Truth Is Stranger Than Publicity
A number of entries deleted from the first volume have made way for two entire essays in this one, and the essays are especially insightful. If the topics—many of which will be elaborated upon in the coming paragraphs—are somewhat predictable, their execution is more often than not wonderful, and their offers lend even the most familiar topic a sense of freshness.
Paul Kingsbury’s examination of album art through the years demonstrates the art’s curious evolution. Kingsbury’s words are minimal as he allows the pictures to tell their own stories—glancing at early examples from Al Dexter and Woody Guthrie, we quickly understand why covers from country’s earliest era have not been re-imagined all that often in contemporary times, despite their obvious bright-eyed charm.
Elvis Presley’s 1956 self-titled debut inspired the cover of the The Clash’s 1979 classic London Calling and The Louvin Brothers’ Satan Is Real remains as iconic as ever. Some covers are hilarious, no matter the era they were created in—such as the one for Mack Vickery’s Live! at the Alabama Women’s Prison and Moe Band’s I Just Started Hatin’ Cheatin’ Songs Today. Steve Earle’s Guitar Town, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band’s 1989 self-titled release, and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Shooting Straight in the Dark exemplify the new country that was taking hold during the ‘80s, while Sugarland’s Love On The Inside, Keith Urban’s Defying Gravity, and Taylor Swift’s Fearless are all examples of life in the times of Photoshop where the covers feel less imaginative and less original than bygone eras.
Holly George-Warren brings “The Look of Country: The Colorful History of Country Music Costuming”, which traces the history of country clothing from Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family to Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood. Often, she writes, performers dressed appropriate to their audiences (the Carters looked like they were ready for church because, in fact, many of their performances were in houses of worship), or according to an image they had created in song (Rodgers was known as The Singing Brakeman).
Western wear gained prominence in the ‘30s as casual wear began to take hold, although Nudie suits (later popular with Gram Parsons and other country rockers) would see a return to formality by the end of the next decade. Outlaw country brought a resurgence in the informal and the appearance of the tattered while the boom of the urban cowboy in the late ‘70s saw the return of western wear, which has held its own since then.
Some statements have been simple—Johnny Cash comes to mind—while female artists such as Dolly Parton have discovered that excess has its appeal. Tomboys (Gretchen Wilson) and tarts (Shania Twain) are given their due as are those whose good taste (Dwight Yoakam) is undeniable. Marty Stuart weighs in on the elaborate suits he prefers, calling them “pieces of art”.
Norm Cohen deftly reports on “The Folk and Popular Roots of Country Music” with attention to minstrel shows and Tin Pan Alley as well as jazz and blues. Bill C. Malone offers “The Gospel Truth: Christianity and Country Music”, which examines the explicit connection between the church and the Opry stage. He touches on standers such as “The Old Rugged Cross” and “The Unclouded Day” which are as much a part of the country vernacular as “The Great Atomic Power” and “Weapon of Prayer”, both of the latter prime examples of how the Louvins deftly blended the sacred and the secular. Perhaps surprisingly religious songs, Malone reports, reached their peak after World War II when rural folk who were newly transported to the urban life sought ways in which they might reconnect with their pasts. Moreover, he writes, it was also a way to “explain and cope with new and sometimes-frightening problems” encountered in the urban landscape.
Hank Williams of course gave us “I Saw The Light” and if it wasn’t always easy to separate the sinner from the song, “Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea” could explain Williams, Ira Louvin, and others. Latter day artists such as Emmylou Harris would go all out with gospel albums and Lyle Lovett would offer his own take on the gospel tradition time and again, perhaps most notably with “Church”. Naturally, there are examples of the vocal converts such as Glen Campbell, Ricky Skaggs, and the aforementioned Marty Stuart.
Arguably the most helpful—and in-depth—for the country music scholar is Nolan Porterfield’s “Extra! Read All About It!: The Literature of Country Music”, an excellent historiography of the written word about the saints and sinners of the country stage. He sheds light on volumes you may not have heard of before reading his essay (such as David C. Morton and Charles K. Wolfe’s DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music (forget the clanky, plainsong title) and shames the “as told to” books by Hank Williams Jr., Merle Haggard, Charley Pride, and the like, although those works can provide some useful fodder for scholarship.
No such essay would be complete without mention of Coal Miner’s Daughter, but Porterfield also introduces us to Alton Delmore’s Truth Is Stranger Than Publicity, which is appended with “notes, commentary, and discography by the ubiquitous country music scholar Charles K. Wolfe, who was largely responsible for unearthing Delmore’s unpublished and forgotten manuscript”.
Pictorial histories, endless books of lists, and general histories also abound. He also finds time for Richard Peterson’s Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity and Joli Jensen’s The Nashville Sound: Authenticity, Commercialization and Country Music. (Of course, if you want an authoritative print periodical to help you while away moments at the dentist’s office or to inform you about the latest releases and trends in country music, you’re out of luck; there isn’t one.)
Most valuable of anything here—besides, of course, the encyclopedia as a whole—is the impressive bibliography Porterfield assembles with 60 titles that range from general works, reference volumes, autobiographies (including Johnny Cash and Patrick Carr’s Cash: The Autobiography), record guides, region specific studies, and works of scholarly analysis that include Bill C. Malone’s Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’: Country Music and the Southern Working Class. Malone’s essay in this volume, “The South and Country Music”, speaks to his expertise and invites a deeper reading of his work.
David M. Ross follows “Twenty Years of Change: Music’s Digital Transformation”, while Chris Willman examines the politics of country music in “The Fightin’ Side of Me”. Curiously, he cites one of the more controversial country figures in recent memory, Chely Wright, who said, “The thing that keeps country rearing its head above water, or creates those moments where we’re the #1 kind of music, is the fact that it’s a Polaroid of what’s going on in our nation.”
It’s no surprise that he points out the long history of conservatism within the genre but it is curious that Willie Nelson, as the author notes, has gotten away with politics far more liberal than that of Dixie Chick Natalie Maines. The list of songs, writers, and performers found in the essay are as expansive as the ideologies. This is no surprise, of course, genres don’t really specify politics as evidenced in the rock world where former Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar is an avowed conservative and the Canadian rock band Rush has lyrics that are more in line with the up-by-the-bootstraps thinking of Ronald Reagan than some of its fans might allow. Make no mistake, the politics of country are hardly ever subtle, whether “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” or Steve Earle’s “Condi Condi”.
This subject has filled its own volumes, including Peter La Chapelle’s excellent 2007 work Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Migration to Southern California as well as Chris Willman’s Rednecks and Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music published the same year.
Other essays focus on Music Row itself, the importance of early records in the rise of country music, a history of songwriting, and the evolution of the country music touring circuit.
Several appendices offer scholars information on the all-time best selling albums in the country sphere, members of the Grand Ole Opry which includes the dates when these members joined the show, a list of members in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and one appendix each for the CMA, ACM, and IBMA Awards.
As a tool for scholars, researchers, and obsessives this volume will be hard to improve upon; it’s authoritative, easy to access, easy to read, and captivating. I read a few of the sections in strict alphabetical order—moving from the A section all the way through C before switching, at random, to the Rs, then the Hs, then back to the Ds, with little sense of fatigue in any of those endeavors.
Few readers will probably choose to read the book in its entirety, of course, but to challenge and acquaint themselves with certain eras, trends, or artists, the might find it useful to chip away at some of the sections in as comprehensive a fashion as possible.
Let’s hope that by the third edition, the editors restore the section on representative recordings and that that volume also sacrifices none of the art or beauty contained in this one.