Country: The Music and the Musicians. – book reviews
Paul F. Wells
“Although we were involved in it, I have to say that it’s the finest study ever completed of any form of American music.” With this comment, Country Music Foundation (CMF) director Bill Ivey introduced the sumptuous Country: The Music and the Musicians to the New York press (Thomas Goldsmith, “New York City Goes ‘Country’ at Lavish Bash Honoring Book,” Tennessean, Nov. 18, 1988). It is tempting to hoist Ivey on his verbal petard, but to do so would be unfair to the individual contributors whose writing makes up this book. While Country: The Music and the Musicians hardly lives up to Ivey’s representation, it is far more substantive than one might at first suppose when confronted with its coffee-table-tome heft and glamour.
Country’s sixteen chapters, each by a different author, are grouped into three sections: “Origins,” “The Golden Age of Hillbilly Music,” and “Contemporary Country From Coast to Coast.” Though these divisions imply a chronological treatment, their parameters are nowhere spelled out; and though the thread of the book is largely historical, it is not strictly so. Neil Rosenberg’s chapter on bluegrass (“Blue Moon of Kentucky: Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Birth of Bluegrass”), for instance, comes three chapters after Edward Morris’s “New, Improved, Homogenized: Country Radio Since 1950,” despite the fact that Bill Monroe brought his first band of Blue Grass Boys to the Grand Ole Opry in 1939.
Ivey’s characterization of this book as a study is curious, given that it clearly is not an academic monograph. Though a few scholars contributed to it (Nolan Porterfield, Charles Wolfe, and Neil Rosenberg are the only writers with university affiliations, though no mention is made of their academic status), they are far outnumbered by journalists and CMF staffers. There are no footnotes or any other form of documentation. The book reads, and appears, rather like an issue of National Geographic, with lengthy photo captions and myriad sidebars: the latter are infinitely more distracting than footnotes, if one is trying actually to read the text. Perhaps the assumption was that many people would not read the articles, but merely dip into the book at random, so readers are given the printed equivalent of sound bites. Indeed, Country seems to be aimed at people who have not previously read much about country music and who are unlikely to pursue the topic any further. It will probably be more looked at and browsed through than read.
Country certainly is a joy to look at. The book contains, according to the blurb on the dust jacket, “more than 700 color and black-and-white photographs from the Foundation’s matchless archives.” Many are, as the claim states, “seen here for the first time.” There are unique shots of the Carter Family at home (pp. 28, 29, 31, 35); many marvelous photos of underappreciated and seldom seen women singers (pp. 315-41); a moving shot of Bill Monroe in traction following a mid-1950s auto accident, surrounded by visitors from the Opry cast and staff (p. 275); and an excellent illustration of a script from a radio barn dance (pp. 74-75). The book often seems like a large catalog for a museum exhibit, which, in a way, it is. As such, it provides an excellent means of getting materials from the CMF’s collection before the public.
But what of the text? Is there any validity to Ivey’s assertion that it is the finest work on American music? While space in this review does not permit a chapter-by-chapter analysis, some comments on selected articles are in order.
A short foreword by the editor Paul Kingsbury opens the book, but there is no introductory chapter that covers the roots of country music prior to the first recordings of southeastern white rural music in the early 1920s. Rather, the book begins somewhat abruptly with Nolan Porterfield’s chapter on the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers–the first two real star acts to emerge in country music’s infancy. Porterfield is a superb writer, and he beautifully distinguishes the musical and cultural differences between these two acts: the Carters represented family, mountain, and white traditions, while Rodgers, in contrast, played the role of the lonesome rambler, whose music reflected heavy urban and African American influences. Though this piece is first-rate, I suspect that someone coming to the book with no prior knowledge of country music’s history, or of Rodgers and the Carters, will be utterly bewildered by this as a starting point. It is characteristic of the CMF’s approach to the presentation of country music history (as manifested in their Hall of Fame and Museum and in their house journal, Journal of Country Music), to give only a nod to roots; the stars are what are really important.
The sounds and styles of early country music, in all their variety, are covered by Charles Wolfe in “The Triumph of the Hills: Country Radio, 1920-1950.” The move to a more homogenized sound is covered by Edward Morris’s chapter on country radio since 1950. Morris provides an excellent discussion of trade charts (pp. 102-3) and record promotion (pp. 100-6). He rightly identifies the many problems inherent in the chart system, such as the frequent lack of correspondence between radio chart position and record sales.
The former journalist Douglas B. Green (aka “Ranger Doug” of the revivalist western group Riders in the Sky) offers a fine survey of the western element that used to be an extremely strong strain in country music. Although “country and western” as an overall designation for the music has not been used by the industry for over fifteen years, the term is fixed so strongly in many people’s minds that its use lingers on.
Another of country’s generic branches is covered in Neil Rosenberg’s chapter on bluegrass. This includes the only photo that I have ever seen of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs performing as members of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, prior to forming their own historic partnership. Rosenberg provides some noteworthy insights, particularly in relating bluegrass to other musical genres. He observes that Bill Monroe’s music had an impact on Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and other rockabillies (pp. 198, 203), and he points out the connections between the southern California bluegrassers and the later development of the Los Angeles-based country-rock sound of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. The book would benefit from more of this sort of tie-in with other forms of American music.
Many of the chapters in the section entitled “Contemporary Country From Coast to Coast” are among the best in the book. Ivey’s own contribution, “The Bottom Line: Business Practices That Shaped Country Music,” covers an aspect of the music’s development that is often overlooked by scholars. Above all else, country music, like any form of popular music, is a business, and anyone who studies it, from whatever perspective, must keep this in mind at all times. One of the most obvious musical products of this sales-driven approach to music-making, the vaunted “Nashville Sound” which dominated from the 1950s through much of the 1970s, comes in for some bashing by Chet Flippo in his piece on the “outlaw” movement, led by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, of the mid-seventies.
The long-term results of the changes begun at that time are covered by Patrick Carr in “Will the Circle Be Unbroken: The Changing Image of Country Music.” Country appears at a time when country music is going through an unprecedented era of change. Though change has, of course, always been a part of country music, it has occurred slower than in other forms of popular music. Artists with careers of twenty or more years have been the norm, rather than the exception. But in the past few years the Loretta Lynns, Merle Haggards, and Tammy Wynettes have been swept from the charts; they have been replaced by young artists who themselves have begun to come and go with the swiftness usually associated with rock performers. Carr deals with this new era quite effectively, as does David Gates in the book’s final chapter, “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’: Ricky Skaggs, Alabama, and Their Contemporaries.”
Taken as a whole, Country has much to recommend it. Its weaknesses–few fresh insights, absence of musical description, few points made about country music’s relationship to other streams of American music–are offset by the real strengths of excellent illustrations, clear writing, and good descriptions of many important areas of country music. Given the book’s format and intended audience, it is a much better book than it might have been. Does it deserve to be called the “finest study of any form of American music”? Well, it’s certainly the finest study of American music that has a picture of Dolly Parton on the spine of its dust jacket.
COPYRIGHT 1994 University of Illinois Press
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