Scanning the Countryside: On Writing About Country
I’ve been listening to country music–not just hearing it in the background, but, as well as I know how, listening to it–for close to 45 years, and writing about it in various public places, off and on, for about 35. The publications and online outlets that have chosen to publish what I’ve reported and observed along the way have had some diverse, and often very distinct sets of regular readers, so how much needed to be explained or could be assumed would be understood about the music and its makers has varied, too, and, of course, what might potentially interest them–all questions that demanded even more careful attention before it was as easy for readers to speak for themselves as it is here. Followers of No Depression magazine have rarely been confused with those of The Wall Street Journal (for which I write regularly today), or those of that short-lived “NASCAR Dad” magazine American Thunder, or even those of the old rock music standby Crawdaddy, for some examples.
And yes, as that list suggests, I’ve tracked other sorts of music, too; particularly other sorts of American roots music. To some country fans that’s immediately suspect in itself–anything less than total attention to the genre being a sign (to that minority) of mixed feelings about the music and its makers, or even of “disloyalty.” As far as I’m concerned, it’s just meant that my longstanding love of country music has had some context: There are both comparisons and distinctions that I find I’m better prepared to make for it.
Country music has so often been misunderstood, underappreciated and misrepresented, and sometimes singled out among musical genres for disrespect, that it’s no wonder that its promoters, makers and staunchest fans have often felt the need to defend it. When regular country music reporting began to take hold in the 1950s, the writers inevitably had very close ties to the industry they covered. (Hey, only a healthy genre can support being written about.) Writers on the beat often–too often–saw themselves as promoting the field to the point that it was often hard to tell where “supporting” or “protecting” country stopped and flackery began. Fans got accustomed to an endless “upbeat” take on the music and its makers, with maybe a little star gossip thrown in for spice. The tougher sort of “tell it like it is” journalism and the more ambitious criticism that goes well beyond “thumbs up/thumbs down” reviewing, intended to broaden understanding, came to country music later and less prominently than it did in most pop music.
The question still lurked in editors’ minds: “Do people who listen to country music really want to read about it, not just the star gossip, glowing personality profiles and hype, but straight, knowledgeable talk about the music and its making–let alone serious discussion of how and why it works?” My answer has always been “Many don’t. Some do. And more might.” Country, however narrowly or broadly you choose to define it, is certainly strong enough and grown-up enough to be reported on as it is, and to have its history told straight. And for me, it matters enough to be taken seriously, respectfully–and with some humor. There’s no lack of passion in any of those. Conveniently, three prominent books out this summer and early fall 2010 remind us that there still are, and probably always will be, varying notions of how we could or should talk about country music.
Rosanne Cash’s remarkable new memoir, Composed, consistently demonstrates such intelligence, personal understanding and masterful, shaping literary craft that both those who disparage country as dumb and those suspicious of any signs of sophistication within it may tell you the book and Ms. Cash herself are “not country.” Don’t trust them. The artist who had 10 chart-topping country hits before taking her music, for the most part, in a more urban direction makes her relation to her family’s looming musical legacy, her arrival in the music as the privileged daughter of a country legend, her personal evolution in the wake of the family losses, and the impulses and crosscurrents that lay behind her songwriting and performing in the field all central in her story. Yes, Rosanne writes as tellingly of her inner life as she does of the world she lives and works in, but then, so she did, increasingly, in her music–back when nobody disputed that it was country. (see The 9513 review here.)
He was one of country music’s greatest energizers, innovators and popularizers, and boy, he always had a hell of a band, so many of us have very much looked forward to reporter Eileen Sisk’s new book Buck Owens, The Biography, the first bio to go into his story in great detail. Ms. Sisk has done her homework, interviewing those around him in life, and while he briefly cooperated, Buck himself. It was no secret in country circles that the private Buck could be difficult to deal with and was habitually tight with money, but what unfolds in Sisk’s 385 pages is an unrelenting horror show, with chapter after chapter of stories of his endless unromantic affairs and ill treatment of fellow music-makers, all with a relish that borders on the obsessive. The Buckaroos and others say Buck was a man you could both love and hate; Sisk systematically avoids the reasons he commanded that love and loyalty, and pays scant attention to his music as it developed–the main reason most of us would care about him in the first place. Maybe it’s just an update of old school country gossip-mongering I’ve mentioned that we learn more about the size of Buck’s body parts than of his talent, but the result, for me, was that this one just got more tedious and distasteful as it went along, piling on more of the same.
It’s possible to balance involving portraits of personalities with a band’s musical development; Ray Allen’s Gone to the Country: The New Lost City Ramblers & The Folk Music Revival, which will be out in October, is such a book, so a heads up on that. Allen fills in more about the personality and sensibility clashes between Ramblers founders Mike Seeger, Tom Paley and John Cohen than has been outlined elsewhere–but he also shows what difference that made for the band that took traditional country music to audiences that might never have heard it without them, while sparking the whole “Old Timey Music” revival.
That band doesn’t fit everyone’s definition of “country,” of course, but that’s a discussion for another time. You’ll find that I tend to keep that definition wide, “mainstream” vs. “alternative” or “independent” country arguments interesting me less, personally, than having a wide range of stories to explore–and music to be moved by. I’m proud to join the regulars here at the liveliest young site about country on the Web, and hope that in a modest way this ongoing column might add some additional perspective, as it scans the countryside.
- Paul W Dennis: Tom T & Dixie Hall are good people and I wish them all the best through this difficult time
- Paul W Dennis: Actually , it is not. We have so thoroughly debased our language that it is no longer possible to praise …
- Leeann Ward: Sheesh, Paul, that's a random/strange dig!
- Jack Williams: After reading that New Yorker article, I canceled my pre-order of the Basement Tapes box set. I love Bob …
- Leeann Ward: Wow! How terrible for Dixie Hall and Tom.
- Ken Morton, Jr.: Another twisted collection of songs to put into the Friday Five Hall of Fame, Juli.
- Arlene: I'd have included "Omie Wise." Doc Watson's is the version I'm familiar with but I think it's been recorded by …
- 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 …