When I’m not listening to music, I’m reading about it. Here’s some of my recent reading list. Some dissapointing, some great.
Rednecks and Bluenecks, Chris Willman
First off, this isn’t a sit down and read it through book. The author is predominately a magazine writer and it shows. This book is best read in small digestible pieces, like a series of magazine articles.
What’s really missing is an in-depth analysis of how the politics in this country are swinging wildly to the right and how that’s reflected in the mainstream country music industry. Not that Chris Willman doesn’t try, he does, but with a mixed outcome. I think I wanted something more thought provoking. Reading this was like setting out to argue passionately with someone and instead just sitting around, sharing a pot of tea and going, “Oh yeah, I totally agree with you on that. Uh-huh. Yeah, that too. Oh, man, really, that’s where I’m coming from too.” Which is validating, but doesn’t exactly charge you up, you know?
There’s perhaps too much time spent on the Dixie Chicks fiasco, though I was surprised to discover how little I actually knew about how that all went down. I ended up feeling pretty sorry for them, though I’m sure that was Willman’s intention, given that his own politics are clearly very left. Overall most of the interviewed musicians come off as looking pretty poorly informed, which makes them, I guess, like most regular folks. The most shocking thing here was the revelation that Toby Keith is Democrat and given some time to digest that information even that seems a little lackluster in terms of big reveals.
But given all that, there’s some interesting interviews and enjoyable back stories. I ain’t givin’ it 5-stars, but if you’re at the library and not finding anything else you want and you come across this? Yeah, pick it up and spend an afternoon with it.
Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet, David McGee
This isn’t a book about Steve Earle exactly. It’s from a series called “Lives in Music” and in this case it’s about the lives of people in the music business who have worked with Earle at one time or another. It tells their stories, mini-biographies to some extent, all connected together by their interactions with Steve. I think the author likes Steve’s politics and thought it would be fun to write something he could express his own politics in. But either he couldn’t get access to Steve and is bitter about it, or he didn’t dig very deep, didn’t like what he found of Steve on the surface and just left it at that.
There is very little of Steve here. Even as it delves deeply into the creation of his albums, there is less of Steve in these pages than there is in each of Steve’s songs. Here, as David McGee tells it, Steve is a self-centered, blowhard jackass who cares not at all for the people around him. I don’t know Steve, so I don’t know if this is true, but I do know how to read between the lines and what I see here is someone who was put off by Steve’s behavior toward them and found a bunch of people who felt similar and tied all their stories together.
Am I Steve apologist? Well, OBVIOUSLY. Find the sentence on our “Music We Love” page describing Steve and why we love him in the side pages and it’s clear I am. But I’m also a writer and lover of words. Someone easily swayed by pretty, well-written words (as evidenced in my love of music and especially lyrics) and David McGee’s words were even less objective than this review. Certainly drug-addicted rock stars aren’t necessarily tortured souls who need to be coddled, but characterizing someone with exceptional poetic songwriting skill as a loud mouthed jerk seems a little skewed to me. I half wish McGee could have convinced me his bias was truth. Like the way the Wilco documentary makes you loathe Jeff Tweedy. Instead McGee condescends, taking asides to explain things like how the Beatles were once huge and that the Vietnam vets weren’t treated well when they arrived home. Detailing dates of issues in the Clinton administration as background for Steve’s work. As if anyone who would pick this book up wouldn’t have actually lived through those events or at least be well-informed enough to know that background already. Media coverage of John Walker Lindh was biased, Mr. McGee? Really? Well, I’m sure glad you told me cause lord knows I was only in my late 20s when all that went down and was clearly too young to remember or process what was going on.
Yes, I can’t decide if I’m more offended by the condescension or the incomplete picture I feel this book paints. I don’t even want to say, “Don’t read this book,” because then if you read it you could discuss it with me or argue about it with me. That would be good. But if your time is valuable, you’re probably better off looking up old Steve interviews online and not losing hours of your life to 300+ pages of clunky exposition and lengthy description of things not really related to the topic at hand. Some of the insight into the actual recording sessions was good and the little catalogue of people who’ve covered Steve’s songs was interesting. The afterword relates exactly what I thought as I read this: “Steve didn’t offer to co-operate, neither did most of his actual friends, and only some of his family did.” It leaves me wondering why you’d even bother to write the book then, unless you just had an axe to grind.
Yeah, I’ll take a deep breath, calm down and go listen to Jerusalem a few times until my brain is washed clean.
This book is even less worth reading than the gossipy, sensationalist Hardcore Troubadour: The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle by Lauren St. John. I say if you want Steve, listen to a few albums and read Doghouse Roses, it’s bound to make for a better experience than any biography could give.
Lost Highway: The True Story of Country Music, Colin Escott
This book is a companion to the BBC series Lost Highway. The books lacks being narrated by Lyle Lovett. Seriously, if Lyle wanted to just come read to me, I bet I would find any book a thousand times more enjoyable. The TV show clearly wins, even though I haven’t seen it, because, well Lyle. The book, however, is great!!
It’s picture heavy and not exactly comprehensive. There’s pounds and pounds of other, bigger books full of minutiae on the history of country music. I own a few and have even read some of them, but this one stands out for me. Sure, I already knew most of the stuff it covers, but it really focuses on real country music and some alt.country. The important bits are here and as a starting point, it’s wide ranging, easy to read and interesting. I suggest going over the contents, getting some of the music and reading while listening to the music of each era it discusses. Yes, you could get that experience from watching the documentary, but if you can’t get your hands on that, this experience is nearly as good, though it involves more effort on your part.
I give it sixty-seven and half stars as an introductory text. If you’ve been listening to stuff we cover here and haven’t been delving into country music, start with this book. Make yourself a list of everyone you read about here and begin downloadin’, my friend, it’ll do your soul good, not just to have to old music but to know a little about it.