Ed Ward (captward) Sun 23 Dec 07 05:29
It's particularly rife in music-writing, though, which is why it's nearly impossible to get a "real" contract for a "real" music book. The last couple of agents I talked to weren't interested in pitching any.
My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. (pdl) Sun 23 Dec 07 10:11
chris--does the book also include any of your photos? Either older photos or ones you made specifically for the book?
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sun 23 Dec 07 16:45
<26> I have rarely spent much time sitting around thinking "damn, if only I'd become a non-fiction writer!" I tried self-publishing as a workaround. Sold, hmmm... about 400 copies so far.
Chris Carroll (marvy) Sun 23 Dec 07 18:13
Yeah, I was (naively I suppose) kind of flummoxed by it: so cool to be writing a book on country music, and being paid! Then I realized how much actual work it was to crank out 1200 words a day for a while and thought, "sheesh, if I got more of this work I could go broke on volume". And yes, Pat, I have one picture in the book. A real old one (well, old for me, was one of my first professional shoots, probably in 1987 or so), Merle Haggard. I had no idea who he was at the time, but now he's one of my faves. And since I had the shot I figured "what the heck?" and offered it to Hylas. They snapped it up and it's a full page and on the back cover, too. And coming from my photo background, it was interesting then frustrating being only involved with the literary side. At first it was liberating not worrying about the pictures. And the book itself was 8.5 x 11. But the publisher literally blew up the book on press. Everyone at the packager, and Liz and myself were shocked to get these huge envelopes from Amazon. It was never intended to be a coffee table book. That's when my interest turned to frustration, then pique, then disgust. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if they were going to make it so big they should have made it beautiful too. They apparently got a deal from one provider who claimed to have all the shots they'd need. And those shots are (imho) almost uniformly weak. I donât know details because I was just the writer, but it just looks like they cheaped out and found somebody who had pictures of all the artists. But lots of the pictures are just lame live performance shots. And the repro is terrible. It was great to write, but frankly kind of heartbreaking to the photographer in me. The cover makes me want to cry. I mean, Johnny Cash, yeah, sure Legend. Brad Paisley? Well, maybe it will help bring in the kids or something. Faith Hill? Absolutely, how can you go wrong with a picture of such a luminous creature. Oh, I know! Find absolutely the worst freakin' paparazzi shot EVER, then reproduce it as badly as possible. Girl looks like she's dirty, and not in the fun way. I mean, like she has a sheen of dirt on her. What on earth were they thinking? (Meanwhile, from the attempting to unbite the hand that feeds us department: itâs a swell book anyway, really, just ignore the soiled woman on the coverâ¦)
John Ross (johnross) Sun 23 Dec 07 19:04
Did you do much actual listening to old (or new) records by each performer as you wrote the book? Did you compile the discography and greatest hits lists? What were the criteria for inclusion in either list?
Chris Carroll (marvy) Mon 24 Dec 07 04:19
Tons. Back in the dark ages I worked at a music magazine. And while we certainly reviewed our share of clunkers, mostly we reviewed records we liked. Why tell people about crap? I tried to take a little of that attitude with me to this book. Why is this person a legend? What's cool about them? Why might somebody like listening to their music? To that end, I'd listen to them while writing each entry. Some of the artists I already knew well, so it was easier, but for those I was less familiar with it really helped to have their music on while I worked. I noticed a difference in the way Liz and I worked: she was much more into the source books, tracking down where people fit in the grand scheme of things. I seemed more inclined to just listen to the music, over and over, to try to glean just a bit of that magic out of the sound. The "Hits" that are included with every entry we did as we were doing each one (we'd find the quotations, too). However I think someone at Hylas did the discography. Or maybe Liz did, I don't actually recall, though I know I didn't. By the time we got to the end, we were both exhausted and it was a real crunch to get it all done. Liz will be by shortly to add details, but I believe someone else came in at the end and helped with the discography.
