Books

'The Encyclopedia of Country Music: Second Edition' Lives Up to Its Name

Some trends and figures are going to be left out, but this is the most comprehensive examination of country music in North America from 1922 to the present.

This second edition of The Encyclopedia of Country Music comes 14 years after its predecessor, enough of a gap to demonstrate how country music and the climate surrounding country music has changed and, indeed, how the record industry has evolved as well. In the post-iTunes, Napster, and Dot Com boom and bust world, attitudes, tastes, styles, and reflections have all changed and those revolutions are represented in the pages of this exhaustive and authoritative volume.

Those who hold copies of the previous edition will note that co-editors Michael McCall and John W. Rumble note several changes specific to this new volume. The work covers only the years since 1922 when, as McCall and Rumble write, “country performers first began broadcasting on the new medium of radio and made their first recordings”. The volume also only follows the genre in the American market; thus, the Bear Family label, which has been responsible for exhaustive retrospectives on artists such as Wanda Jackson, Marty Robbins, the Louvin Brothers, and even Johnny Western, is not referenced.

The editors include several artists whose work stretched beyond country boundaries and/or who may not be considered country artists full stop. Storied American songwriter John Hiatt is included, no matter that his records are more commonly played on rock and AAA radio than on Nashville-intensive ones. But he is firmly a member of the Music City tradition: he moved there in his late teens to work at Tree Publishing, has lived in the area for most of his life; his songs have been recorded by traditional -- Earle Thomas Conley and Suzy Bogguss -- country artists and those who, like Hiatt himself, defy easy classification -- Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash -- but who are undeniably welcome in the country music pantheon.

Steve Earle appears, although his son Justin Townes Earle, whose four releases to date are more in tune with traditional country than perhaps his father’s work has ever been, does not. The Carolina Chocolate Drops, a band mentioned several times in the volume, does not have its own entry. Iowa native William Elliott Whitmore who, like the younger Earle, has country appeal and style probably hasn’t draw the editors’ attention. (His increasing popularity in Europe and among youngsters from the American DIY underground may also explain some of this.) Their careers are, of course, just starting in comparison to the many legendary acts that appear here. No doubt their lack of major league sales and mainstream radio hits had some impact on this -- their contemporaries Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum -- are represented with ink commensurate to their accomplishments. (Hank III, in case you’re wondering, can be found alongside his father, grandfather, and aunt Jett.)

The one grave disappointment is that the editors have jettisoned representative recordings entries. They have done this, they write, in part due to the “volatile state of the recording industry” as well as the “ready availability of information about recordings on the Internet” and the popularity of iTunes, adding that they feel pointing readers to certain recordings would be “superfluous, if not downright futile”. This is regrettable because a volume that also carries an impressive photo essay on the evolution of cover art and bemoans the lack of an authoritative print publication -- in fact any print publication at all -- for the country music world, would seem to know better.

Including representative recordings would have lent greater authority to this volume and additional credibility to the entries made here. Although it has its reputable sources the Internet is also crowded with jerks and weirdoes, cranks and crooks, pirates and pillagers whose tastes aren’t vetted. But there’s a kind of self-defeatism that also follows with this line of thinking: No one buys records, I guess we should just give up, this line of thinking seems to go. Why bother making albums at all “nobody” listens to them all the way through. But that’s an all-too-easy explanation for weak album sales.

The fact is, weak record sales probably have more to do with rampant downloading than weak product (although that is, admittedly, a factor) but many of us still enjoy listening to an album from one end to the other, and value authoritative voices that can steer us to the right album or era of an artist’s career. Bowing to pirates who steal recordings and novices who buy songs that become as disposable to them as last week’s newspaper hardly seems the way to go to restore a once robust industry to peak health.

