Roots Watch: Reading Marty Robbins, Dwight Yoakam–and James Brown
Pulling off a musical biography well is not easy. Trust me; I’m spending much of my own time these days working on one, (on roots music A&R and publishing pioneer Ralph Peer). From short profile articles to full-length books, there are questions for the writer—focus, depth, audience, and how to go about it. I have truckloads of regard and empathy for anybody who takes on all of that seriously—which brings us to three new musical biographies out just now, which show some unexpected parallels among their subjects.
Diane Diekman, who wrote about Faron Young previously, brings us Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins, a very worthy subject. The man was a talent, as Diekman reminds us, who would need to go on last at Opry performances because the audiences wanted and got much, much more of him than regular slot time allowed. He was, as I see it, one of country’s most versatile and effective singers, as at home with crooner ballads and rockabilly as with the “El Paso” sort of gunfighter/Mexicana story songs he’s best remembered for now. But for a guy who put 94 songs on the charts over 30 years (some of them so successful as pop that many didn’t realize he was country) was a celebrated live draw, a movie producer, and an attention-grabbing NASCAR driver to boot, he didn’t like talking about what he did very much.
With that handicap, Diekman does a good job of showing the insecurities and poverty-ridden raising that lurked behind that reticence—and also his controlling heavy-handedness with those who worked for him. It was clearly a challenge to get much of his voice or recollections into the story, and he was not, apparently, a guy with a lot of wild compelling episodes in his life to make up for that in color. The author candidly states her own sense of limitation as a critic or describer of music, and the book isn’t intended to be an appreciation of how and why we should care about Marty today—probably limiting its potency for those who are not already committed fans, though there are clearly many for whom Robbins is a fuzzy figure that by now could use a compelling introduction. What this book offers is a careful researched succession of events—this gig, that record, then that race. It will fill in a lot of gaps for Robbins fans, and that, it seems, is the audience this one’s for.
Dwight Yoakam, by contrast, is very much among us, and an energetic and colorful conversationalist, which gives Don McLeese, my fellow senior editor at the old print No Depression magazine, a (tight-jeaned?) leg up on Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, though Dwight only made himself available for one apparently filibuster-like interview. McLeese started out to write an appreciation of Mr. Yoakam’s musical contributions, but discovered how surprisingly little bio reporting there’d ever been on him over the years, decided to fill that gap, and the book evolved into a “life and art” biography, not too epic in length, but shaped to make some points about the man and artist.
McLeese is particularly good at dealing with the self-awareness, calculation and image construction that lay behind Dwight’s talk, his stage presentation, his music, and even the public understanding of his background—which was never quite as simply downhome as it’s been useful to suggest. Rather than knee-jerk discussions of “authenticity” in Yoakam’s self-presentation, the author recognizes and accepts the show business in this actor’s act and judges the result capably, on its own terms.
McLeese also sheds light on a major achievement for which Dwight doesn’t often get enough credit, as the performer who successfully did what Gram Parsons only hoped to—brought rock attitude and approach into an updated (if highly defined) sort of hardcore country music and got accepted by the country audience, not just rock followers, as a country performer. That strikes me as a very important and real contribution, but it also leaves a question hanging there, because McLeese rather consistently uses a broad brush in decrying assumed and unspecified horrors of the evil Nashville artifice machine, and privileges the tastes and choices of the indie rock/ punk rock audience over country’s. Where then, you have to wonder, lies Dwight’s special accomplishment in winning over the mainstream country audience, an audience that would go for other flavors of loud, stagey rock in arenas just a few years after he came along, which, the same book suggests, marked them as uncool suckers for marketing? Unanswered, In any case, this is a good, provocative read; it will get you thinking–and going back to Yoakam records.
And then there’s R.J. Smith’s The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, which, is the musical bio of 2012 and likely to remain so. Smith shapes his words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters like Mr. Brown did his shows, memorably and potently, with a punch. (Huh!) Artfully, he ties together the story of the man and the impulses behind his undeniably vital musical contributions—the urge to build personal power and identity behind Brown’s shifting that R&B beat to funk “on the One,” that the title refers to. Smith gets inside this life, and this music. James Brown was at least as insecure (and therefore controlling) in his way as Marty Robbins, and, of course, at least as talkative and in charge of his on-stage image as Dwight. There’s a continuing theme in the book which will surprise some—the streetwise Brown’s very Southern side, which leads Smith to refer to him at one point as “Soul Bubba Number One,” which goes hand in hand with his continuing relation to country music, from his very early roots not just in blues and gospel, as you’d expect, but playing washtub bass in a small Georgia town where African-American Appalachian string bands were still popular, working up a version of “Hey Good Lookin” with the earliest Flames, recording repeatedly in the studio of Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, eventually appearing on the Opry. This is the sort of revelatory book that comes along only once in a long time, about one of the 20th century’s most influential music originators. Highly recommended.
By the way: Three new CDs I also recommend: If all you know of Cowboy Copas is that the died in the crash with Patsy Cline, check out the new Cowboy Copas: Complete Hit Singles A’S & B’s and hear the sound of a winning artist who combined traits of the county crooners, Ernest Tubb honky tonk and folk balladry. Mark Collie & His Reckless Companions’ Alive at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, ten years in the making, delivers quality edgy, rough, hard country—with on-disc assists from Kelly Willis, Gatemouth Brown, and Shawn Camp. And Sara Watkins’ Sun Midnight Sun marks her arrival as a distinctive, no-nonsense adult music maker, with indie rock and pop assimilated into a fresh set of melodic, pointed, surprising songs, well played and sung, quite different from Nickel Creek material, and one of the most impressive releases from anybody so far this year.
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