Liz Mechem (thelizwiz) Tue 25 Dec 07 20:02
Yes, to pick up on this question, the discography was done last of all. I put together the discography, and drew on the great (doubtless someone will chime in shortly to disabuse me of this notion) and seemingly extensive information on allmusic.com. By the time we had written the bios, researched the nuggets and quotes, complied lists of greatest hits, and dug through our own record collections, it wasn't too much of a stretch to know which were the important albums. Sometimes, with some artists, it was simple -- from the beginning of the rock era to the present, most of these artists come out with a handful of records a decade. For artists like Alabama (the guys who made country into kegger music for the handlebar mustache and "WOOOOO!" crowd), there are about 10 records tops that can go in to the greatest hits list. I ignored everyone's Christmas records (a die-hard country music tradition, even before the culture wars), and pruned as best I could. I'm sure I left off someone's favorite Johnny Cash release, for example. The great and prolific artists, and crooners like Eddy Arnold or Gentleman Jim Reeves -- both products and proponents of the postwar Nashville Sound -- put out tons of records, sometimes two or three a year. The producers lined up the session musicians, selected the songs, and the singer sort of sidled in to the studio, crooned a few takes, and presto! a new platter was born. Not too hard to crank out a few of these a year. John, if you're still there, this feeds in to an earlier question of yours, about when the major shifts in country music fall. This studio system was one of the big changes, and its dominance led to a backlash in the form of the so-called Outlaw movement of the late sixties -- Waylon, Willie, et al, who favored the singer-songwriter approach. Funny thing though, is that the same producer-driven system that you can revile as "the man" if you're tooting the Outlaws' horn is the same system that gave us Owen Bradley producing those gorgeous Patsy Cline records. And what unknown songwriter was churning out hits for them? Willie Nelson, for starters ("Crazy", eg.) Chris is right, I am more of the big-picture person, trying to trace influences and trends and movements, but really, the fact is, it does come down to the music coming out of those speakers, or the voice of Hank Williams howling out "Your Cheatin' Heart." When the needle hits the record, who really cares where in the historic continuum this cut or that disc can be placed; they're right here, right now, oozing heart and heartbreak, reminding you of what you already know. That's why we keep playing them.
John Ross (johnross) Tue 25 Dec 07 20:53
Yeah, I'm still there. Or here. There's a recent book about the history of WSM (the home of the Grand Old Opry) that puts the beginnings of the music industry in Nashville into context. In the postwar years, WSM was a "full service" radio station, and the Opry was just one of its regular programs (and not the only one they fed to NBC). A couple fo their engineers started to record some of the singers on the Opry in a spare WSM studio, and eventually moved up the street to their own studio. They had a lot of work because the Opry provided a regular income to a bunch of singers who made Nashville their home base. The whole industry built itself up from there. Any thoughts about how the audience for country music has changed? The earliest records (Eck Robertson, Vernon Dahlhart) were sold as part of the general "novelty" catalog, along with bird calls, "Unlce Josh goes to Town" comedy, and xlyophone players. But by the late 1920's it was a regional market, like the "race" market for blues. Today, thanks to national TV (starting with Porter Waggoner in 1960), it's a nationwide audience. When and how dod that shift happen?
Liz Mechem (thelizwiz) Sat 29 Dec 07 06:54
John, I love that you mentioned Vernon Dalhart, such an odd bird in the country music pantheon. His career shows you just how open to suggestion both the early country music industry (not that there really was one in the 20s, until the shift you describe above) and the early recording industry were. Dalhart sang opera, came to New York to make it in that field, but wound up recording some novelty country songs. The music was initially seen as regional southern music. In some ways it still is; much of the new country artists promoted now by CMT, guys like Brad Paisley and Trace Adkins, are southern boys, from West Virginia and Louisiana, respectively. But then you have newcomers like Taylor Swift, a blonde cutie whose first big hit, "Tim McGraw" was country-referential, and she's from PA. You could say that the common link here is white and rural, but even that gets turned over by acts like Cowboy Troy and Sugarland, who are black and Atlanta-based, respectively. It's hard to tell what makes an act "country" these days, except what the marketing machine tells us is country. Which brings us to the story behind the music that you keep hinting at: the marketing of country to a wider audience. Call it exposure, and it sounds as if this music travelled by word of mouth and strum of banjo all over the world. But it was broadcasting that made it branch out. Radio, recording, and now the huge image machine of Country Music Television, that dominates the industry and seems to determine who gets into the club and who doesn't. How did we get from the Carter Family to CMT? Certainly Porter Wagoner and even Hee Haw brought country music onto TV sets across America from the 50s on. But it wouldn't have stuck unless it had struck a nerve, which it did. Just as Westerns, which have little to do with most of our lives or ancestry, have become this emblem of some imagined common past, so country music seems to many to be an affirmation of our common roots. Personally, of the newer bunch, I favor artists who honor their roots, like Alison Krauss and Lucinda Williams and Lyle Lovett and Wilco. Artists who can spin a good yarn, who arent' so plugged in that the spotlights are blinding them to the real music under there. Here's a cool site with some new artists to check out as well: http://www.gumbopages.com/music/insurgent.html I like his designation "insurgent country." The audience for country isn't one audience; it's many. And country isn't just one music anymore either. Fact is, it never was. All the various strains that came together in the early days separate out and recombine to form myriad new combinations.
