Three Chords And The Truth
Laurence Leamer doesn’t give up easy. While researching this gossipy country music tell-all, he turned up in Dublin, hoping, somehow, that Emmylou Harris would let him tag along as she and the Hot Band crisscrossed Europe. Amazingly, the reclusive Harris agreed. This doggedness typifies Leamer’s obsession with getting to the heart of his subject (Leamer has performed similar literary sleuthing jobs on Johnny Carson, the Kennedy women and the Reagans). Often dropping into a writing style that wouldn’t be misplaced in The National Enquirer, he’s gleefully drawn to the backroom deals and backstage passes of Music City, a world where the artists’ mansions pale in comparison to their egos, and the makers of kings and queens rule.
Cleverly using the 1996 Fan Fair at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds as his ground zero, Leamer plots country music’s evolution from the “mom-and-pop store of American culture” to its current status as a billion-dollar industry via a series of mini bios. With a cast of stars for whom a surname is superfluous — think Garth, Reba, LeAnn, Patty, Alan, Vince, Wynonna — Leamer’s tome is a close cousin of Fred Goodman’s far more erudite but no less bitchy The Mansion on the Hill, which used the careers of Springsteen, Dylan and Young as clues in his search for the reason the music business lost its soul.
And in much the same style as Goodman, virtually no one is free from Leamer’s acid tongue: Garth Brooks is part musical savior, part arch manipulator; Wynonna Judd is a human wildcat, scratching out Ma Naomi’s eyes while alienating all and sundry; Reba McEntire comes across as the C&W queen with an ego of Godzilla-like proportions, her stage show so flamboyant that Leamer calls her “the Siegfried & Roy of country.” Eileen (a.k.a. Shania) Twain is also given the Leamer treatment, having exaggerated her hard-knocks upbringing and Indian roots to gain country cred, while her husband and management crafted her foxy lady image. Only everyman Vince Gill and Emmylou Harris, the honky-tonk angel with a broken wing, escape unscathed.
Leamer does take some time out to appreciate the music when not gossiping. He pays homage to the heartfelt tunes of songwriter Harlan Howard, who provided the book’s title; the emotional power of Twain’s voice (although he later bemoans her “aural marketing”); Dolly Parton’s cool, clear country pop; and the gut-level impact of Steve Earle’s “My Old Friend The Blues”, a song in which MCA president Tony Brown heard “the clarion call of country music — not nostalgia, not emotional excess, but the courage to look at the intimacies of life and death, love and loneliness, straight on.”
But I’m convinced that Leamer is the Jackie Collins of Nashville, drawn irresistibly to humorless, soapie-style hyperbole and whispered innuendo. There’s also a hint of creative license in his tales of country’s movers and shakers: No one group of artists could be so consistently manipulative and exploitive, nor could Leamer, despite his terrierlike tenacity when it comes to research, be in so many places and eavesdrop on so much over just four days of Fan Fair. Maybe he had spies, I don’t know. However, he does a reasonable (albeit glitzy) job in describing what country music is in the greedy ’90s: a money-making machine for the lucky few, and a cult of personality that, for its millions of devotees, is “not just an occasional diversion but the song of their lives.” I can’t help but think that’s it’s these fans — starry-eyed dreamers patronizingly dismissed in this book — who are the most credible characters to emerge from Three Chords & The Truth.