Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 19 Dec 07 11:49
I'm pleased to introduce our next guests, husband-and-wife team Chris Carroll and Liz Mechem, authors of the newly released 'Legends of Country," a coffee table book thick with color photos, discographies and insider info about country greats, past and present. Leading the conversation with Chris and Liz is radio/radio record producer and country music fan John Ross.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 19 Dec 07 11:51
Chris Carroll is best known for his photographic work. "Rock stars, CEOs, and toddlers have a lot in common," says Chris, who has shot many of each during his 20-year career. "They all have high needs and a short attention span." Iggy Pop needed his special hair gel, Jeff Bezos needed to take a satellite call, and baby Shaniqua needed to be changed. Chris started fast, shooting celebrity editorial for the likes of SPIN, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and GQ while still in his twenties. He went on to work for numerous national magazines and advertising clients, and continues to hone his wryly observed style of portraiture. Liz Mechem worked her way through grad school as a photostylist. "During that time," she notes, "I learned how to blow dust off plates with a can of air. I also got to see Al Roker and Martha Stewart in their underwear." She's a San Francisco native, now transplanted to upstate New York, where she and Chris live with their two daughters. John Ross is host of The WELL's roots music conference, Bigballs.ind (named for the old hoedown tune, "Big Ball's in Boston/in Cowtown/in Town"). He's a fan and collector of American folk and country music, and a radio and record producer. He has interviewed members of the Country Music Hall of Fame and other country music greats, from Patsy Montana and Snuffy Jenkins to Hank Snow and Charlie Pride. Welcome, Chris, Liz, and John!
John Ross (johnross) Wed 19 Dec 07 12:49
Thanks, Cynthia. "Legends of Country Music" contains profiles of about a hundred well-known country music acts, so I'll begin by asking Chris and Liz how they chose the performers that they included, and which ones to leave out. And in more general terms, what makes a performer a "legend?"
Chris Carroll (marvy) Wed 19 Dec 07 17:47
Hello, all. Nice to be here talking about country music, looks like John may have a thing or two to teach us while we're here. As for our list, we were brought in to this project by Hylas publishing. THough they do publish things, in this case they had packaged and sold the concept to another publisher (Dalmation, for those following along at home). When Liz and I joined, the concept was already figured out, sample pages were dummied up, and the list of Legends was already determined. We tweaked it a little, replaced a couple of people we thought didn't really rate. I added Steve Earle to the list for personal reasons, but mostly we accepted their choices. This lead to problems later when Liz and I would horse trade for who we'd get/have to write about. "Alright, fine, I'll do Shania Twain, but you're taking Rascal Flats..." I will say that of the hundred only a handful might not be actual "legends" but I understand the commercial dictates of the publishers so went along with their list. The best thing about the list was that it was "one hundred" rather than an ordered list. Hard enough deciding who to in- or exclude, would have been nigh impossible to rank them.
Liz Mechem (thelizwiz) Wed 19 Dec 07 18:43
One of the things that really drew me to this project was the title, with its promise of a focus on the great artists who created and nurtured this genre of music. You can argue ad nauseum about what qualities make an artist a legend, but they seen to boil down to authenticity, a certain amount of fame, and a larger-than-life persona. Most of the artists in the book have all these qualities, in various proportions. Some, like Hank Snow, for example (an Opry star who hailed from Canada) or Patsy Montana (the quintessential singing cowgirl known for her song "I Want to be a Cowboy's Sweetheart") created nearly theatrical personas that contributed to their legends. Others, like Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash couldn't run away from drama in their lives even if they had a thousand bucks and a forty-day head start. They were legends because the life, the troubles, the yearning and misery and joy they sung about were particular to their experience; this was the real deal. Still others are legends because of the sheer number of records they sold, or because they catapulted country music into a new level of mainstream exposure, for better or for worse. It's been suggested that many of the people we included on the list are newfangled "hat acts." Boy, compared to some of the acts being sold off as "country" now, a guy like Garth Brooks looks downright rustic. Anyway, long story short, we were asked to put in some of these new people because of the target market of this book. And we did our best not to mock the ones whose "legend" status we disagreed with.