Liz Mechem (thelizwiz) Sat 29 Dec 07 07:14
Forgot to mention this site: http://www.freighttrainboogie.com/ Good reviews and notices about lots of alt.country. And I like that it's named for a song by the Delmore Brothers, one of the great singing brother acts of the 30s and 40s.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sat 29 Dec 07 08:05
John Ross (johnross) Sat 29 Dec 07 11:32
I think the first part of the transition would have been World War II. The war had two specific impacts: the mixing of economic and cultural calsses in the military meant that many soldiers and sailors from outside the South were exposed to country music because it was playing on records and radio; and many people from the South moved north and west to work in defense plants, and they brought their music with them, in the same way that blues moved to Chicago and Detroit with the Black migration. As I think about it, this would have started earlier, when the Okies and Arkies moved to California in the 1930s. That's certainly the origin of Bakersfield as a country music center. Liz, do you have an opinion about Robert Altman's "Nashville" as a portrayal of the country music ethos?
Chris Carroll (marvy) Sat 29 Dec 07 14:05
(heh, thinking I would check in here, but the "Nashville" question is such a softball for Liz (it's one of her favorite flicks) that I think I'll go make dinner instead...)
Liz Mechem (thelizwiz) Sat 29 Dec 07 15:45
Bakersfield sound! We love it. Chris has a little band he plays with and is always trying to Buck-ify them. Who can resist? "Who's Gonna Mow Your Lawn?" Why if it weren't for Buck Owens, we'd never have had the Ventures, and then Hendrix never would have been able to growl "You will never hear surf music again." So, this stuff is important. Certainly the migrations of the dustbowl brought rural Southern music west and from there, all over. Film didn't hurt, either, as the western sounds of groups like Sons of the Pioneers (whose founding member, Leonard Slye is better known as Roy Rogers) graced many a movie soundtrack of the 40s. And post-war, the crossover country-pop artists who plied the Countrypolitan and Nashville sounds made the music even more mainstream. So there are a few ways it gets disseminated: it gets spread about in its pure form(s), and it also becomes a mestizo form as it merges with the dominant popular music of the day (pop crooners, rock, soft rock, etc.) So, Nashville the movie. When I was a young person in the 70s, and movies could be seen only in movie theaters, the arrival of Nashville in one of the fine rep houses of San Francisco was a cause for mild celebration. A friend would call and say, "The movie is playing!" THE movie meant Nashville. We loved it. It WAS country to us. We loved the kitsch and the pathos. What did we know? I still think some of the songs are amazing, the way they show the range and the variety and the competing strains of the music. And the actors do a great job of singing, I think. Karen Black! Keith Carradine! Ronnee Blakely! And of course, Henry Gibson as Haven Hamilton. And now that I know who all the singers were based on (Lynn Anderson, Kristofferson, Loretta, and Acuff, respectively), it's even more fun. I can't believe even now that most of those songs were written as well as performed by the actors. It may point to how formulaic country had become in the 70s ("For the sake of the children, we must say goodbye" is one of those calculated tearjerkers that the industry thrived on -- and still does, viz all the current songs about domestic abuse, etc.) But darn, "It Don't Worry Me," penned improbably by Keith Carradine, is the kind of song that gets under your skin with its deceptive simplicity. Great stuff. I could go on and on. Mainly now I see how Altman himself was doing this post-modern embrace of country music and the version of America he allows it to present in the film. He loves it, we love it -- the big mess of jingoism ("We must be doin' something right to last 200 years"), celebrity culture, random violence, crazy politics, sexism and more! But we can only embrace it from a critical distance, Altman says with a wink, because, after all, we know better. We are enlightened; we get the joke. So Altman invites us to both mock and revere country music and culture. Which is why the real country establishment hated it. But I have to admit its influence on my view of country music, vis-a-vis the critical distance. I love Dolly Parton, but I am not going to take my hairstyling tips from her. I love Loretta Lynn, but what do I know from a one-room shack in Appalachia? I don't, not directly. But I suspect that somewhere back in my bloodline, there was some Scots-Irish family eking out a living and playing the same music around their hearth that contributed to the roots of country. So, it's mine too.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sat 29 Dec 07 16:17
I have always thought that one big transition in country music was when there stopped being a significant audience that had really lived the hardcore, pre-mechanized rural life. Even the youngest performers who experienced that life saw it only as kids and are now getting up there in years (Dolly and Loretta being two examples). The ones who experienced it as young adults (Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins) are mostly gone. When I worked as a forklift driver in Dallas in the early 80s, I knew billions of those folks, then in their 40s, 50s, and early 60s. Moved to the big city during or after WW II. Those people would now be way too old for the record industry to care about or passed on. And I had an interesting experience when I finally moved out of Dallas c. 1983. Went through rural Arkansas, way up in the hills, on the way back. And yeah, there were a few tiny shreds of that life. But mostly I saw abandoned cabins and hill-country farmsteads. Parts of the area were so depopulated that they'd been declared wilderness areas, despite the presence of old cemeteries, etc. I guess I'm still having trouble figuring out what country music after 1980 is all about. Living in a small town. Working hard for a living. Drinking and cheating and falling in love. But is it still "country?" I dunno.
