All Music Guide To Country
Over a decade after its debut, the All Music Guide website and print editions are the be-all, end-all for fans, collectors, journalists and researchers. The Second Edition of their Guide To Country proclaims that it “reviews and rates 10,281 recordings by 1,219 artists in all styles.” Senior editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine proclaims it “the best guide to country recordings yet assembled.”
AMG’s methodology is simple. By consulting liner notes, articles and reference works (without crediting those sources), their writers create style descriptions of various subgenres, followed by biographies and chronologically arranged album reviews. Given the slapdash nature of country releases and reissues, Erlewine correctly states that “what’s out there in the market is a mess.”
Does All Music Guide To Country live up to its hype? It should. They’ve had over a decade to clean up, correct and revise. Instead, they’ve rested on their laurels, resulting in a multitude of inaccuracies, sloppy edits, misjudgments and bad writing that render the entire book a mess. AMG has experienced contributors in Richie Unterberger, the late Cub Koda, Tom Roland, Michael McCall, Ron Wynn and Brian Mansfield. Most, however, are relative unknowns, their expertise questionable, their writing rife with misstatements that weren’t caught in editing.
Style descriptions often collapse into gibberish. “Alternative Country,” they declare, “refers to country bands who play traditional country but bend the rules slightly” and are “frequently subverting musical traditions with singer/songwriter and rock and roll lyrical [and musical] aesthetics.” Come again? They declare the Bakersfield Sound “the first [country] subgenre…to rely heavily on electric instrumentation (and) a defined backbeat.” In truth, earlier western swing and honky-tonk bands inspired Bakersfield’s amplification. Bluegrass had a backbeat in the 1940s. And it’s unclear how “Western Swing Revival” music differs from western swing.
Artist biographies are rife with mistakes or skewed priorities. Marty Robbins’ birth name is Robinson, not Robertson. Erlewine’s Chet Atkins bio and Jason Ankeny’s Jerry Byrd narratives are brimming with misstatements. Webb Pierce, says Erlewine, purchased “material items…instead of indulging in intoxicants.” Webb’s drinking buddies might dispute that (actually, he did both). Steve Huey has Hank Thompson “giving a break” to Merle Travis, a star before Hank’s first national hit. Bruce Eder ignores fiddler Tommy Jackson’s pivotal role in defining Ray Price’s sound. One wonders what justifies Bill Haley’s bio being longer than Hank Williams’, or why they’ve totally ignored John Prine.
The reviews suffer from similar unevenness. Unterberger’s insights on John D. Loudermilk are incisive; Erlewine capably evaluates Nick Lowe. Others inexplicably offer star ratings but no text. Some reviewers, insufficiently knowledgeable about a given artist, pad their copy with empty blather, describing cover photos or explaining song lyrics in excruciating detail. Overall, AMG seems more interested in offering lively copy, not intelligent, informed commentary.
Reviewing k.d. lang’s Shadowland, produced by Owen Bradley, contributor Vik Iyengar, unfamiliar with the aesthetics of Bradley’s Nashville Sound production style, naively sees lang shifting toward “polished pop.” AMG’s liberal definition of country is laudable, but giving pop singer-composer Lee Hazlewood more space than Ray Price or Charley Pride is simply bizarre.
Evaluating country on film, Mark Deming, who writes for AMG’s sister operation the All Movie Guide, reviews nineteen films — some of them irrelevant — starting in 1966, decades after the first country films appeared. Other extended essays that close the book desperately need updating.
AMG’s longevity and marketing creates a perception of credibility, but as fact checkers and writers become overly dependent on it, its many blatant fallacies risk becoming irrefutable truths. In the end, the All Music Guide To Country succeeds mainly as a cautionary on the perils of offering information by the pound. Consult at your own risk.