John Ross (johnross) Wed 19 Dec 07 19:04
Liz, that raises another question: who is the target market? It seems like much of the audience for country music today does not have a lot of background knowledge about the artists who were important before they started to pay attention. And apparently, that included the people who gave you that list. Do you feel like the book reinforces that lack of knowledge? It seems like the only old-timers in the book are the ones in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and even some important Hall of Fame members like Uncle Dave Macon and Minnie Pearl are missing. Do you think the average fan of Brad Paisley or Faith Hill cares about Mel Tillis or Rose Maddox?
Liz Mechem (thelizwiz) Thu 20 Dec 07 07:30
Hi, John. Good question! Originally, the publishers had decided that this was going to be a book sold exclusively in Wal Mart. We heard that and thought, oh, jeez, we're really in for it now. We're going to have to cowtow to some severely middle-of-the-road sensibilities. But once we got started, we took up the challenge of trying to present the new cheeseballs, as we came to call them, alongside important seminal country musicians. We fought to put in people like Floyd Tillman, bumping aside Carrie Underwood, for example, in order to include him. The sad but not surprising truth is that no, probably the average Brad Paisley fan *doesn't* care about Mel Tillis or Rose Maddox. But maybe they'll buy the book and learn something. The story of how all these disparate strains of American roots music came together in this moment in history -- in the early 20th century -- is really a great narrative. It wouldn't have happened without certain technologies: the radio, the railroad, and recording. These helped with the cross-pollination of musical styles (blues, British folk music, jazz, railroad work songs and chants, cowboy ballads, hymns and other gospel music, and even Hawaiian music), and then of course with getting the music out to virgin ears. We hoped to keep emphasizing this musical gumbo aspect of country music whenever possible. But then, along came MTV. And CMT. So just as these technologies of the early 20th century helped create and disseminate country music, the new emphasis on visual and performance slickness began to change the face of the music. Though really, the showmanship angle that buffets so many of the new acts I personally disdain is really not that far removed from the Nashville sound/ Outlaw split of the 60s. I keep coming back to this inherent dichotomy in country -- the establishment vs. the outsider. Bill C. Malone, a great historian of country music, set out this split in his book, Country Music, USA. He takes it back to the Bristol sessions: the Carter Family as progenitors of the establishment strain of country, with its emphasis on family (albeit broken, in the case of the Carters), community (the Opry), responsibility and its burdens. Then Jimmie Rodgers is the opposite - itinerant, individualist, afflicted. We hopefully can talk more about this as the conference progresses. It may be oversimplifying to try to fit all country musicians into one of these two strains, but I vote Brad Paisley into the establishment camp, and an oddball eclectic like Lucinda Williams into the outsider camp. One of the personal challenges for me writing some of the entries on new artists I either wasn't familiar with or didn't particularly care for, was to find the thing in their music or act that made them popular. Our contract wasn't to write a critical book in which our opinions came to bear on all the good and puffed-up alike; rather, we were hired to give these pre-cast "legends" their due. So, we did. Uncle Dave Macon was a sad casualty of the pruning process; we had to decide between giving him or DeFord Bailey a full page. I went with Bailey because I think that having more black musicians included in a book on country may help to tip the balance back to its proper place; the contributions of black musicians to country music is a hugely underreported story. Uncle Dave gets a mention on DeFord's page, though. And Minnie Pearl gets a mention on the Hee Haw sidebar on Roy Clark's page.
John Ross (johnross) Thu 20 Dec 07 10:16
The distribution of music, including country music, first on records and later on the various "barn dance" radio shows (not only the Opry, but also the National Barn Dance from Chicago, the Refro Valley Jamboree, and the shows from Wheeling and Shreveport) was double-edged sword. As you say, radio and records defined a genre of "country music," but it also led many singers and musicians to give up "the old songs" and tunes infavor of the stuff that they were hearing from outside their own communities. Jean Ritchie described this in her book, "Singing Family of the Cumberlands." Is there a continuum from the great postwar singers (Hank Williams, Hank Thompson, Patsy Kline, Skeeter Davis, etc etc) to today's stars? Or were there one or more points in time when the general direction of country music shifted direction?
