Scanning the Countryside: On Writing About Country

Barry Mazor | August 17th, 2010

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.

1 Ping

  1. [...] UPDATE: Don’t miss Barry Mazor’s take on the Buck bio here on The 9513. [...]
  1. Paul W Dennis
    August 17, 2010 at 7:09 am

    Thanks for the reports on these books. Your assessment of the Owens biography matches what I’ve read elesewhere, so I will pass on that one. I am particularly looking forward to the book on The New Lost City Ramblers. For some reason they’ve been largely forgotten – yet they could hardly be more important. I hope the book sparks more interest in their music

  2. Leeann Ward
    August 17, 2010 at 7:52 am

    I look forward to a series like this. I’ve been away from home for the last few days, but I’m looking forward to the Cash book being in my mailbox when I get back this evening. I don’t plan to check out the Owens’ book at this point, however. I don’t mind reading unflattering things about artists that I like as long as I don’t feel that it’s too speculative or needlessly sensational, which this book sounds like it is. I admit that I’m interested in reading about artists’ business practices and interractions with people in general, but I could care less about their sexual activities in any way.

  3. Leeann Ward
    August 17, 2010 at 7:56 am

    Barry,
    This is off topic, but I’m curious to know what you think about the book from a bunch of years ago, Three Chords and the Truth. I can’t remember off hand who wrote it (hope it wasn’t you…), but I’ve always thought that book was pretty speculative and I don’t know if much of it was 100% true. I read the book, but got rid of it instead of keeping it in my country music book collection. It’s always bothered me, probably because of things that I don’t necessarily want to believe about certain artists, but I’m wondering if I got rid of it because my feeling about it was right or reactive to information that I didn’t want to know.

  4. Jon
    August 17, 2010 at 8:16 am

    That was Bruce Feiler, Leeann.

  5. Jon
    August 17, 2010 at 8:19 am

    Whoops, sorry, got it confused with Dreaming Out Loud (Feiler); Three Chords… was Laurence Leamer.

  6. Barry Mazor
    August 17, 2010 at 9:03 am

    I think the main operating fact about “Three Chords” now, Leeann, is what you’ve already noted: it’s from a bunch of years ago, and was meant to be a “state of the situation in country, now” book at the time. It’s a long time since I read that one myself, so I don’t want to comment on the details, but it seems it would best serve as one take on that time (mid-90s) by this point.

  7. J.R. Journey
    August 17, 2010 at 9:08 am

    I just finished Meeting Jimmie Rodgers a few months ago, and was very impressed with the amount of research that obviously went into creating it. I have a feeling I’ll use it as a go-to resource a lot in the future.

    I’m very excited at the prospect of reading a regular series from a genuine historian like Barry Mazor. Nice catch, 9513.

  8. Roy Kasten
    August 17, 2010 at 9:14 am

    Thanks for the insight and reading list. Now if only I had it at the beginning of summer! :) Looking forward to reading you here, Barry.

  9. Jon
    August 17, 2010 at 9:22 am

    Holy cr*p. Hey, Roy, you don’t have a copy of that No Depression parody thing, do you? Barry?

  10. Brady Vercher
    August 17, 2010 at 9:29 am

    Enjoyed the article, Barry.

    It’s a shame the Buck bio doesn’t have enough redeeming qualities to make it worthwhile, but I had a feeling it’d be as you described it after reading a few reviews and interviews.

  11. Chris A
    August 17, 2010 at 11:03 am

    Hey Barry,

    Great article. Thanks. To answer your question, for me personally, I love to read about country music. Country Weekly has a great article on their website about “Smoky Mountain Rain” and last year the9513 posted a link to a wonderful article about the guitar solo in “Pancho and Lefty”. I love those types of article and can’t get enough. I also like the full length books and bios.

  12. Rick
    August 17, 2010 at 11:15 am

    I’m far more interested in listening to great country music than reading about it or about the artists themselves. I do make an exception for the reviews written back in the 1980’s in Stereo Review magazine by Alanna Nash. Here article on then new artist Iris Dement was so far superior to the rock music articles featured back then it seemed out of place…

  13. CMW
    August 17, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    I’m so, so excited to get to read some of Barry Mazor’s work on this site.

