Country Music For The Uninitiated

Wailing: The Real-life Story Can Be Loved Even By City Folks.

April 20, 1997|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Country music, like most good things, comes in two flavors: bland and spicy.

The bland kind is what you hear - and, just as important, see - on Country Music Television and the Nashville Network. It is warbled by pretty young men in spotless Stetsons and sprayed-on jeans, and pretty young women whose faces have been toughened by ambition and tenderized with scalpels and laser beams. It is marketed by media-savvy makeover artists who spend hour upon hour teaching their clients how to look, act and sound just like each other. It is vastly popular: Sales of country records quadrupled between 1989 and 1996. It is as tasty as pre-chewed baby food.

The spicy kind is what you used to hear on the clear-channel radio stations that each night blasted the Deep South with the high, hard-bitten wail of plain-spoken songs of love, work, marriage, divorce, death, heaven and hell, sung by men and women who remembered what it felt like to barely scrape by. (Johnny Cash spent his youth chopping cotton on a farm in Arkansas. "We were rich," he says. "A two-cow family.")

They sang and picked guitar because they loved to, and because it was a hell of a lot easier than pushing a plow in the mud or tightening bolts on an assembly line. Their music was as trendy as a Sears, Roebuck catalog, and as true to life as an emergency room on Saturday night.

Time was when a mere twist of the dial would bring their haunted, haunting voices directly into your car or kitchen, but times have changed. True country vanished from the commercial airwaves a decade or so ago, sentenced to death by the big-money consultants who invented the "hot country" format that made multi-millionaires out of the soulless, smooth-faced likes of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain. To find the real right thing, you need expert guidance - and you can get it at your neighborhood bookstore.

In recent years, an impressively large number of good books have been written about country. Skip the as-told-to memoirs and trash biographies: You don't need to know what brand of whiskey George Jones used to buy, or who Tanya Tucker kicked out of her bed last week. Instead, stick to the serious stuff, of which there is an abundance: survey histories, scholarly biographies, smart journalism.

Five books, all but one readily available in paperback, will tell you who matters most, what records to buy first and which tall tales to trust. Then you can turn off CMT and start getting to know the music pithily summed up by Harlan Howard, country's most valuable songwriter, as "three chords and the truth."

The standard history of country music is Bill C. Malone's "Country Music, U.S.A." (University of Texas Press, 576 pages, $17.95 paper). Malone, born into a family of East Texas tenant farmers, grew up to be a professor of history at Tulane University, but never lost his passion for the music on which he was raised.

The result was "Country Music, U.S.A.," originally published in 1968 and extensively revised in 1985, which traces country from its 19th-century Anglo-Celtic folk origins down to the New Traditionalist movement of the mid-'80s (just before the present-day dumbing down of country got going, in other words).

Like many academics who write about country, Malone is not entirely comfortable with its culture - he spends a bit too much time rooting around for hopeful signs of nascent social consciousness, and makes a few too many unnecessary excuses for the no-nonsense populist politics most country musicians unreflectively espouse - but that hasn't stopped him from supplying an even-handed, well-written account that covers all the bases efficiently.

From Rodgers to Yoakam

Malone has also edited "Classic Country Music: A Smithsonian Collection," a four-CD anthology of notable country recordings that begins with "Soldier's Joy," cut in 1929 by Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers, and ends with a 1985 hit single by the Judds.

In between are shrewdly chosen performances by virtually every key figure in country music - among them Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Roy Acuff, Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Ray Price, Patsy Cline, the Louvin Brothers, Buck Owens, Lefty Frizzell, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs and Dwight Yoakam, all names to remember and reckon with - plus an 84-page booklet by Malone that is itself an exemplary capsule history of country. ("Classic Country Music" can be ordered directly from the Smithsonian Institution by calling 1-800-863-9943.)

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