One of the things I like about good music writing is, somewhat surprisingly, something it has in common with good sports writing: you don’t have to be a fan of the subject matter to enjoy it. For the most part, I don’t care for country music. I like Johnny Cash, two or three bluegrass acts, and a handful of early country performers who would just as easily be classified as “roots” or even blues musicians (Tosches takes a few not-very-convincing steps towards explaining this in Country, but the truth is that for a long time the only significant difference between country and blues was the race of the performer), but for the most part it’s not a genre I connect with. I did, however, get a lot of satisfaction out of reading Country.
Country covers, or claims to cover, the darker, stranger bits of country music’s history, but given that it was first published in 1977 and social norms have shifted a fair bit since then, a lot of what would have been strange and shocking at the time of the book’s release now seems rather tame. Tosches has a gift for presenting the personalities of early country music (some big, some obscure) without judgement—or without much judgment, anyway—looking at them mostly in terms of their role in the development of the music and the industry. That Emmett Miller (one of the most obscure, but also most important musicians in the genre, even if only for the profound influence he wound up having on Hank Williams) built his career around minstrelsy isn’t used by Tosches to diminish the quality of his songs (some of which are quite good) or the impact he had, as might be done if the book were written today. Instead Tosches is straightforward about it; yes it was racist, yes that means it’s morally objectionable and we can’t condone it, but it was a real thing that real people did, and it can’t be ignored, so let’s take a serious look at its place in country music history that can acknowledge the moral difficulties without everything being about those difficulties. It’s a fine line to walk, but Tosches manages it. In fact, there is an entire chapter about the history and development of minstrelsy in country music (an interesting fact, that Tosches backs up with an impressive run-through of artists and their work, is that it was more popular in the north than the south, and most of the performers were themselves northerners) that pulls no punches when it comes to some of the racism that was a part of the scene at the time. (Tosches doesn’t get much into contemporary music, so there’s no examination of race issues in late ’70s country; he does, however, add in the preface that he initially didn’t want to write that chapter, but in hindsight sees it as one of the strongest and most important parts of the book.)
A special bit of fun for people like me is when Tosches traces the origins of a song, or a playing style, right back to the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Century (or in one memorable case, right back to Ancient Greece). It turns out—and this surprised me, though it makes sense in retrospect—that the slide/steel guitar technique originated in 19th Century Hawaii.
Tosches has a tremendous gift for metaphor, which is all that much better because he likes to keep them simple, and the level or research and scholarship that went into Country is astonishing (even just the work done on Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Sun Records). I would have a hard time tracking down most of that information in this day and age, with access to the Internet and my superior Google kung-fu; I can’t imagine having to do it in a time before the widespread use of cassette tapes and FAX machines. (I did find myself struggling a couple of times to fight against the atemporal view of pop culture encouraged by my heavy Internet usage; Tosches shows a fair bit of disdain for Johnny Cash in the book, but I had to remind myself that it was written at a time when Cash had for years been producing the worst work of his career, and he had yet to begin the genre-defying American Recordings series that would reinvigorate his work and cement his reputation as one of popular music’s most powerful and respected artists.) Even if I hadn’t loved the book I would have walked away with an enormous list of roots musicians and recordings to investigate.
I stumbled across Country because of a Twitter conversation I had quite a few months ago with William Gibson. We were discussing blues, and the country-rock group Drive-By Truckers, and I mentioned how it didn’t strike me as his kind of music. He told me that, growing up in the South as he did, it was hard not to have a certain kind of relationship to it, and recommended I track down a copy of Country. It took forever—the Toronto Public Library only has a single reference copy—but was well worth the wait. It’s some of the best music writing I’ve ever read, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in music of any kind, whether you’re a country fan or not.