Roadkill On The Three-Chord Highway: Art And Trash In American Popular Music
In this new collection, writer Colin Escott proves again that he has impeccable taste, a world-class record collection, and a fascination with the behind-the-scenes artistic choices and business dealings that, sometimes, transform mere records into hits.
If Roadkill On The Three-Chord Highway has a weakness, it’s that Escott rarely explores the emotional depths of the music he writes about. To Escott, the value of the records he loves — Perry Como’s “Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes” and Roy Orbison’s “Crying”, for examples, or what he terms the “power and the beauty” of Skeets McDonald’s early sides — is self-evident; you either hear it or you don’t.
In other words, Escott is a historian — indeed, he is perhaps our foremost chronicler of the record business — but not a critic. This distinction helps explain why Roadkill never makes good on (nor even really addresses) the aesthetic discussion promised by its subtitle. Instead, as he did in Tattooed On Their Tongues: A Journey Through The Backrooms Of American Music (1998), Escott delivers revealing essays on a cast of music biz characters. Some of them hardly qualify as roadkill, as in his opening section (titled “The Smoother Side Of Town”) on big-time pop stars Orbison, Como and Patti Page; but all of his subjects have compelling, often important stories. Escott tells these stories in prose that is either stark (his description of crooner Jim Reeves’ plane-crash death) or breezy (the quirky careers of the Collins Kids, say, or of Music Row schemer Fabor Robison), as is most appropriate.
Escott, best known for his essential biography of Hank Williams, also devotes essays here to Wanda Jackson, Wynn Stewart and several others, but he saves his best work for a concluding chapter on born-too-late honky-tonker Vernon Oxford. Escott captures Oxford’s devotion to old styles and his disappointing recording career (as well as his subsequent bitterness and bouts with alcohol) with real sensitivity and, most appealingly, the unmistakable gratitude of a true fan.