If this was a banner year in many ways for country music scholarship, it also underscored the fact that the market for serious country publications is centered in the distant past. Not even the recent past. Not that country music’s history is not fascinating. But, that seems to be where audience — and publisher — interest is centered. With that in mind, here are several country music books from 2003 that are deserving of special attention.
The most spectacular work is The Country Music Pop-Up Book by the staff of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (Universe Publishing). A true multi-media creation, the Pop-Up Book manages to provide a dazzling journey through country music’s history. The clever pop-up displays, slide-out features, fold-outs, press-to-play musical excerpts, essays by country artists and gee-gaws aplenty make this a coffee table book destined to be a favorite for years to come. Highlights include the huge fold-out models of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Okla., along with essays by Rosanne Cash on women songwriters, Kinky Friedman on “Outlaw Country,” Vince Gill on “Bluegrass Lessons,” Trisha Yearwood and Steve Earle on their lives in Nashville and Dolly Parton on the role of gospel in country. You don’t notice the many little sly touches until your third or fourth pass through the book. How fantastic to suddenly come upon an unexpected, heavily detailed pop-up replica of the Lightcrust Doughboys’ tour bus. Even your country-resistant friends and relatives will succumb to such delights and want to discover who the Lightcrust Doughboys were. This is the perfect country music gift.
The most thoroughly researched country book published this year is certainly The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley, by Alanna Nash (Simon & Schuster). Nash’s exhaustive research provides the definitive work on the mysterious past of the illegal alien from Holland who transformed himself into “Colonel Tom Parker.” She recounts Parker’s takeover of Elvis Presley’s career and how he managed the superstar for decades, continuing even after Elvis’ death. Many wonderful and awful disclosures abound. Plus, it’s a great read.
Certainly the most provocative book of the year is Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles by David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren (Vanderbilt University Press/Country Music Foundation Press). This is the first such work to address only country singles since, as the authors correctly argue, historically singles have been the primary delivery system for country music. Any best-of list is bound to incite and engender lasting debate, discussion and invective and Heartaches is doing a wonderful job of that. Everybody at heart is a music critic and this book provides a lively springboard to agree or disagree with the authors. Where do you feel that “Folsom Prison Blues” or “Friends in Low Places” should be on a Top 500 list? Check it out.
The most romantic tome has to be Singing in the Saddle: The History of the Singing Cowboy by Douglas B. Green (Vanderbilt University Press/Country Music Foundation Press). Green is a country music scholar who along the way became Ranger Doug of the group Riders in the Sky — stars of stage, radio, TV and lately of the Toy Story movies. He displays his writer side here with a thorough and entertaining study of the singing cowboy.
The best reissue this year is Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music, 1800-2000 by Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann (Vanderbilt University Press/Country Music Foundation Press). This groundbreaking and definitive work was first published in 1993 and is the authoritative study of the role of women in country music. And a great many women are covered. This ranges far beyond the familiar stars. Oh, you can read all about Patsy and Dolly and Tammy and Loretta and Emmylou and Maybelle. But, there are also fascinating studies of many others. One is the great Charline Arthur, the first female country artist to wear trousers on stage. There’s the fabulous Dorothy Shay, who dressed in gowns and evening gloves and billed herself “The Park Avenue Hillbillie.” And there’s the belter Texas Ruby, a “strong, hefty gal” with a “vocal bellow that could cut through the rowdiest crowd noise.” Ruby also made history as the first country star to die due to smoking in bed in her trailer. Burned up.
The best collection of photographs is included in Lost Highway: The True Story of Country Music by Colin Escott (Smithsonian Institution Press). The text is brief and traces the history of country but the true treasure here is the depth and breadth of the historical photographs. The 50 color pictures and 50 black and white photographs include not only rare glimpses of performers but also depict the historical context, as in one lovely picture of a decrepit old roadside filling station-grocery store adorned with signs for Regal Whiskey and Jax Beer.