I remember getting rid of my cassette tapes.
Through the early 2000s, when my journalism career was just beginning, I drove a beat-up used car built in 1991. The bonus was, it had a tape deck. And I had a great collection of music on tapes.
Some highlights from the collection included a glittery cassette from a friend that was a Jackson 5 compilation on one side and Kansas City native Marva Whitney on the other (side 2 of that tape was my introduction to Whitney, who I went on to interview for KCUR after hearing her wail “What do I have to do / To prove my love to you” on many a long drive); a mixtape full of obscure indie rock songs sent to me during a long-distance relationship with a music snob; and a black plastic cassette filled with Rolling Stones songs that my mom recorded (and I evidently stole from her).
For nostalgia, I drove around with Gina’s Summer Mix 1991 in the glove box, featuring such hits as “Love in an Elevator” by Aerosmith. But my favorite tape was by a local band I’d discovered in high school: The Young Johnny Carson Story (which later had to change its name after receiving a cease-and-desist letter; they became My Childhood Hero).
As an adult, I’ve come to know many of the musicians who played in that band. They’re the folks behind the Rural Grit Happy Hour and Rural Grit Records, but I knew nothing about that at the time. I heard the Young Johnny Carson Story for the first time at a venue called Whistler’s Mother, a coffee shop and music space tucked inside a Westport bookstore. It was a cozy, wood-floored venue, and the crowd that gathered seemed bohemian: disheveled and sophisticated all at once. My mom had recently moved us from a house in the city to a townhome-style condo in the suburbs. The decision was a good one -- a condo made more sense for a single working mom with little time for lawn care – but I still poured a lot of teenage angst into hating what I so originally called “Suburban Hell.” This venue and this crowd felt like a homecoming to a place I’d never been.
The friends who invited me to the show had heard the Young Johnny Carson Story before. They wisely instructed me to wear black. The band had clever lyrics that were sweet and sarcastic. I hadn’t realized, before, that things like this went on in Kansas City. That I had access to local music, and that it was so much better than Gina’s Summer Mix 1991. Before the show was over, I went to the merch table and bought a tape.
I played it constantly. I made my little brother listen to it in our basement. Then I made my friends listen to it in a New York City college dorm room. And finally, I listened to it in my car, on my way to interviews, as a young journalist.
I drove that car into the ground. This particular vehicle went up in a plume of smoke. And at that point, although I held onto my tapes for a while, my record and CD collections were growing, and my tapes had become artifacts.
Finally, I got rid of them.
Before Central Standard’s show on the current cassette-tape renaissance, I’d noticed that local bands about as popular as the Young Johnny Carson Story were making tapes again, but I thought it was a niche thing. I regretted nothing. I hadn’t missed spools of tape needing to be manually rewound into cartridges, or having to fast-forward and rewind to locate specific songs.
But hearing that 2015 was the best year since 1969 for the country’s largest cassette tape manufacturer in Springfield, Missouri made me perk up. Steve Stepp of National Audio Company told me that he’d stayed open all those years, as tapes gave way to CDs and CDs to mp3s, based on a business model of “stubbornness and stupidity.” I remembered being the stubborn one, with that tape I’d bought in high school from a band that no longer existed. And suddenly, compared to Steve, I felt like I’d sold out, like I’d given up on tapes too easily.
Even my tape deck excuse doesn’t hold up. A hip-hop producer from St. Joseph told us that he records and sells tapes, and that the people who buy them get their tape decks from pawn shops and thrift stores. He says that in St. Joe, pawn shops and thrift stores can’t hold onto the old “boom boxes.”
I learned so much about Kansas City music, and arguably the arts scene in Kansas City, from my tapes, which had been lovingly recorded and labeled by friends and local musicians. I remember how that glittery Jackson 5/Marva Whitney tape felt under my fingertips. And I’ve never been able to find another Young Johnny Carson Story recording in any format. Since ditching that tape, the music itself has been lost to me.
But it sounds like a whole new generation of angsty teens can fall in love with Kansas City through music – and cassette tapes -- all over again.
It’s your turn, kids. Have fun. And hold onto your tapes.