Roots Watch: Spring Words and Music — History Worth Catching, Part 2

Barry Mazor | May 10th, 2013

A look at some new books, albums and a broadcast that look at where we’ve been to show us where we are:

springsteenonspringsteenSpringsteen 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.

 

murphyhenryprettygoodPretty 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.

 

pecknoldhiddeninthemixHidden 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.

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  1. Paul W Dennis
    May 10, 2013 at 4:06 pm

    At one time Red & Murphy Henry lived here in Florida and performd at local bluegrass festivals and shows here. I purchased several of her LPs at their personal appearences. If the sense of humor she displays in her live shows and the songs she has written, then the book will be a “must have”

  2. Rick
    May 10, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    You know Barry, I’d have to admit I’d be more interested in a “Babes of Bluegrass” picture book or calendar featuring the likes of Sierra Hull, Cia Leigh Cherryholmes, and even Rhonda Vincent dressed in Daisy Mae style outfits posing in barns or next to large farm machinery…(lol)

  3. Barry Mazor
    May 10, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    You know Rick, you’re a drooling weenie.

    You don’t have to “admit” that your interest in this music is, apparently, mainly as an alternative to dating. You tell us and tell us and tell us and tell us.

    Feel free just to skip the occasional reviews of book without the sorts of pics you’re after.

  4. nm
    May 10, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    do not feed the troll

  5. J.R. Journey
    May 10, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    I bought The Selling Sound by Diane Pecknold and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Thanks for the heads-up on The Hidden Mix. Sounds like another interesting read.

  6. Jon
    May 11, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Ew, gross.

  7. nm
    May 11, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    Jon, was that a response to some comment that’s been removed?

  8. Jon
    May 12, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    It’s a response to Rick. The vulgar sexism is gross enough all on its own; the fact that the women he’s drooling over are friends makes it even more obnoxious.

  9. BRUCE
    May 12, 2013 at 9:43 pm

    Jon (or anyone),

    Speaking of Cia Leigh Cherryholmes, would you have any information as to what the former members of Cherryholmes are doing now. From the parents to the children? As I understand there will be a couple of reunion-type things in 2014. I have read bits and pieces but would like anyone who has the knowledge to post a general update on the whole group.

  10. Rick
    May 12, 2013 at 10:21 pm

    So Jon, according to your politically correct sensibilities all of the attractive women on Hee Haw were a vulgar display of sexism eh? Suit yourself…

    Bruce, Ceigh Leigh married a guy named Stetson Adkisson and they are making music together under the name “Stetson and Cia”! Imagine that! (lol) Here’s their website:
    http://www.stetsonandcia.com/home.cfm

    Since 2011 BJ has been a full time member of the Dailey and Vincent bluegrass band.

    Last I heard a year or two back Molly had recorded a very strange non-bluegrass solo album she prefers to call “eclectic” (don’t they all), and Skip had formed his own band. They definitely need to have a “Cherryholmes Family” website that has links to what all of the offspring are doing at the moment.

  11. Jon
    May 13, 2013 at 12:10 pm

    “So Jon, according to your politically correct sensibilities all of the attractive women on Hee Haw were a vulgar display of sexism eh? ”

    No, but publicly sniggering about their appearance would be.

    Cia and Stetson have recently released an album and done some touring as http://www.songsofthefall.com; they have videos at http://www.youtube.com/user/stetsonandcia , and here’s Cia playing banjo and singing harmony (on a song Jeremy Garrett and I wrote) as part of a bluegrass songwriter band (Cia, Jeremy, Josh Shilling, Sierra Hull and myself) that did a Station Inn show late last summer: http://youtu.be/fMOX8xwXHb0 .

    B.J.’s with Dailey & Vincent, and Skip fronts his own band, https://www.facebook.com/theskipcherryholmesquintet, which includes some great musicians; I’m really looking forward to hearing them.

    The best way to keep up with Molly right now is via Twitter, https://twitter.com/MKCherryholmes .

    I haven’t seen much of Jere or Sandy lately, they’re probably still resting up ;-).

  12. nm
    May 13, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    I see, Jon. I asked because it followed a comment by J.R. Journey, and I couldn’t understand what about that comment had prompted such revulsion.

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