Friday, November 18, 2016

In the Country of Country by Nicholas Dawidoff - Book Review

In the Country of Country by Nicholas Dawidoff (Random House, 1997, 365 pp., $18.95/14.99) explores country music from its earliest recognized and recorded luminaries (The Carter Family & Jimmy Rodgers) through the great periods of classic and outlaw country to the newest musicians on tour at the time of the book's writing in the late 1990's. The book is filled with anecdotes that surprise and enlighten. For instance, Dawidoff recounts a story heard from Charlie Louvin about a boy near a show in Dyess Arkansas who showed him to the nearest bathroom. On the way back, Charlie ate a soda cracker. When the boy asked him why, he said, “To keep from starving.” The kicker: that's why Johnny Cash ate crackers before every performance. Such connections between the early practitioners who emerged in the 1940's and great stars of the last decades of the twentieth century appear everywhere. While I read the book, I listened to recordings of the subjects of each chapter, thereby enriching my experience and deepening my understanding.
Individual chapters focus on major figures in the development of country music, including bluegrass. Dawidoff interviewed all of his subjects, including Bill Monroe, Earle Scruggs, George Jones, Kitty Wells, Doc Watson, Buck Owens, EmmyLou Harris, and more) except Jimmie Rodgers, Sara Carter, and Patsy Cline, all of whom were deceased at the time of the writing. One other luminary is strangely not included, although his name crops up in almost every chapter: Hank Williams. Perhaps Williams, who died in 1953) was simply too big and dominating a character to be adequately covered in simply a chapter.

It's a joy to read a book about music by a writer who's taking on a subject rather than a fan who decided to write. The use of lively imagery, thoughtful narrative, careful structure and apt description raise Dawidoff's writing above the pedestrian, bringing life to the characters who've enriched country music for nearly a hundred years. Published in 1998, the book uses living artists and extensive interviews with those who knew the subjects, bringing them to life in a way no other book I've read has managed.

In the chapter on Doc Watson, the actual voices of Tom Ashley and Ralph Rinzler give the descriptive passages a greater reality that brings Watson's background and development as a performer to life. Insights, such as the fact that Doc grew up with music he heard on an old gramophone and the radio differentiated his music from that of others who learned theirs in church or on the front porch, giving it the distinctive precision that other country and bluegrass musicians of the time lacked. Such connections, found in each chapter distinguish Dawidoff's pellucid writing as they permeate Watson's playing.

The Johnny Cash chapter examines the role of celebrity on productive song writing along with his image, life, and the road with comments from Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. In the George Jones chapter, I learned more about the reality of Jones in one short chapter than I did in the entire Grand Tour bio by Rich Kienzle. Part of this comes from the quality of Dawidoff's writing, and I think also from the distance he achieves by not being fully tied to the music community. While the book is often admiring, it never falls into hero worship as it keeps a clear, though sympathetic but never sycophantical eye on the character and development of each person in every profile.

Dawidoff gives attention to the social and geographical mass movements of the mid- and late-twentieth century. Often, this is a book of displacement and connection. Most of the singers profiled came to stardom in music when they brought their music to honky tonks, theaters, and recording studios far removed from the southern poverty so many of them were born into during the depression. Even performers, like Rose Maddox and Buck Owens, who were from California, are the of product of southern migrations to places where they or their parents could find more lucrative employment or escape the rigors of depression era farming conditions. His insights punctuate and extend the insight that today's country musicians don't share that experience, leading their music to go into other directions, because it has often come from less challenging circumstances. EmmyLou Harris represents a changing voice and sensibility in country music. Discussing her view of country's past and future, she says, “We're bringing a different experience to it, and that's right. Mimicking the past because the past is a safe bet is the worst thing to do.”

Nicholas Dawidoff

Nicholas Dawidoff is the author of six books. One of them, The Fly Swatter, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and another, In the Country of Country, was named one of the greatest all-time works of travel literature by Conde Nast Traveller. His first book, The Catcher Was A Spy: The Mysterious Life Of Moe Berg was a national bestseller and appeared on many 1994 best book lists. His latest book, Collision Low Crossers: Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football was published in 2014. A graduate of Harvard University, he has been a Guggenheim, Civitella Ranieri and Berlin Prize Fellow, and is a contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and the American Scholar. The fact that he chooses a wide range of topics, including sports, family history, and country music suggests that Dawidoff brings broad experience to his writing, allowing unusual, piercing insights to emerge.

In the Country of Country by Nicholas Dawidoff (Random House, 1997, 365 pp., $18.95/14.99) was written after all the people he interviewed were well past their prime. Fortunately, he was able to interview them in their own contemporary setting before they left us. He portrays a time when what so many people today call “real” country was still a close memory, even while it had been replaced in popular music by rock and roll, contemporary pop, and hip hop. His vivid profiles, along with my listening contemporaneously to the performers themselves, helped clarify their place in music history for me and to realize why the music so many people seem to yearn for lies in our past rather than our present. I consider this book to be essential reading for anyone interested in the growth and development of country music. I read In the Country of Country in a used trade paperback version I bought through Thriftbooks.

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