"The Best for Your Health!" (rik) Sat 29 Dec 07 16:29
I was working out of Nashville when the movie was released. The reason the establishment hated it was that it nailed the scene. Nailed it. It was, as they say, emotionally true. Now things have turned over completely since then and I have no idea what it's like there now, but Nashville in the mid to late 70s felt just like Altman's "Nashville".
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Sat 29 Dec 07 17:30
What I like about some country music is that it tells stories about people with husbands and wives and kids. There's not a lot of that in rock.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sat 29 Dec 07 18:06
That's so obvious I hadn't thought of it.
Liz Mechem (thelizwiz) Sun 30 Dec 07 08:33
Rik, thanks for the check-in on Nashville in the 70s. What a wonderful circus that must have been! You must have seen some great performances then. Share some of those memories with us if you get a chance. Yes, Sharon, you're so right, that much rock, unless it's the so-called "soft" variety, really focuses on a moment in your life, the young, unfettered, unsettled time of energy and confusion. Which is why we all are so nostalgic about the rock music of our own youth. This probably has a lot to do with the origins of the music as opposed to the origins of country. Well, of course, country itself was a birth parent of rock and roll. But country was born before youth culture was. When young people and dressed and danced and listened to music like their elders did. And that music came out of church revivals and front porch rocking chairs and work songs. Community, in other words. Mark, working as a Dallas forklift driver is about as country street-cred as you can get. Ever work as a lineman for the county? And your question dangles there as the $64,000 one. What is country music after 1980, after the rural hardscrabble life you describe had nearly disappeared. I still think, glitz of the CMT awards notwithstanding, that much of the new country music that I don't particularly care for, is still rural and white. One other thing it is now that it wasn't as much in the old days: angry. Oh, sure, there's bitterness and remorse aplenty in old country songs. But I wonder whether a lot of new country still does reflect the blue collar concerns of the day. Except that now, those concerns are largely about becoming disenfranchised. You still have the "You broke my heart so I busted your jaw" kind of cheatin' woman songs, but there's a lot of variations on take this job and shove it. And a fair share of nationalistic pro-Bush pro-war songs. We live part of the year in Sullivan County, New York, up in the forgotten part of the Catskills. There's no industry there because the state owns much of the land as watershed for NYC. It's one of the poorest counties in the state. Lots of people living in trailers, with weekly yard sales in front, trying to scare up a few nickels from an old jelly jar or two. Most working people are just getting by. And the music of choice, up there in the this cold county, is country. It isn't regional anymore, I think it's blue collar, white and rural, wherever you are. Down the hill from our cabin is Liberty, NY, a town that crumbled when the Borscht Belt collapsed, There's a sizable black community there, but you don't hear country coming from their car windows, you hear hip-hop. It's not urban, it's cultural. Same way country is. Maybe it's a function of the marketing machine that tells people to buy the brands that will define them as the person they aspire to be, but people seem to listen to the music that speaks to their concerns. One thing you can't get around with country music, though, is the almost sacrosanct emphasis on melody. It's one of the most endearing traits of the music. You can sing along. It's straightforward and plain-speaking. It can take a complicated problem and boil it down to a well-turned, simple phrase set to a simple, singable, 2/4 melody.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sun 30 Dec 07 11:32
Yeah, I know Sullivan Country a little from a former life (used to have a close friend there, but he died quite a while back). It struck me as a pretty forgotten and sorta desperate place, and there are places in that category all over New York State (try Gloversville!). I think you make a good point about country now functioning as the music of disenfranchised rural whites everywhere. Even in more prosperous corners of rural America, rural whites seem to feel very at sea and ignored (a feeling that's certainly been stoked by the last generation or so of the GOP). There is an edge and an anger to much of the music -- imagine someone today releasing a song like Donna Fargo's "Happiest Girl in the Whole USA." I got a distressed email from an old pal the other day who had stumbled across some hyper-patriotic Toby Keith song on Youtube and was convinced that brownshirts would be marching in the streets any day now.
