Country music, like most good things, comes in two flavors: bland and spicy.
The bland kind is what you hear - and, just as important, see - on Country Music Television and the Nashville Network. It is warbled by pretty young men in spotless Stetsons and sprayed-on jeans, and pretty young women whose faces have been toughened by ambition and tenderized with scalpels and laser beams. It is marketed by media-savvy makeover artists who spend hour upon hour teaching their clients how to look, act and sound just like each other. It is vastly popular: Sales of country records quadrupled between 1989 and 1996. It is as tasty as pre-chewed baby food.
The spicy kind is what you used to hear on the clear-channel radio stations that each night blasted the Deep South with the high, hard-bitten wail of plain-spoken songs of love, work, marriage, divorce, death, heaven and hell, sung by men and women who remembered what it felt like to barely scrape by. (Johnny Cash spent his youth chopping cotton on a farm in Arkansas. "We were rich," he says. "A two-cow family.")
They sang and picked guitar because they loved to, and because it was a hell of a lot easier than pushing a plow in the mud or tightening bolts on an assembly line. Their music was as trendy as a Sears, Roebuck catalog, and as true to life as an emergency room on Saturday night.
Time was when a mere twist of the dial would bring their haunted, haunting voices directly into your car or kitchen, but times have changed. True country vanished from the commercial airwaves a decade or so ago, sentenced to death by the big-money consultants who invented the "hot country" format that made multi-millionaires out of the soulless, smooth-faced likes of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain. To find the real right thing, you need expert guidance - and you can get it at your neighborhood bookstore.
In recent years, an impressively large number of good books have been written about country. Skip the as-told-to memoirs and trash biographies: You don't need to know what brand of whiskey George Jones used to buy, or who Tanya Tucker kicked out of her bed last week. Instead, stick to the serious stuff, of which there is an abundance: survey histories, scholarly biographies, smart journalism.
Five books, all but one readily available in paperback, will tell you who matters most, what records to buy first and which tall tales to trust. Then you can turn off CMT and start getting to know the music pithily summed up by Harlan Howard, country's most valuable songwriter, as "three chords and the truth."
The standard history of country music is Bill C. Malone's "Country Music, U.S.A." (University of Texas Press, 576 pages, $17.95 paper). Malone, born into a family of East Texas tenant farmers, grew up to be a professor of history at Tulane University, but never lost his passion for the music on which he was raised.
The result was "Country Music, U.S.A.," originally published in 1968 and extensively revised in 1985, which traces country from its 19th-century Anglo-Celtic folk origins down to the New Traditionalist movement of the mid-'80s (just before the present-day dumbing down of country got going, in other words).
Like many academics who write about country, Malone is not entirely comfortable with its culture - he spends a bit too much time rooting around for hopeful signs of nascent social consciousness, and makes a few too many unnecessary excuses for the no-nonsense populist politics most country musicians unreflectively espouse - but that hasn't stopped him from supplying an even-handed, well-written account that covers all the bases efficiently.
From Rodgers to Yoakam
Malone has also edited "Classic Country Music: A Smithsonian Collection," a four-CD anthology of notable country recordings that begins with "Soldier's Joy," cut in 1929 by Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers, and ends with a 1985 hit single by the Judds.
In between are shrewdly chosen performances by virtually every key figure in country music - among them Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Roy Acuff, Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Ray Price, Patsy Cline, the Louvin Brothers, Buck Owens, Lefty Frizzell, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs and Dwight Yoakam, all names to remember and reckon with - plus an 84-page booklet by Malone that is itself an exemplary capsule history of country. ("Classic Country Music" can be ordered directly from the Smithsonian Institution by calling 1-800-863-9943.)
Once you've listened to "Classic Country Music," your next stop should be Nolan Porterfield's "Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America's Blue Yodeler" (University of Illinois Press, 512 pages, $16.95 paper), followed immediately by Colin Escott's "Hank Williams: The Biography" (Little, Brown, 307 pages, $11.95). Rodgers and Williams, the twin icons of country, lived fast and died young (Rodgers at 35, Williams at 29), leaving behind bodies of recorded work that remain fresh and distinctive to this day. Porterfield's biography is a scholarly but highly readable study that strips away seven decades' worth of accumulated legends without in the least diminishing Rodgers' stature; Escott's book, written for a more popular audience, is a comparably trustworthy recounting of Williams' short, painful life.
If your ear was caught and your curiosity piqued by the recordings by Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs included in "Classic Country Music," you may want to take a quick detour to explore the variant of country music known as bluegrass. Invented by Monroe in the '40s, bluegrass is played on unamplified string instruments (most famously the mandolin and banjo), and appeals strongly to pure-hearted listeners who warm to its rough-hewn, folk-influenced vocals and spectacular instrumental virtuosity. The standard history of bluegrass, Neil V. Rosenberg's "Bluegrass: A History" (University of Illinois Press, 447 pages, $18.95 paper), is a model of its kind - clear, cogent, sympathetic.
Intimidated by all those university-press books? For a one-stop overview of the best in classic country, go straight to Nicholas Dawidoff's just-published "In the Country of Country: People and Places in American Music" (Pantheon, 371 pages, $25.), in which the author of "The Catcher Was a Spy" chats with such luminaries as Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Charlie Louvin, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris and Iris DeMent - all distinguished purveyors of the stone-hard brand of country that doesn't get played on big-city commercial radio anymore.
Dawidoff is a New Englander who, like many non-Southern country-music lovers, has a wide-eyed way of taking its legends at face value. Still, he likes all the right people, and "In the Country of Country" is both evocative and written with an ear for the telling quote.
The chapter on Doc Watson, the blind guitarist-singer from Deep Gap, N.C., ends with this apt tribute from one of Watson's neighbors: "To Doc, there's no difference in him being a great guitar player than there is in old Joe down the road being a great auto mechanic ... The best thing you can be remembered for is being a decent human being. As well as I know him, Doc would say that's the whole thing. Live your life, don't make a great deal of enemies, and if people miss you when you're gone, you've probably lived a pretty good life."
That's first-class journalism - and that's what the best country music is all about.
Terry Teachout, the music critic of Commentary, writes the "Front Row Center" column for Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress. He played stand-up bass in Missouri honky-tonks in the '70s, and has been listening to country and bluegrass ever since. He is finishing a biography of H.L. Mencken.
Pub Date: 4/20/97