Are You Ready For The Country
The subtitle of this English vision of American musical history reads: “Elvis, Dylan, Parsons and the roots of country rock,” offering rather a disparate chunk of history. Peter Doggett, the longtime (1980-99) editor of Record Collector, begins by offering a kind of big bang auteur theory of musical evolution.
Doggett opoens by suggesting that Johnny Cash’s decision to feature Bob Dylan on his TV show was a singular, earthshaking event, as opposed to another step on the continuum of creative exploration that both men have long pursued. He then argues that Dylan’s dalliance with country music made it acceptable for lesser figures in rock to do the same, and at the end of that process we get the Eagles, Poco, and Alabama.
It is, naturally, easier for Doggett to follow Gram Parsons through the Byrds, the Stones, the Burrito Brothers and into Emmylou Harris. At the end of which we get the Eagles, Poco, and Linda Ronstadt.
Settling on causes and effects in musical movements is always fraught. Doggett’s thesis (or theses, properly) is certainly arguable, and arguments on either side make for good reading, and good thinking.
But somewhere, perhaps a third of the way through Are You Ready For The Country, it becomes clear that Doggett isn’t really working toward a coherent theoretical view of country rock history. Chapters dart back and forth through time, not quite haphazardly, following various musical factions as they develop and disintegrate, and returning to them as needed.
Take, chosen randomly, Chapter 37, “Rednecks,” in which the reader is promised (in all of eight pages) “Satire and suspicion between country and rock, 1969-1992: Merle Haggard; Frank Zappa; Neil Young; Lynyrd Skynyrd; Randy Newman; Eugene Chadbourne; Mojo Nixon and Jello Biafra; k.d. lang.”
No, that’s not history, and it certainly doesn’t argue for the advancement of a coherent theory. That said, musicians are a messy, meandering lot who resist categories as fervently as they resist day jobs. And it is entertaining.
Once one gives up on Doggett’s thesis, his book becomes a splendidly informed tour through a first-rate record collection. You may not, for example, agree with his assessment of Neil Young’s 1980s country work, but surely he’ll provoke you into digging a record or two out just to see.