Voices of the Country
As the title promises, this 200-page collection of interviews with ten classic country stars resonates with voices. Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Eddy Arnold: Folks such as these have been written about endlessly, but, outside of their music, usually speak to us only indirectly, their words and ideas filtered through those of journalists, filmmakers, the occasional music insider.
Michael Streissguth — a professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, author of previous books on Eddy Arnold and Jim Reeves, and editor of the indispensable Ring Of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader — gives those voices a platform. Just as importantly, he gives others who are normally footnotes in the history of country music, such as Red Kirk, a chance to speak. They provide perspectives on the industry and its personalities that are very different from those of the big guns.
Streissguth opens each chapter with an introduction to his interviewee and then becomes largely invisible. His questions, usually short and pointed, prompt the musicians to talk about a range of topics: Billy Walker on plucking turkeys to buy his first guitar and, years later, singing at Hank Williams’ wedding to Billie Jean Jones; Chet Atkins on how the Nashville Sound came about because “you try different instrumentation and if it sells you go in that direction…I was trying to keep my damn job”; Sheb Wooley, who died last year, on John Hartford’s plea that he not release a parody he wrote during the 1960s Israel-Palestine conflict called “Gentile On My Mind” (Wooley complied).
Elsewhere, we find Charley Pride still explosively angry over the cruelty of 1960s-era segregation. Anita Kerr, while slightly reserved, leaves no doubt she was always dead certain of what she wanted from her Singers.
It doesn’t always work so well. Hank Locklin, entertaining on the dangers of performing in postwar honky-tonks, gets understandably tongue-tied when asked to describe his own singing voice. Eddy Arnold, charming and expansive, is also sometimes kind of boring, telling us more than we really need to know about the labyrinthine music industry. In both cases, less would have been more.
More troublesome are the spelling errors. Alison Kraus. Reba McIntire. The Great Speckle Bird. “There” instead of “their.” Mistakes that should never have eluded author or proofreader.
Such problems aside, Voices Of The Country is a brisk, illuminating read, and a worthwhile addition to any country music lover’s library. Much of the factual ground — Lynn’s ill treatment at the hands of her husband Doolittle, for example — may have been covered before, but being told in the musician’s own voice gives the stories a new immediacy.
Of all Streissguth’s interviewees, Ginny Wright, the two-hit wonder who vanished from the country scene in the mid-1950s to raise a family, is one of the most memorable. Responding to a twelve-word question, Wright fills almost three pages with her response, her friendliness and humor and compassion bubbling to the surface as she chatters about everything from shooting skunks to reassuring a young, very nervous Elvis backstage to being cheated by her manager, Fabor Robison. Streissguth just sits back and lets her smoke.