic, environmental world to reclaim neglected “wastelands.” Importantly, Smithson thought that works of art — rather than artists — would be the mediators between the environment and the economy. He argued that artworks could be “ongoing processes rather than finished products” and demonstrated this “ongoing process” approach in his Yucatan “mirror displacements,” where he placed arrangements of square mirrors in different landscapes and then photographed the scattering reflections that each site mirrored back. These photographs were single documents of a mirrored landscape that suggested the infinite alterations and changes that could occur in one place over time.
Country music, too, is born of the idea that one traditional song is never finished or definitively performed but instead repeatedly conjured night after night, generation after generation. In the same way that the enclosed square frames of Smithson’s Instamatic photographs and mirrors suggest the endless combinations of reflection and placement, traditional country songs hew to the same tried-and-trusted lyrics and melodies as a way to open-up listeners’ ear to the subtle and changing inflections and intonations hovering around every note and word. No one understood this better than the young Waylon Jennings, who drove industrial cement trucks by day and sang cowboy ballads by night. Every new version of an old traditional changed alongside the cemented landscape around it, taking on new resonances and textures depending on the sounds of the crowd inside the bar or the road or the weather.
In a 1958 recording of the Cajun traditional “Jole Blon” you can hear Jennings, joined by his hometown pal Buddy Holly on lead guitar, pulling his own made-up translations of French words out of the air. The two had driven west from Lubbock a few days earlier, heading toward Clovis, New Mexico, for what would be Waylon’s first studio session. Joleeeee Blon jolie teeeepp jolie jonnn jacquauuuamaaa he sings, the fake French words slurred and slow in the thick New Mexico heat. Minutes earlier, he’d copied down whatever Harry Choates’s original Cajun sounded like to him, while mixing in dashes of his Texas lilt. It’s the same old “Jole Blon” with the same three chords and soaring melody, but in the hands of these Texas rockers it explodes with new texture and feeling. The industrial boom of the 1950s has taken them down brand-new paved highways with brand-new Fender guitars, but Waylon insists on calling up an old song set in the faraway swamps of Louisiana. No one listening could hear these fake words as anything other than evocations of something else; every nonsense word could mean nothing or anything. Waylon grabs the form and the shape of an old standard, but he sets the song and himself loose in a flurry of R&B backbeats and wild electric guitar runs. It’s the song itself, Waylon’s voice seems to be saying, that will keep on living. It will outlive any truck driver or electric guitar player; it will sit waiting to be taken up again and thrown back out into the desert or the bayou or the flatlands.
Smithson’s and Jennings’s “ongoing processes” approach isn’t a “natural” one. The categories we give their work — “land art” and “country music” — would seem to suggest a kind of pastoral antidote to the messiness of modern life. Instead, Smithson bulldozes ramps of rocks into man-made lakes and Jennings mixes up Little Richard backbeats with George Jones falsettos. Like Jennings’s New Mexican rendition of “Jole Blon,” these “ongoing processes” challenge an easy or fixed understanding of a particular landscape, and they make the viewer and listener question their assumptions about the ground they find themselves standing on. Without any firm footholds, Smithson’s earthworks and Jennings’s country music present to their audiences a whirling, dislocated picture of themselves and the world around them. Rather than look backwards and preserve the past, Smithson and Jennings actually ground the audience in all the subtle, changing stuff that hovers around the "content" of the art.
When Smithson’s interest in salt lakes led him to Rozel Point off the Great Salt Lake in Utah in early 1970, he wrote that “[his] dialectics of site and nonsite whirled into an indeterminate state, where liquid and solid lost themselves in each other.” Rozel Point became the location of Spiral Jetty, Smithson’s most famous earthwork. Approaching the edge of a red lake buzzing with flies, Smithson claimed that the shape of the spiral suggested itself. “From that gyrating space emerged the possibility of the Spiral Jetty,” he wrote. “No ideas, no concepts, no systems, no structures, no abstractions could hold themselves together in the actuality of that evidence.” Smithson’s spiral shape sprung out of the landscape, not as an act of genius artistic vision or as tribute to the surrounding lakes and mountains but as something far less controlled, something stranger and more mysterious. If county music and earthworks meet in their shared evocations of this particular landscape, the sounds and images of these reflected places are ambiguous, contradictory, dangerous, imperfect, and constantly sounding and looking like something else. “One seizes the spiral,” Smithson wrote, “and the spiral becomes a seizure.”
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970
For Jennings, certain landscapes were too charged with danger and death to ever return to. On tour with Buddy Holly in the winter of 1959, Waylon famously gave up a seat on the plane that crashed and killed Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens. Jennings blamed himself for Holly’s death. When he learned that Waylon wouldn’t be flying with him, Holly famously called out “Well I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” Jennings jokingly replied: “Well I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” A few minutes later, just outside of Clear Lake, Iowa, Jennings's light-hearted joke turned into a grave prophecy when the chartered plane crashed, crumpling up in the cornfields. The cause was filed officially as “spatial dislocation,” a technical term referring to a pilot’s inability, usually in bad weather, to tell up from down, sideways from frontways. It’s a phrase that could have been plucked straight from a Robert Smithson essay. “One’s downward gaze,” he wrote of the Spiral Jetty, “pitches from side to side, picking out random depositions of salt crystals on the inner and outer edges, while the entire mass echoes the irregular horizons.” In this whirling space of “dislocation,” Smithson wrote: “I was slipping outside of myself again…” Waylon’s life began to slip into disorder after the crash. In Lubbock, every streetlamp rattled with the trebly three-chord swing of “Not Fade Away,” every passing car whistled with the crackling moan of “Peggy Sue.” A few months later, Waylon quit his job at the local radio station and threw himself into a willful exile in Phoenix, Arizona, where he’d spend the next seven years developing his “folk-country” sound. On his way out of Lubbock, Jennings likely drove an hour north to join Route 66 in Amarillo, where his friend Buddy Holly had once received his first traveling tour license and where, 15 years later, Robert Smithson would die in a helicopter crash while surveying the site of Amarillo Ramp, an unfinished ongoing dirt ramp which rises out of a man-made lake.