John Ross (johnross) Sun 30 Dec 07 13:38
I'm not so sure that "disenfranchised" is exactly right. If we assume that the country music marketing machine is a media invention, and like all media inventions it exists to sell itself and advertising to its audience, what is the point of aiming that advertising at people who can't afford to buy those pickup trucks and fast food? Seems like the target would be one step up from the true hardscrabble folks, the people who are struggling to keep from falling off the ladder. It's my impression that the Country Music Establishment (CMT, the Opry, most radio) is much more controlling than other forms of popular music. Outside of a few places like Austin, and even fewer radio stations like KPIG, there does not seem to be a place for a country equivilent to "indie rock." Or is there? Why hasn't the KPIG format evolved into a more widely-used radio format? And one more question, inspired by (mcdee)'s comment about Toby Keith: has the extreme red state/blue state political and cultural division been reflected in the location of today's country music audiences? Is it still a nationwide phenomenon or is it regressing to its regional roots?
"The Best for Your Health!" (rik) Sun 30 Dec 07 14:42
Liz, I was in Dr. Hook, which was considered rock/pop when we first hit, but a lot of our early stuff would fall in the alt country category when looked at by today's standards. Our entre into Nashville, in 1974, was by way of Shel Silverstein, who wrote most of our first three albums at the same time that he was supplying songs to Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash. We showed up as insurgents, recording at Tompall Glaser's studio right after he, Waylon and Willie had just released the "Outlaws" album. The old guard had been there forever, and country was moving uptown, forsaking the Ryman for Opryland. Shel, on the other hand, had caused a bit of a stir by refusing to put "Visit the Country Music Hall of Fame" on the back of his album. But in spite of the company we kept, we were respectful of the old guard, and we had come to Nashville two gold records and were on our way to a third. So they let us in. We even wound up at Opryland, opening for Dolly, who is a totally class act. We even stole her road guitarist, Rod Smarr, when we lost Bob Henke, who we had stolen from Goose Creek Sympnony. Nashville in the 70s was in flux. As far as the city business establishment was concerned, Nashville was insurance companies and the like, and country was the crazy aunt in the attic. But she'd just inherited a bunch of bucks and people were having to be nicer to her. By the late 70s she was getting respect and people were coming by to visit her. That was when Altman made "Nashville", and showed the place to be insular, tight, and not that much different than high school. And the talent that was flooding in were all young kids who grew up listening to as much rock and R&B as country. And the studio guys could play anything, including jazz. The old guard never knew what hit them, and they HATED "Nashville".
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Sun 30 Dec 07 20:01
Toby Keith is a Democrat whose dad got killed in an automobile accident caused by someone who fled the scene and couldn't be tracked down for six months. I think he's entitled to be angry.
Chris Carroll (marvy) Mon 31 Dec 07 06:01
Well, he may well have his reasons, but playing a rabid Bush supportin' knucklehead on TV and stage is sure a strange way to show it. I'm reminded of a conversation I had in Claryville with a super conservative old gentleman, retired DEC Officer and guitar player. We were discussing Willie Nelson after one of his pot busts. I was feeling sympathetic towards ol' Willie for a number of reasons, but I figured Bill would be all over him. The recent bust was the elephant in the room, and after dancing around the issue a while, I outright asked what he thought. "Well..." long pause. "I don't much respect his lifestyle choices. But he's a damn fine songwriter so I guess I'll cut him some slack..."
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Mon 31 Dec 07 07:04
My experience with very conservative folks, which is fairly considerable given that I'm basically an old hippie, is that when you get up close the picture usually gets a lot more complicated. The % of people who are brain-dead everything is black and white freeper idiots is pretty tiny. I guess that's why I was not particularly upset by watching the Toby Keith video, although I'm with Chris on scratching my head over it. I guess I find Charlie Daniels' transformation from the backwoods quasi libertarian of "Long Haired Country Boy" days into a hyper-patriot to be more puzzling. But it's a pattern you see a lot in the white blue collar rural/small town culture we've been talking about: anti-authoritarian authoritarians. People who are happy to tell you about how ornery and independent they are, but don't be running down Nixon, Reagan, Bush, or whatever war their kids are dying in for no good reason at the moment. That's one thing I've noticed in reading the Iraqi war news -- boy, it's really small-town America, *very* small town America, that's fighting this one. A really high proportion of the dead are from places I've never been or even heard of, and like the song says, I've been everywhere.
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