The (He)art of Reviewing
Written by Gareth Williams
Arts criticism was never on my radar as a genre until a few years ago, when I came across a project run by a local theatre. I discovered ‘Young Critics’ at a time when I had become disillusioned with my own creativity. To say that it gave me a renewed sense of purpose is an understatement. I would say that it saved my creative self. Here was an opportunity to combine two forms of writing that I loved: the artistic and the academic. A chance to further hone the critical skills from my university years whilst adding flair and imagination from my poetic passions. It was a match made in heaven, and I have never looked back.
My journey into reviewing coincided with my discovery of country music. Hearing ‘Nashville Grey Skies’ by The Shires for the first time on BBC Radio 2 was a game-changer. It opened up a whole new world that I never really knew existed (or, more accurately, that I’d never paid proper attention to before) and I became obsessed with a genre that seemed to speak deeply into my life and reflect so much of what I valued. The honesty, simplicity and vulnerability of “three chords and the truth” struck me to such an extent that I wanted to be part of this community; to contribute to the growing movement of country music, particularly in the UK. So, having learnt the art of reviewing in a theatre environment, it made sense to me to start using those skills to write music reviews. I went and set up my own blog, Desperately Lost City, the first post on which was a review of The Shires’ ‘My Universe’ tour.
It wasn’t long before I started discovering artists in the UK that labelled themselves, to varying degrees, as “Country”. Beginning with Hannah’s Yard, and continuing with Amy Westney, Two Ways Home, Catherine McGrath, Clara Bond, and so on, I came to find this wealth of talent on the periphery of an emerging scene that would capture my heart. I loved finding these new voices; listening to their music and writing a response to it. What surprised me most as I shared my pieces on social media was the level of engagement from the artists themselves. I never expected a reply from them so, when they came, especially containing gratitude, sometimes for what I’d said, sometimes for simply recognising them and their work, it made a real impact on me. I realised that, far from writing into the ether something that might be read by a handful of people, my words had the potential to affect those who were directly involved in the creative process. This felt like too much of a responsibility to ignore.
This was the point at which my reviewing began to intersect with my faith. I had been a Christian for a few years prior to my journey into country music, so its ability to unashamedly talk about religion was another aspect that drew me to the genre. The music has played a big part in feeding my spirituality ever since. At the same time, the values of love and service so integral to Christianity have become the lens through which I have come to understand my role as a reviewer. My faith has given me a set of principles with which I approach reviews to this day. These can be summed up in the following words: support, champion, and encourage. These for me form the heart of my reviewing.
It is these three principles that lend a particular focus to my reviews. It is not that I won’t take up the opportunity to review the music of a well-established artist, particularly if it holds something that is close to my heart. Generally though, I tend to want to champion those whose music deserves wider recognition but lies outside the mainstream. To highlight the often-superb work of musicians not widely known is something of a privilege for me. I see it as a form of service to offer those on the periphery some support and encouragement by way of a review. I do this for new, emerging, and independent talent in particular because they are the ones most likely to be overlooked. To be able to draw attention to them and their music through what I write, with what little influence this might have, is my way of showing love and care in an industry that can be challenging, difficult, and sometimes unjust. This is my faith in action, as it were, with a primary focus on the country music scene in the UK because of my personal affinity with it.
Some might question the degree to which such an approach to reviewing acts as a form of criticism. I take the point, to an extent, but I don’t think that the three principles described above in any way exclude my ability to offer something other than positive and affirming messages. It just so happens that, most of the time, the music I choose to review is stuff that I like. And when I don’t rate something, I tend to leave it uncritiqued rather than write about it. It’s not perfect but this is the way I have chosen to go about it. It is my way of giving back what has been given to me. This represents the heart of my reviewing, where music and faith are interwoven with words to form my own personal art of reviewing.
About the writer
Gareth is a writer for country music website Belles & Gals and the online arts magazine Get the Chance. He is a Deacon in the Church in Wales and works Front of House in the Arts Sector. He also writes poetry, and has his own blog, Desperately Lost City, which acts as a portfolio for his written work.