Waylon Jennings and Buddy Holly, 1959
Robert Smithson, Amarillo Ramp in Tecovas Lake, Texas, 1973
Robert Smithson, Amarillo Ramp, 1973
It would be easy to regard the industrial wilderness and the “wastelands” themselves as places that swallow up any artist who gets too close. Even living land artists, like Michael Heizer and James Turrell, remain hidden in the landscape. They proceed cautiously, working meticulously on single projects for whole decades at a time, as if they know all too well the cost of sudden moves. It took Jennings six years in Arizona before he set foot in another recording studio, the specter of Holly’s death wrapped around him like a blanket of dust. Even then, his music never quite reclaimed the wild, willful abandonment of “Jole Blon.” In a live recording of a 1964 performance at JD’s in Phoenix, Waylon sings slowly and mournfully: “Down, down, down came the world, I went round, round, round in a whirl.” His voice has none of the flowing energy of Smithson’s descriptions of the Spiral Jetty; it cuts a hole into the floorboards of the barroom with its graveness. Later, Waylon continued to sing the songs of a rambling man, but he always made sure to state why he’d ended up in Luckenbach, Texas, or Georgia — usually running from or searching for a particular woman. Never again would Waylon roam the country just because he felt like it, tossing the bayou into the desert and mixing whole landscapes and histories. He left that kind of electricity to the dead, like Holly and Smithson, who, in the words of Smithson, “took [their] chances on a perilous path, along which [their] steps zigzagged, resembling a spiral lightning bolt.”
Soon after Smithson’s death, other evidence of his, Holly’s, and Jennings’s mixing legacies began to take shape. The Flatlanders, an early 1970s radically traditionalist country group from Lubbock, sung in Holly-esque warbles about flying into Dallas from a “DC-9 at night.” If Smithson had lived to see his proposal for a set of earthworks on the Dallas airport runway come to fruition, the group might have added a few extra lines about earthmounds and aerial squares. Instead, like Jennings, they covered “Jole Blon,” adding to fiddles and acoustic guitars a strange, industrial-sounding “musical saw.” Terry Allen, a Lubbock high-school friend of The Flatlanders and a renowned contemporary artist, made hard-driving country music of his own. His 1979 album Lubbock (On Everything) begins with a tall-talking, Waylon-esque brag called “Amarillo Highway” dedicated to the art critic Dave Hickey. When looking at Ken Paquette’s memorial sculpture at Holly’s plane crash site, it’s hard not see Smithson’s spirals spinning inside the tin-can records that commemorate each rock ’n’ roller’s life and work. The aluminum records literally cut into the landscape — small pieces of fifties kitsch that sit surrounded by miles of cornstalks in every direction.
Ken Paquette, The Day The Music Died, 1988
Comparing his work to Brancusi’s sketch of James Joyce as a “spiral ear,” Smithson wrote that Spiral Jetty suggests both a “visual and an aural scale” that “resonates in the eye and the ear at the same time.” If his references aren’t quite country, his sentiment is. As much as country music is about fiddles and steel guitars, it’s also about words, inflections, and tones that can somehow summon up forgotten images of dirt roads and old family faces. Even the most “unstable and fugitive” things, Smithson wrote, could be understood if they wrapped around a person’s eyes and ears all at once. Somehow the simplest shapes and forms — a spiral made of rock crystals and salt, a three-chord three-minute traditional song — can take on the most deeply felt resonances, can evoke whole lives and deaths with a glance and a breath. By insisting on the old familiar shape and the old familiar lyric and melody, land art and country alter our sense of familiar givens. They aren't just simple, "timeless" shapes and sounds; instead they are messy and unfixed reflections of everything that is happening in this time right now, in the present.
If shuffled back out today, the image of Smithson and Jennings in ten-gallon hats chugging tallboys would seem to be in bad faith. If anything, these get-ups signaled the setting sun on the American industrial age and its masculine working-class cowboy hero. The songs and shapes live on, however, waiting to be called forth again in some new 21st-century “wasteland,” perhaps in the abandoned downtowns of midwestern cities or on the borderlines of urban gentrification. Their familiar, traditional forms bring out the subtle intonations and reflections that wrap around their audiences’ eyes and ears all at once. When Buddy Holly’s voice drops down on “Dearest,” when his chest lurches forward and his falsetto breaks and he whispers “I loveeee you,” it’s as if he’s riding on a dirt ramp out of a man-made lake right back to life.
Robert Smithson in Mono Lake
Michael Blair’s writing has appeared in BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Ad Hoc, and other publications. He is a member of the guitar trio Hull House.
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