  14. Jordan Blake
    August 17, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    It is the worst hatchet Job that I have ever seen that is written by this Sisk woman. Buck Owens is due something better that this piece of trash she calls a Biography (unauthorized) Buck Owens has had the same employees working for him for over 40 yrs…some maybe longer. You don’t hear all the great stuff he did for people, all you hear is a bunch of stuff that happens on the road with most musicians, and the second hand stuff is 40 yrs old and most of the people she claims reported this stuff are dead…I could go on and on about the lies in this book, but I won’t , I think it is so poorly written and filled with rehashed lies.

  15. Jayne
    August 17, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    It’s nice to read intelligent writing on a site devoted to country music, and not just who wore what and ate what!!!!!!

    Luv it Barry!

  16. Leeann Ward
    August 17, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    How much reporting is being done on who ate what? Well, I suppose Allison B does it a lot at cmt.com…but other than her?

  17. kevin w
    August 17, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    That Elieenn Sisk book on Buck Owens sounds like the same kind of book Albert Goldman wrote on Elvis. Little on the music, more on the sleaze

  18. Jon
    August 17, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    Leeann, you’re misunderestimating Alison (one “l”) Bonaguro. Not that she doesn’t write some fluffy stuff, but “a lot?” Not really.

  19. Leeann Ward
    August 17, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    Sorry, “Alison.”

    We will simply have to disagree (a lot) on this one. I’m not budging. I’ve always felt bad for the personal attacks that people lob at her and I never think that name calling is acceptable, but I’ll be the first in line to agree with those who have very little respect for her writing at the CMT blog. I’ve tried to give her a chance, but it’s just better for me not to even read what she writes at this point, even though I still do here and there, which is something that I’ve regretted each and every time.

  20. Leeann Ward
    August 17, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    I will give you that she may not write about what people eat a lot, but even one time is too many and she’s done it more than once for sure.

  21. sam (sam)
    August 17, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    I believe that Alison recently posted something about drinking beer laced with urine. Not quite eating, but close.

  22. Matt Bjorke
    August 17, 2010 at 11:49 pm

    Perhaps the whole point of the Alison Bonaguro blogging at CMT is to be from the POV of a country music loving fan in the target demographic who happens to also be a writer? This this would mean that they (CMT) want ‘fluffy’ stuff there, at least part of the time.

  23. Jon
    August 18, 2010 at 7:26 am

    I will give you that she may not write about what people eat a lot, but even one time is too many…

    What? You think the subject of food should be off-limit on a country music site?!

  24. Leeann Ward
    August 18, 2010 at 7:58 am

    Jon,
    you know the difference, seriously.

  25. Jon
    August 18, 2010 at 8:26 am

    I’m seriously puzzled by that comment, really.

  26. Leeann Ward
    August 18, 2010 at 8:45 am

    There’s a difference between using food analogies on a country music blog (which is what I assumed you were referring to) than telling us what Carrie Underwood ate at her wedding…in more than one post.

  27. Leeann Ward
    August 18, 2010 at 8:55 am

    Btw, I said “what people eat”, not that food cannot be written about on a country music blog.

  28. Jon
    August 18, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    Isn’t food what people eat? ;-)

    Seriously, I think we’re getting into an area where it’s useful to distinguish between a critic, whose role is relatively narrow, and a music journalist. Country music journalism has a long tradition of covering not just artists’ music, but their, ah, modes of living as well – and I’m not talking about exposes, but rather in areas like Bill Monroe working on his farm, or the happy home life (!) of Hank, Audrey, Lycrecia and Bocephus, or the beautiful home that Tammy Wynette and George Jones shared. Cookbooks featuring recipes (purportedly) from country stars have been around for decades, and so on. So I don’t see a good reason for getting on Alison Bonaguro’s case, or anyone else’s, for continuing on in that vein; it may not be a part of country music criticism, but it’s certainly a part of country music journalism.

  29. Leeann Ward
    August 18, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    Don’t worry, her writing about what stars are eating is the very least of my complaints regarding what she writes.

  30. Jon
    August 18, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    Well, ok, but since you brought it up… ;-)

  31. Leeann Ward
    August 18, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    Yeah, I did.

  32. Cardsgal
    August 25, 2010 at 11:44 am

    Good to see Barry’s byline on this site!

  33. Dennis Glaser
    July 4, 2011 at 3:54 am

    For some background information on Nashville’s Music Row in the 1970s, please check out my newest book: “Music City’s Defining Decade,” available now at Amazon & Barnes&Noble.com. I worked in the biz in various capacities and now, in my early 80s and in cancer treatment, I was determined to “tell it like it was.” Including the truth behind the “Outlaw” moniker. Hint: Hazel Smith is a big fat liar!

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