Roots Watch: Spring Words and Music — History Worth Catching, Part 2
A look at some new books, albums and a broadcast that look at where we’ve been to show us where we are:
Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches and Encounters, edited by Jeff Burger. Those of us who interview and profile performers for articles concerning what they do sometimes get, and occasionally deserve, credit for pulling off the rather difficult, homework-dependent task of asking the right questions and evoking fresh, revealing answers—and blame for the clunker duds, too. There’s another half to that equation. As one who’s done hundreds of interviews, I couldn’t be more aware that being able to articulate interestingly what they do and how they do it is neither an obligation or a necessity for their being able to do it well; it’s a swell bonus talent for a performer to have, but not an essential one. Or, as Bruce Springsteen puts it at one point in this 400-page anthology of things he’s told people over the course of forty years, “We are in the show business, not the tell business.”
There are anthologies of journalists interviews that emphasize the interviewer’s own approach and successes, anthologies that evoke a publication’s overall interview-profile editorial style, and only rarely this sort of book, which take a performer’s answers and speeches over the years as their crux. When those appear, it’s usually simply and blatantly a plot to exploit the performer’s celebrity; fans can be expected to hang on every word simply because of who the subject is. This book’s different, because Springsteen’s ways of dealing with and using interviews over the years have evolved so—from the mumbled semi-sentences of a hungry, 20-something regional roots rock newcomer wary that talking about what he does might wreck it, to the less guarded admissions and occasional posturings of the extroverted king of relentless four hour shows, to the considered, experienced, revealing ruminations on his life and art and the world around him of a 60-something veteran artist who’s been through more life (and therapy) come to be able to let his more introverted side loose, and doesn’t, thankfully, require four hours to do it. The showman evolves into a “tell man,” too, and the book, with its well-chosen interview entries from frequently obscure but potent sources, adds up to as good and revealing a biography of this unique figure, a step-by-step autobiography, in effect, as there’s been. Apparently it also matters if the interviewee has something to say.
Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass by Murphy Hicks Henry. This is a book that’s been so needed, on a topic so neglected for so long—the performer by performer, era by era history of women working and contributing to bluegrass— that it’s existence alone is a fair reason for celebration; Ms. Henry also makes, pardon the expression, a pretty good job of it. This volume will be dipped into as a reference for years to come, no doubt, and you will, in its course, come to better know the careers and experiences of the women of bluegrass, from often under-recognized early contributions of a Bessie Lee Mauldin, Ola Belle Reed, or Sally Ann Forrester, to the eventual, hard-won and still not that easy stardom of Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent and Kristin Scott Benson. A working banjo player herself, Ms. Henry has a knowing and empathetic way of speaking with the performers available for interviewing about their struggles and sometime triumphs in dealing with the field’s tendency to marginalize them, and seems particularly at home with the latter day performers with relatively sophisticated backgrounds. (Backgrounds in bluegrass, all mythology aside, have come to vary a lot.) The author can also be good at culling the material available on the older musicians no longer with us—though that material is sometimes limited (Or limited to old issues of “Bluegrass Unlimited!”).
My one caveat here, mostly a warning for potential readers less steeped in the bluegrass world, is that the descriptions of the music and assessments of the music making are very much from the insider perspective; any number of instrumentalists are referred to as “solid,” for instance, which may be a sufficiently loaded word filled with shared assumptions when used in a specialty publication, but will be less than illuminating to those just becoming interested in the field, as will, say, occasional references to what key a song’s attacked in—the significance of which is obvious to some, but not to many more. Ms. Henry’s definition of “bluegrass” as music which features Scruggs-style 3-finger banjo, will no doubt be contended with by some, as all definitions of the field are—but it has had the practical effect here of making the parameters in a big, big subject workable. And after all, she is a banjoist—a banjoist whose book is a valuable contribution.
Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music, edited by Diane Pecknold. As aspects of the recent, inevitable brouhaha about the recent Brad Paisley “Accidental Racist” cut reminded us (briefly), the discussion of country music and race has often been fraught, marked by defensiveness, tendentiousness, over-romanticizing and, way too often, under-examined and overstated pronouncements about the history of the subject and the issues involved. This new anthology, out in a few weeks, adds some significant new light on the subject, in the hands of some of the most thoughtful and knowledgeable country music historians and commentators around today. Significant essays include Patrick Huber’s detailed exploration of participation of black musicians in early country recordings, editor Pecknold’s look at how mainstream country music did, didn’t and chose to appear to make use of Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds, Tony Thomas’s long-awaited, important look at “Why African Americans Turned the Banjo Down” (the reasons prove musical), Erica Brady’s deeply-researched look at how much (or little) direct influence Arnold Schultz (famed as a mentor to Bill Monroe) actually had on jazzy Kentucky string band music, and Charles Hughes’ excellent portrait of the Southern soul music-country music interaction well past the much-discussed 1960s era in the “Nashville-Muscle Shoals-Memphis” triangle.
There are also, I have to say, just a few essays included that seem to be picking battles with ghosts, seemingly dependent for energy on enemies to rail against or one up, and finding a target in alleged hidebound, racist defenses of the music’s “whiteness” by somebody or other— anonymous “traditionalists” or even “some internet commenters.” Frankly, I haven’t read a serious discussion of country music history in decades that doesn’t take a multiple race and ethnic background as a given. Broad and facile condemnations of regions, musical genres or audiences as “racist” generally suffer from one of the key deficiencies of racism itself—coarse, undiscriminating laziness bound to miss individual details and positive qualities,. And binary “white/or not really white” thinking also demonstrated in those cases doesn’t so much clarify as provoke. A less either/or understanding is not complicated: Country music has been developed and contributed to by many ethnic groups, regions, nationalities, and all races, but at its core it was an expression of working class rural and small town Southern whites, and it was developed first for that audience, as blues was contributed to by similarly diverse people from many places but was at its core an expression of Southern African-Americans, and was developed first for that audience. Both grew and attracted massive followings from those starts. The bulk of the terrific essays in this collection add light from a place something like that; the few that tend the other way, sometimes with a tiresomely tendentious Modern Academic Snark tone–not so much.
And by the way: The parlor /Tin Pan Alley Victorian songs and sounds on a new CD produced by Gabe Rhodes, The Beautiful Old: Turn-of-the-Century Songs may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but on the other hand, with such phenomenal artists as Richard Thompson, Graham Parker, Dave Davies, Garth Hudson, Kim Richey and Kimmie Rhodes among the performers on it, you just might! And two CD salutes to roots heroes are definitely worth spending time with—Don Rigsby’s Doctor’s Orders: A Tribute to Ralph Stanley, and Shannon McNally’s Small Town Talk tribute to the late Bobby Charles——two extraordinary singers bringing in talented friends to salute gents worth saluting.
- luckyoldsun: I think the number one country murder ballad is "Frankie and Johnny"--by Jimmie. Also, how about "Delia's Gone" from Harry Belafonte …
- Juli Thanki: Colloquial use of "fantastic" as a synonym for "excellent" dates back to the 1930s. And if it's good enough for …
- Paul W Dennis: I think "Banks of The Ohio", "Miller's Cave" and "It's Nothing to Me" are far creepier than several of the …
- Paul W Dennis: The Hight article is interesting, although I don't know that I would describe it as fantastic, but then I know …
- Dana M: I'm actually excited to hear a new Reba album. As for the Alan Jackson tour, I hope he announces Canadian …
- nm: Agreed. A good job by three very smart women.
- Deremy Jylan: The Hight piece is tremendous reading.
- Juli Thanki: Much like the music of Aldean and FGL, Michelob Ultra is favored by college kids and too much exposure will …
- Tom: ...michelob ultra seems to be a brew from hell.
- luckyoldsun: Maybe he was just changing out of his hunting clothes. At least he didn't do the full Randy...um Monty.