Still, this volume is great fun as it leaves virtually no stone unturned in the terrain it explores. Sidemen such as David Briggs, who has worked with Neil Young, B.B. King, Dolly Parton, Ernest Tubb, Alabama, and James Burton are present as one might expect, given their ubiquity on sessions and the influence they have continued to hold over future generations of country musicians. But lesser known figures, such as Dr. John Brinkley, also emerge. Listed in these pages primarily because he owned a border radio station that spread country music across the continent, he was notorious for his suspect medical practices. He created a “rejuvenation” surgery, in which he implanted billy goat sex glands into humans. He was driven out of Kansas, although only after he nearly became the state’s governor. A fiction writer could not have created someone as colorful and controversial as Brinkley, and it’s difficult to call to mind a character equally eccentric in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll.

Casual readers may not know who Vito Pelletieri was, but John W. Rumble’s entry on the one time Grand Ole Opry stage manager paints him vividly enough for readers that he becomes as alive to us as Chet Atkins and Ralph Stanley. Ditto Stringbean, the comedian and clawhammer banjo master who appeared on Hee Haw and at the Opry, whose brutal 1973 murder remains one of country music’s great tragedies. Key labels (OKeh, Monument, Montgomery Ward) are given their own entries, as are critical figures in radio and television broadcasting.

Major players in the business itself, including men such as label boss Mike Curb, who also served as Lieutenant Governor of California from 1979-1983, and Ralph Peer, a man who as “a pioneer in recording, music publishing, and artist management”, and whose ultimate impact is, according to writer Tony Scherman, “incalculable”, also appear, their stories adding new dimensions to how we listen to the music they helped release and popularize.

We also learn about the origins of bluegrass and the story of producer Jimmy Bowen, whose very name may well be synonymous with rascal. DeFord Bailey, the first black star of the Grand Ole Opry is present and his story fascinating enough that, despite the scarcity of recordings under his name, his work certainly deserves a reassessment.

Insurgent country and No Depression are not afforded entries, and neither are Levon Helm, The Band, Ringo Starr, or Shoji Tabuchi. While insurgent country may have been little more than a marketing ploy for Bloodshot Records in order that the upstart imprint might introduce a roster that has included Rex Hobart and The Misery Boys, Split Lip Rayfield, and The Pine Valley Cosmonauts, the acts listed above -- and many of their labelmates -- were the gateway for some younger listeners to older country, especially the Louvin Brothers, who would be cited as an influence by virtually every act in the Bloodshot stable.

Similarly, No Depression became the voice of the insurgent country movement, but also introduced/reintroduced artists such as Mickey Newbury and Bobby Bare to a younger audience. As for Levon Helm and The Band, it’s hard to imagine a voice that more accurately captured the spirit of Appalachia than his, and the songs which were developed by the group and credited to Robbie Robertson are as integral a chapter in the story of country rock as anything recorded by Gram Parsons or the latter day Byrds and certainly more in tune with rural America than the one that appeared in songs by the Eagles. (Note the lack of the definite article the on the band’s album covers.)

Whereas The Band played songs about America as it would be written about in history books and reported by those who lived it, Don Henley and his band wrote songs about the American past as it was represented in films and on television, presenting the world through a prism of a past that was either being invented or re-imagined via Gunsmoke and spaghetti westerns. Henley and company also wrote through the prism of excess and ennui that could only exist in the alleged promised land of California.

Finally, Ringo’s Beaucoups of Blues is not only the best thing in all of Starr’s solo recordings it’s easily one of the most interesting examples of a rock artist turning to Nashville in order to rejuvenate his creative spirits. (And it was an unapologetically country album, not a hybrid of country and rock.) And although Tabuchi is mainly for his -- some would say corny -- act and theater in Branson and the novelty that he’s a Japanese man who fell in love with country music -- but he remains a familiar name within the industry who can’t -- or, apparently, can -- be ignored, despite his curious popularity.

What gets left in and what gets left out will always be controversia,l but as a research and learning tool, this volume is impossible to beat for its sheer comprehensiveness and the attention to detail the writers have given to each of the entries.

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