Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Pottering about in the country of country music

I've been reading this book on the history of country music during the past week or so, branching out a little bit from all the Johnny Cash stuff! Its much more than a history book this though, Nicholas Dawidoff travels to meet many of the people and places that have figured in the story of country music, with a couple of notable exceptions of course! This makes for a really lively account, the book is jam-packed with stories about many of the larger-than-life characters he writes about. Dawidoff's choice of artists is not always obvious mind - Hank Williams flits in and out of the book, rather than being dealt with in his own right, and there's very little here about contemporary Nashville country music, much of it dismissed as little better than pop music really. Contemporary country is limited to a discussion of Emmylou Harris, Iris Dement and Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Austin music scene - all great, and probably more interesting, but maybe not representative of where commercial country music is at right now.

Anyway, he starts right at the beginning with the Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers, the pioneers of modern country music; the real story of the Carter Family being slightly more disfunctional than the wholesome images of the gospel-singing family trio that's often assumed. While Sara and Anita were the main voices, A. P. Carter was the genius behind the trio really, with his wunderlust periodic wanderings in the Appalacian hills retrieving old American folk songs (and sawmills?!!!) and then repackaging them for his own group. The main recordings were made in the 1920s and '30s, but have been wonderfully remastered; the sound is still a little scratchy, but wonderfully evocative. Many of them have become better known through Johnny Cash, of course! I've tried listening to Jimmie Rogers, who had a very brief recording career during the 1920s, but I can't get past the yodelling!

I was also fascinated by the chapter on The Louvin Brothers. Charlie and Ira Louvin's high harmony singing was massive in the 1950s - Elvis was actually one of their opening acts for a while! In many ways Ira Louvin exemplifies many of the complexities at the heart of country music. Like so many country singers their music is soaked in the Southern evangelical sub-culture, yet Ira was a chronic alcoholic and drove himself to an early grave, at the height of his creative powers really, as a consequence. The same story and conflict might be told over and over! Johnny Cash appears in one chapter, and the author gets fairly close access to Cash, even welcommed into his home. But his opinion of Cash is pretty damning really, basically saying that he never bettered his early Sun Records recordings, and that his American Recordings series betray an alarming inability on Cash's part to write anything new of a similar quality - a bit harsh really, but then only two of these albums had appeared when this book was published.

One of the drawbacks reading a book like this though is that my amazon account takes a bit of a battering! His chapter on Buck Owens has got me interested in the Bakersfield country sound - a harder edged music that Owens perfected in Honky Tonks in California, but that's been taken to a even higher level really by Dwight Yoakam in more recent times. I cant believe I've never discovered Merle Haggard either, so I'm going to have to invest in some of his music too! Haggard was a small time crook who ended up in San Quentin Prison, and was inspired to follow his own musical career after attending some of Johnny Cash's prison concerts in the late '60s and early '70s. He went on to have more country No. 1s than any other artist. In Dawidoff's book Hag features side by side with Iris Dement, as she's visiting his Californian studio to help him record some of her songs. I discovered Dement about fifteen years ago when her first album, Infamous Angel, was released. Dement has an almost unique voice, that harks back to a much earlier country sound, more in tune with the original Carter family than anything else. But its her songs about her rural Southern upbringing, and particularly about the faith of her Mother that standout most.

Well, Dawidoff's book is a terrific tour of country music both geogrpahically and historically. Its inspired me to try listening to some new voices too! Time to give the amazon account another hammering!!


Jason Sexton said...

If you're ever in CA when we're back there (if we're back in Kern County), I'd love to take you to Buck Owens's Crystal Palace in Bakersfield ( It's only about 10 miles from where we lived before moving to St Andrews, and still have a home there. Best country fried steak anywhere!

Say, perhaps we can have you give a paper giving some theological/historical engagement on CA's Country Music landscape? We're aiming to carry out a collaberative project called Theological Engagement with California's Culture Project, from 2013-15. If you're interested, I'll keep you posted.

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