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 21 Dec 07 10:08
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Mark McDonough (mcdee) Fri 21 Dec 07 10:49
Ok, you promise you're not going to make the topic disappear again? ;-) I have a question. As (in a former life) the only hippy in Rochester, NY who listened to country music, I'm curious about how you got interested in country music. Did you grow up in the NYC area, or do either or both of you have roots in the South or West? And by the way, general kudos. The book is very well written and shows a deep appreciation for country music. I particularly noted the songs singled out for each artist, which were not always the biggest hits but sometimes wonderful obscurities (for example "Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone" by John Prine). And as a country traditionalist, you're really helping me sort out all the "hat acts" and similar critters. Maybe I'll have to listen to some of that newfangled country one of these days.
Chris Carroll (marvy) Sat 22 Dec 07 07:38
I grew up in Washington, DC, and Liz in San Francisco. My first interest in country music was when I took a class (yes, for credit!) in country music at UC Santa Cruz, on my Junior Year Abroad. As a guy weaned on rock radio and stadium rock extravaganzas, it was quite a revelation. Growing up in the DC suburbs in the seventies, I'd always kind of thought of country as hick music or something. But once I got beyond the bad recording quality of those early records I found that not only was this stuff really awesome music,it was clearly the basis for a lot of the rock I was into at the time (like the Dead, or even the stadium rock acts I'd grown up with like the Outlaws, the Eagles, Lynyrd Skynrd). And thanks for the kudos, Mark. Prine might well be my favorite songwriter of all time, so that one was easy. I'll let Liz follow up with John's question while I show my Well chops by answering an entirely different one, that nobody asked. We were brought in on this book after the concept had already been sold. The list was mostly predetermined. Within the hundred artists chosen we got to decide who the "top 5" (who'd get four pages) and "sweet 16" (who'd get two) were, but beyond that we worked with what we were given. And working within the strictures of the "one page per artist" rule proved quite difficult sometimes. I mean, four hundred words on John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, or Lefty Frizzell, well, it's just not enough. And then eight hundred words on Shania Twain, well, that's just too many.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sat 22 Dec 07 09:09
Yeah, I figured that the choices weren't exactly up to you. That odd stop-and-start rhythm in "Sabu" is to die for, not to mention the words. Sounds like I'm half a blip older than you are, although we shared a lot of favorite bands there in the mid 70s. The Porter Wagoner show was my first real taste of country, but it was too weird (I couldn't get past the Nudie suits). Mostly it was "Hee Haw" that did it for me. That drew me to the local country AM station that played country for all the hicks in the farm country surrounding Rochester. I think it's hilarious that a college course was your first exposure to country. So I'll toss out another question (and don't feel rushed to answer everything at once). Let's say you had a hypothetical friend who was into traditional country on the raw end of things -- the Jimmie Rodgers to Hank and Lefty to Merle line -- and had tuned out on everything recorded in the last 20 or so years... Which newer artists (and specific recordings, if you have any) would you recommend to someone who doesn't know George Strait from George of the Jungle?
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Sat 22 Dec 07 09:55
Another WNYR listener, eh? I went through a country music phase in Rochester in the late 1960s, mainly Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell because they were on tv.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sat 22 Dec 07 10:02
"Winner 68" wasn't it? Yeah, that was my home on the AM dial.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Sat 22 Dec 07 10:21
The main thing I remember is their SPID, which featured some sort of early electronic sound processing -- "WNYR Radio, Yippee!" I think I had to go to college before I learned there was such a thing as FM. In high school I moved to WBBF.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sat 22 Dec 07 10:27
We'll have to stop this Rochester radio nostalgia at some point, but in high school, WCMF (underground FM) became my home. But sure, a little earlier, I did my share of listening to the WBBF "bee hive."
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sat 22 Dec 07 10:30
In fact, I still have a WBBF promo drinking glass, picked up at a local gas station sometime in the mid '60s. Improbably, it traveled around with my parents as they moved all over the country, and at some point in the 90s I found it, nabbed it, and it now sits in the fancy glasses shelf, along with Grandma's Waterford champagne flutes.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Sat 22 Dec 07 10:33
wow! I still have some records with WBBF stamps on them; I learned how to demon dial back then and once won *ten* albums at once. Do you remember the little paper slips you could pick up every week at record stores that had the top ten list and then the lyrics to one song? I used to pester my parents to take me around every week so I could collect them. I don't remember WBBF being associated with beehives though. What did they think they were, Mormons? :)
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sat 22 Dec 07 10:48
Hah! I do remember those sheets, although I hadn't thought of them for decades. My glass doesn't have the "beehive" slogan on it, but on one side it has "W [drawing of two bees]F."
