Dreaming Out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes, And The Changing Face Of Nashville
Nashville, as Bruce Feiler observes early on, is a hotel (more accurately, a bank) centrally placed a day’s drive from 30 states. Only the quality of the road changes along that great asphalt way. The view from the window is much the same morning and night, just neon beads of franchise decor; the only hint of regional cuisine is to be found in the ebb and flow of restaurant chains — Shoney’s segueing into Denny’s, Waffle House transforming into its imitator, The Pit, then giving way in turn to Denny’s — and the presence or absence of grits on the menu.
Suburbs push out to the freeway at the edge of larger cities, vast tracts of uniformly manufactured townhouses abutting the rootless, restless, rushing American imperative that makes such subdivisions good business. Generica, a friend calls it. For the moment the transition seems complete. In less than a century we have moved from rural to urban, from urban to suburban. And, from the comfort of their suburban gas fireplaces, only the most wealthy can now aspire to return to the country.
And no matter where you go, nor what road you take, country radio sounds the way those new homes look.
Once the roots music of displaced farmers, country is now the rootless music of the suburbs. The prince and princess of suburban country are Garth and Wynonna, gifted performers, master marketeers, talk show veterans, archetypes of new country.
And the audience? They choose to live in those townhouses by the freeway, watch those chat shows, listen to that music. Choose all that. Everybody is happy chasing a vanilla-flavored American dream, save for a few disaffected critics and those to whom that dream is forever a mirage. (And the children of Generica who rebel; hence punk rock, gangs, drugs, fanzines.)
This is not news, of course. But why it happened and how it worked, ah, that’s a good story, equal parts business-as-sport and news-as-gossip. Bruce Feiler is a Yale-educated, fifth-generation Georgian, a product of the Old South who fled north and east, then returned to the New South. Feiler renders the story with what in pro wrestling would be called a smart mark’s passion. That is, he’s a fan, he knows it’s a hustle, he likes it anyway. Maybe even he likes it because he knows it’s a hustle.
Granted exceptional access to Garth, Wynonna, Wade Hayes, and a number of other Music Row players, Feiler does a commendable job rendering their world. For the most part, he concentrates on exploring the relationship between his three subjects and their audience, and on the marketing of that relationship. It is, then, a good, solid primer on the inner workings of Music Row, with just enough chatty gossip tossed in to entice fans.
He is not (nor does he pretend to be) a music critic. No, like much of the audience for new country, Feiler is a late-arriving fan, and happy to have been invited to the party. His first three books were about running away with the circus, being a journalist in Japan, and being a graduate student at Oxford. Indeed, a largely unexplored subtext of Dreaming Out Loud concerns Feiler’s own rapprochement with the South.
Feiler’s central argument is, like the best country songs, simple. First, that country music is whatever country radio will play, whatever a self-identified country audience will buy. And that it has been so since Ralph Peer recorded Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family in 1927. Second, that the rise of new country corresponds to the settling of America into suburbs, to rising concerns about values, to the onset of Soundscan, and to the onslaught of tabloid culture. And third, that music is now more than ever subordinate to marketing:
“The widely held view on Music Row is that good songs matter more than anything. Have a hit song (“get it in the grooves,” as the saying goes) and everything else will follow. The cold reality is: This view is mistaken. Music is important. It is the ticket that can get an artist over the threshold and into the room where the ultimate winners are chosen. But once artists cross into that room, only a few still manage to thrive. Why? The answer, to a large degree, is myth.”
Myth. There it is. Myth and Oprah. One comes late, a few steps after Mr. Feiler, but one comes to country music drawn by its capacity to reveal the unvarnished truth, that joyous link between Hank Williams and Sid Vicious. Instead one finds myth.
But, no, it really is about the music. That is part of the artist’s agony Feiler’s access reveals. The money, the fame, the myth-making, little enough of that lasts. The music — great music, anyway — that lasts. That endures. That is as close to immortality as one can hope to get. If the only standard of success is Soundscan and People magazine (and this seems to be the standard Feiler is happy to adopt), well…
Clearly the aesthetic which drives this magazine is not (nor should it be) shared by Music Row. But while there is much to argue and agonize over throughout Feiler’s book, Dreaming Out Loud is at least a solid portrait of the beast on its own terms. He does not dig too deeply, brushes by what has been lost in this transition, is satisfied (and maybe a little smug) to be on the winning team. Like the music about which he so lovingly writes, one wishes for more depth, more discovery, less detergent.