In The Country Of Country: People And Places In American Music
Listen to Ralph Stanley talking about his granddaughter: The other day when I walked in the door, she…said, Papaw, if you ever die, I want to lie right down with you. Stuff like that, makes you feel good and bad, dont it?
Its moments like this eerie and beautiful in precisely equal measure that are the real strength of Nicholas Dawi_doffs new book, In The Country Of Country: People And Places In American Music. In a series of often revealing character sketches, Dawidoff gets down the words, and the voices, of 20 country music legends men and women whose contributions to the genre have been, in most cases, incalculable, but who have rarely been treated so respectfully in the popular press. Whether hes speaking with song_writer Harlan Howard, pickers such as Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, or great singers from Kitty Wells to Iris DeMent, Dawidoff clearly admires his subjects, and the way he so regularly just steps back and lets them talk is what makes this book essential to anyone who cares about country music.
Like an exclusively country version of Peter Guralnicks great Feel Like Going Home, Dawi_doff (author of The Catcher Was A Spy) is more interested in letting us see and hear his subjects than in commenting on them, and he seems to have nearly as strong a capacity for getting people to talk openly with him as Guralnick does. In his travels from the Sand Mountains of Alabama to the streets of Bakersfield, Dawidoff captures many wonderful moments: an indomitable Bill Monroe talking to his friends (I want you all to keep pulling for me and Ill keep pulling for you); Kitty Wells analyzing her groundbreaking smash It Wasnt God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels (It was kinda the womenfolk getting back at the menfolk); Doc Watson recounting how his father built him his first instrument (You boys skin [that cat], and Ill make you a banjo); West Coast star Rose Maddox explaining why her family gave her away as a child (They couldnt afford to feed me). Perhaps the books most moving moment is when Charlie Louvin explains how much he misses his late brother Ira: Its been 30 years…and still, if Im playing a Louvin Brothers song, when I get to the harmony part, I move off to one side of the mike. Its a habit I cant break.
Moments like this, as Ralph Stanley says, make us feel good and bad simultaneously, and Dawidoff understands that such moments are what country music is all about. Like everyone else who was born in the second half of this century, Dawidoff grew up in a generally urban, rock n roll world; still, he took to country music fairly early. When he was 11, an uncle sent him a record of the Carter Family singing Theres a dark and troubled side of life/Theres a bright and sunny side too, he writes, and after that he was hooked. His book is at its strongest when its successfully balancing those two sides of life: bad and good, desperation and joy, Saturday night and Sunday morning.
But Dawidoff is still a child of the rock era, so its not surprising that the books few weaknesses primarily come when he attempts to evaluate country music with a rock aesthetic. Some_times, this just means he makes silly pronouncements. His [Johnny] Cash was the first punk rocker, for example, is indefensible no matter on which side of the rock/country divide one stands. His description of Cashs daughter Rosanne as a country-punk singer is downright bizarre. And his concluding argument that rocker Bruce Springsteen and bands such as Golden Smog are more obvious heirs to the Hanks Snow and Williams, respectively, than many contemporary country acts is something of a stretch in terms of lyrical vision, and an even bigger one musically.
Mainly, though, the problem is one of emphasis. For most of the book, Dawidoff seems far more interested in the pain and trial of Saturday night than in the peace of Sunday morning which misses the point. The catalogues of Cash, DeMent, Stanley, Monroe, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and most of the rest of the artists here are about both pain and peace, equally. The Stanleys A Vision Of Mother shines poignant light on Merle Haggards Mama Tried. And vice versa.
Dawidoffs occasional bias toward the darker side of this equation means, for one thing, that he is sometimes too taken in by naive notions of authenticity. In his prologue, he spends a couple of pages arguing that one reason classic country beats the contemporary kind is that the lives of the legends he writes about really have been hard a pretty picture, no doubt, but a fairly unsophisticated one as well. Dawidoffs emphasis also means he tends to privilege the sad or scary over the joyous. He dislikes the American Recordings version of Cashs Mean Eyed Cat, for example, because Cash has added, alas, a happy ending as if happy endings are somehow less true than sad ones. Perhaps this is why his essay on George Jones is so much shorter than most of the rest in the book. In the final years of his life, Jones seems to have genuinely found peace. And what could possibly be interesting about that?
There are occasional errors here (The Blizzard features a lame horse, not a dog), and once every few chapters, Dawidoffs prose tries too hard to be clever: Steve Earle has kept both his hair and his rap sheet scruffy; Harlan Howard prefers to forgo socks, but flashes his broad, boyish grin often, as if in compensation. But all of this is nitpicking. The voices and the stories are the things that truly matter here, and Dawidoff captures them wonderfully. And, when once bitter rivals Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs sit side by side at a picnic, friends again; or when Iris DeMent weeps tears of loss and joy from remembering her father and his people; or when George Jones preparing to mow his lawn instead of downing a bottle admits that hes really enjoying life for the first time in 63 years, the balance even begins to be set right. At its very best, Dawidoffs book makes us feel good and bad, just like country music.