Chris Carroll (marvy) Sat 22 Dec 07 16:23
Loving the digression! And I have a few more thoughts I wanted to get out before getting to your questions. Here are a few paragraphs on the method to our madness, which I'll follow with revelations on how the book actually looks (hint: my bio indicates I'm a cranky photographer). In addition to having to work within the structural guidelines, Liz and I also were given a seriously impossible deadline to complete the writing. I don't think any of us realized how ridiculous the deadlines were. On the third day I got a chat from our pal Marjorie, who was writing the rock book (the series had Country, Rock, and Pop): "We're screwed." At this point I'd only written one entry, Garth Brooks. And I'd taken a couple days to do it. They asked for him first because they were going to show it to him to try and get him to write (or put his name on, more likely) the foreword. This was a tough one, as I was definitely ambivalent at best about ol' Garth. Aparently I didn't do a good enough job of hiding that wither, as he declined to endorse our little tome. Anyhow, so Marjorie chats me about impending doom. I don't know why we didn't quite grok this when we signed our contracts, but indeed, it was going to be tough as hell to get all this stuff done by deadline. It worked out to 1200 words a day. Which turns out to be a lot. Damn, in addition to writing a book on a topic upon which I'm inexpert at best I'm doing it on an insane deadline, Marjorie was right. I told her to stop chatting me, as I couldn't afford to spend typed words on anything but Legends. So began the slog. Liz and I traded chapters, and had to go in alphabetical order for production reasons. So we'd each take whichever one was next, and grind it out. This meant we'd each end up getting a fairly equal number of Legends we really dug and those we were perhaps not so keen on. One problem with this accelerated schedule is that in the end, a number of corrections and typos which we'd fixed on proof never made it to the final copy. And for a guy who'd pretty much never written anything professionally, it was quite intense to have to apply seat of pants to chair and crank, crank, crank till my head hurt. And hurt it did, most every day. However, this method did provide an interesting perspective on the whole thing. Not only was there no time to dawdle or linger poetically over word choice, the alphabetical nature of the order gave us a sort of single tree view of the forest. And as our angles changed with each new Legend, we got a different view of the woods. Like, Chet Atkins, right there in the A's. I'd always admired his guitar playing, but as I researched his entry I realized he was actually even more influential (Legendary, if you will) as a producer. And then he kept popping up in subsequent entries. Through the randomness of dealing with artists individually and alphabetically patterns emerged that informed our opinions of the whole of Country music. I had started this project thinking I knew some things about Country, but learned many more through the lens of particular personalities and careers.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Sat 22 Dec 07 16:35
The Well is all about digression, which we call 'drift.' I have a question and I'm not sure how to ask it politely, so please forgive me -- basically, if you weren't a professional writer and didn't know much about country music, how'd you get the gig? :)
Chris Carroll (marvy) Sat 22 Dec 07 17:53
Yes, Sharon, I know from drift. And got the gig in the usual way: publisher (packager, in this case) sold the book, then cast about for someone to write it. Liz had been doing various editing and writing jobs for Hylas, and they asked her if she wanted to write it. She thought that not only would she like to write it, but she'd like to write it with me. I was a fan of country, just not an expert, I'd say. Writing the book turned out to be an excuse to become more of one. Liz got the actual contract, but claims she told Hylas I'd be writing it with her. In the end, I wrote about two thirds, because Liz got involved with another writing project towards the end. And in fact, she's sitting right here saying, "well, you were always an excellent writer, tell them how much you honed your writing on the Well..." So, I may not be a country expert or a writer, but I play them on TV.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Sat 22 Dec 07 18:06
cool. so you were being modest when you said you didn't know much. :)
Ed Ward (captward) Sun 23 Dec 07 01:28
So this was a work-for-hire project; you get no royalties, correct?
Chris Carroll (marvy) Sun 23 Dec 07 04:07
You got it. We even had to buy our copies from Amazon. So much for the glamorous life of an author.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Sun 23 Dec 07 05:06
Yeah, I did a couple of books like that.
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