05 January 2009

Reading Rock: Lost Highway (1), "Honk Tonk Heroes" (Introduction)

One of the projects I had in mind when I started posting here was something I was calling "Reading Rock," for absence of a better name (no, really--I'd love a better name). I've learned a great deal about music from reading books, from my first encounter with Lester Bangs's version of Astral Weeks (which is not, I suspect, Van Morrison's version--as I understand it, when he played the whole album in November at the Hollywood Bowl, the songs were re-worked in a way ol' Lester would not have necessarily approved of) through to my latest scholarly books on country music and class in the South, reading about the music has often added a great deal for me that the records alone can't provide. I'm not just talking about reviews, either--although I read those, as well--or the dry, technical details of the recording process that often pass for music writing in certain circles.

As I began exploring the music blog scene, I realized quite early on that there were three types. The first are essentially shills for the industry--posting actual promo tracks, dealing with artists and labels directly, promoting music that was seeking promotion. These blogs can be outstanding--informative, a guide to what's new, and more comprehensive when added together than any single source. And of course, I like the business model. But I don't want to spend my time on music I don't already have (or desperately want) a relationship with--I want to talk about MY Astral Weeks, rather than someone else's new release, if you will.

Van Morrison - Astral Weeks (title track, 1967)
Van Morrison - Cypress Avenue (1967)
Van Morrison - TB Sheets (1967)

The second kind post music purely for dissemination--they help those of us with a music acquisition problem find what we want without having to deal with torrents. Sometimes, they write short reviews or list personnel/technical details. Sometimes, they cop a review from somewhere else. And sometimes, they just post the music. Again, this is no knock on these blogs--many truly do the lord's work in feeding my addiction. But again, such a passive model leaves me without the kind of outlet people like me (repressed music writers working in other fields) need so badly we start blogs in the first place.

The third kind, as you might have guessed, is the sort we have here. Music is posted, but to some rhetorical end--to tell a story beyond the music, to express a point, make an argument, or just to point people in the right direction. At some, the writing is stellar. At others, (like us), it's mediocre, if spirited. Music blogs (and some of the better review/essay sites) fill a purpose for me similar to the books and the articles I read--they help me place the music in my own life by knowing how it fits in the lives of others. And so to honor that impulse, and to perhaps help others, I intend periodically to pick a music book I've read or am reading, and work through it, chapter by chapter, posting the music as I go. One of the hardest things for me is reading about music without access to the songs themselves--I find myself guessing (often wrong) how the music will sound, based solely on the emotive writing of a complete stranger. While this occasionally leads to some surprises (Johnny Ace, who we'll talk about in a few days, is one--from Nick Tosches on the "unsung" heroes of rock and roll), mostly, it's just a pain in the ass. So grab your book and follow along, or just enjoy some music, if you like.

The first book, as the title hints, is Lost Highway, by Peter Guralnick. A book of the "journeys and arrivals of American musicians," as he puts it, it was published in 1979 and based on a series of magazine articles written throughout that decade. In the intervening 30 (!) years, it's become somewhat of a classic, and I'm happy to start with it.

The narrative progresses historically, starting with some "early" pre-rock figures (still alive and kicking in the 70s), proceeds to rockabilly figures (by rockabilly, he means the first wave of rock and roll performers, like Elvis--not necessarily what you all might think of), "outlaw" country, and the blues (loosely defined)--again, focused on active (if tailing off) artists in the 70s. We'll go chapter by chapter (most are based on a single artist, although a few are broadly "introductive"), and I'll try my hardest to give you every single track mentioned by name, along with a few of my own thoughts.

So, we begin with the section opener to Part One: "Honky Tonk Heroes," (as the actual introduction, which is otherwise fascinating, doesn't mention any songs by name) which starts, naturally, with Jimmie Rodgers, essentially the father of modern country music as a commercial enterprise. We get a little of the story of that historical month in the summer of 1927, when Ralph Peer went down to Bristol, Tennessee and recorded Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Alfred G. Karnes, Blind Alfred Reed and the rest, kicking off the career of the most influential single act in country music before Hank Williams came around. Much of the next several sections of the book will attest directly to Rodgers' influence on a pair of country music giants of the immediate post-war era, Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow, as well as the rise of that other great country institution, the 50,00 watt WSN powerhouse, the Grand Ol' Opry.

The argument doesn't go much beyond the obvious--Jimmie Rodgers is the Rosetta Stone of early country--he helps us to make sense of how a sharecropper's son like Tubb or a Canadian cabin boy like Snow could concieve of becoming professional musicians in the first place (if the Singing Brakeman can do it, so can I!), and of course, there's a nod to the transformative power of the Opry on American life (and references to its influence on black performers as well, who were far more influenced by Roy Acuff, Jimmie Rodgers, and Uncle Dave Macon than is commonly known outside people who read these kinds of books).

But you've come for the music, and the music you shall have. Only one song is actually mentioned in the intro, Jimmie Rodgers' first Blue Yodel, the immortal "T For Texas." Not actually recorded at the Bristol sessions, it was his first major hit, eventually making him a star, a laying the groundwork for hundreds of songs that would come along and model themselves on that last line in the first verse, "..that gal that made a wreck out of me..."

For comparison's sake, I've also given y'all a pair of extra tracks from Jimmie's 1927 output, and a trifecta of songs recorded by Tubb and Snow (more on them later, obviously) in tribute. The Tubb songs are tributes of a sort not uncommon in the early 1940s, and Snow's is a cover of one of Rodgers' best songs. Enjoy, and happy reading!

Jimmie Rodgers - Blue Yodel (T for Texas)
Jimmie Rodgers- Blue Yodel #2
Jimmie Rodgers - In the Jailhouse Now

Ernest Tubb - The Passing of Jimmie Rodgers
Ernest Tubb - The Last Thoughts of Jimmie Rodgers
Hank Snow - Moonlight and Skies

Posted by Brandon


bob said...

great post--song downloads don't workeq

nortoncommando said...

Same here... great post but no luck with mp3 downloads.

Whoopee in Hell said...

Fixed! Thanks for the patience, and for letting me know...damn new file hosting (too good to be true, obviously)


themusicologist said...

Just like to tip my hat to you for a first rate blog, (that word always makes me cringe), great idea relating the music to the literature. I know almost nothing about Country, (other than of the Blues variety), So am looking forward to having my ears opened.
Thank you also for adding me to your links.