Roots Watch: Roots, Moves, and Scenes That Sustain

Barry Mazor | July 19th, 2011

It’s a pleasure and, I’m sure, it will be a challenge in the best possible way, to bring this expanded version of whatever perspective my “Scanning the Countryside” column managed to bring to here to Engine 145.  The expansion will be twofold: “Roots Watch” will show up twice a month, not just once, allowing me to get to more topics, and sometimes, to comment more quickly on musical news. Also, I’m taking Editor Thanki’s broad definition of what this blog’s all about seriously; reporting from home in Nashville, I won’t be talking about contemporary country music any less, but I will be discussing the broad expanse of American roots music more.

As for roots, Juli and I discovered some time ago that we share some; we’d grown up and gone to school in a number of the same places—in rural, small town and also urban Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C., though I was wandering through them a generation earlier.  Somehow we both wound up with permanent Phillies caps and a love for the continuing saga and sounds of country music and American roots music in general—Americana, blues, bluegrass, roots rock, R&B, singer-songwriter, folk, and so on. Migrating, along with a number of other former 9513 writers, to this new pub home she’s fostered was an easy call.

It strikes me that the story of relocation of like minds and sensibilities is as relevant to what we really mean by “roots” in a country with a population so often on the move as the more often stressed (and romanticized) sagas of people who happen or manage to stay put. Sure; the shared life experiences, tastes, and rhythms that give roots music its flavor are connected to place—but “place,” as online life makes so clear, has as much or more to do with the interaction between people over time, as landscape.  What makes a music “scene” in the short run makes for “roots,” given enough time. (Unless you figure “roots” are whatever you listened to in your junior year of high school!)

Four new books that I can strongly recommend offer striking, and differing examples of the interaction of music scenes and place, hitting the road and staying put:

Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios, by Roben Jones.

Ms. Jones tracks the story of extraordinary group of R&B and rock-oriented talents—Reggie Young, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, Chips Moman, Donnie Fritts and Tommy Cogbill among them—who grew up or moved to Memphis, interacted, and founded and worked at the storied American Studios, where key recordings by everyone from Wilson Pickett to Elvis Presley and Ronnie Milsap got made. Many of these same players would relocate to Nashville when the Memphis opportunities faded, and change the sounds of country music. This one’s the story of how that all happened.


The Starday Story: The House That Country Music Built, by Nathan B. Gibson with Don Pierce.

Starday became as potent an independent record label as country’s ever seen, fostering the careers of the likes of George Jones and Roger Miller, offering an energetic, supportive home for fiddle and steel, bluegrass, rockabilly and trucker songs as most of country turned towards Nashville Sound pop.  A key thrust of the story, detailed with flavor and verve by scholar and rockabilly artist Gibson, with commentary from the late label co-founder Don Pierce, is how these independents, willing to offer an alternative to the sounds of the larger Nashville labels, did not steer clear in some far-away town, as indy labels generally had, but moved smack into Music City from the West Coast to do it—and thereby changed things.


Cosmic Cowboys and New Hicks: The Countercultural Sounds of Austin’s Progressive Country Music Scene, by Travis D. Stimeling.

Austin music has been, of course, another story, with laid back local flavor that can seem inevitable by now, but Stimeling relates, concisely, how the “outlaw” Austin alternative and cosmic cowboy image was constructed, promoted and sometimes hyped by local businesses, radio, and hippie-era artists. Both the musical advantages of being a special place and the sometime “never need to leave home again ” provincialism of some artists from the “live music capital” are brought home to the reader.


The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘N’ Roll, by Preston Lauterbach.

This one’s going to be a revelation for many—a fresh, highly researched, highly engaging look at the circuit of generally under-recognized clubs and theater circuit where raucous, rocking R&B was born, with portraits of the brash operators who ran them on shoestrings, and the music that rose there in the hands of Louis Jordan, Roy Brown, Little Richard, James Brown and so many others.  Lauterbach offers lively proof that new roots and musical connections can take hold across the countryside and between cities, as well as within them. These African-American vaudeville circuits will remind you, in many ways, of fledging Net connections extending roots music to new places now.


By the way: The primal I-IV-V chord name of this site reminds me also, as a music history geek, of the old “Engine 143” ballad associated with the Carter Family.  That was the very song A.P. Carter was performing when Sara Doughtery, soon to be Mrs. Carter, first set eyes on him.  And it was the very last song Johnny Cash ever recorded.  That train’s had a nice long run—and I wish this one the same.

  1. Dan Rigney
    July 19, 2011 at 8:38 am

    Great to see you have a new platform for your musings. Keep it up, Barry!

  2. Rick
    July 19, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    Glad to see you back in action on a blog Barry! Just what the engine145 needs to give it some momentum and a real head of steam! (lol)

    A book I came across that really ties together the people, places, and times that gave rise to the roots of the Bakersfield Sound is titled “The Dust Bowl, The Bakersfield Sound, and Buck” by Kathryn Burke that came out in 2007. Kathryn was a highly motivated Bakersfield resident who started in her late 80’s and was able to convince Buck to let her interview him extensively about his past as part of a college class project. For not having a professional background in writing, the elderly Kathryn did quite a remarkable job.

    Buck opened up to Kathryn on all kinds of subjects about his past except for his extra marital sexual dalliances, making this book the exact opposite of Eileen Sisk’s snarling “Smear All” biography. Buck did tell Kathryn that most of his troubles in life arose from “having too many girlfriends at one time”! (lol) From the stories of Buck’s childhood, to the real life stories of Okies in the labor camps, to tales of the storied Blackboard honky tonk, this book covers a lot of ground and is a loving tribute to the life, times and music of Buck Owens. I highly recommend it to any one who loves the music of the original “Bakersfield Sound” era of the 1950’s and 60’s.

    The book was only released as a paperback on a shoestring budget, but thankfully can be found on eBay for a whopping total of $ 10, which includes shipping! Just do an eBay search for “Buck Owens Biography” and pick the friendly one with the black and white cover with a flattering head shot photo of a young Buck. If Kathryn Burke is still alive, she’d be in her mid 90’s by now! Crikey!

  3. Barry M
    July 19, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    That sounds like one that I need to find, Rick..Thanks.

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