alt.country

Book: In the Country of Country: People and Places in American Music (Pantheon) by Nicholas DawidoffCD: V/A In the Country of Country: People and Places in American Music (Compass Records)Driving south from Newport News to Wilmington last month, while stopped at an Amoco station in Vernon, North Carolina, I came up with the central question posed in Nicholas Dawidoff's book In the Country of Country: People and Places in American Music. We'd just passed two of the scariest bars I'd ever seen: a bricked-over mobile home up on blocks, and a falling-down shack with a big pair of lips painted on its front door, with a sign reading simply "All Female Staff.""Who owns country music," I asked myself as I stood in line, "and who is it for?" Three feet away, a big fat guy who looked to be about my age stood shirtless, buying a pack of Marlboros. A few hundred miles away, at his home in Franklin, Tennessee, country legend George Jones probably sat in his personal barber's chair while his barber, Ray Gregory, shellacked his hair into place. Back in Seattle, at places like Gerry Andal's and the Little Red Hen, people who called me "Einstein" in grade school ordered up two Rainiers, "one for me and one for the little lady."The developing popularity of "alt.country" has slowly made it cool to like country music, for the first time since Urban Cowboy in 1980. People are finally noticing that Young Country, while effectively marketed to a very large American audience, has more in common with the bland, overproduced rock 'n' roll of Poco than it does with Jimmie Rodgers, Hank, Sr. and Kitty Wells.An alternative--country music with direct lines to the pioneers--is showing up everywhere. It's on our college radio stations, in our downtown bars; it's strewn across floors in urban studio apartments all over America. It's everywhere, it seems, except in Nashville. Nicholas Dawidoff, whose last book was a factually obsessed biography of World War II-era baseball oddity Moe Berg, designed In the Country of Country as both a road map (covering western North Carolina and Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and Bakersfield, California) and an American history lesson. Since timing is everything, Dawidoff had to realize that eventually all of the alt.country hipsters would come looking for the forefathers and mothers of their new low-key heroes. Many have begun already, as demonstrated by recent recordings featuring bands like the Supersuckers backing up Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash.Amazingly, you can get into a car right now, drive six hours down I-5, and find the home of Sister Rose Maddox, one of the pioneers profiled in Dawidoff's book. In fact, most of the original innovators and inventors of country are still living. American country music history is rich and fascinating, and Country shows the real origins of this genre, born mostly of poverty, pain, boredom and faith during the first half of the 20th century. But who is country?At times, the characters of In the Country of Country are the contemporaries of Elvis, people who disowned him for being, in the words of Ira Louvin--the sweeter-sounding Louvin Brother--a "fucking white nigger." They're people like Bill Monroe, underpaying and overworking his Bluegrass Boys, then conducting a 20-year feud with Earl Flatt when he left the band to work with Lester Scruggs. They're people like songwriter Harlan Howard, capable of writing the most sentimental, gut-wrenching songs, yet growling at passers-by from his reserved bar stool at Sammy B's in Nashville. Howard says that "there is an implicit morality in country music"--and that understanding is, I think, what separates the pioneers from the big money "hat acts" of today's Nashville.Dawidoff's book shows that, along with the Puritan's fear of an angry god, these Americans carry with them a certain level of self-loathing. Country music is the music of disappointed sinners--drinking until sunup on Sunday, hung over, guilty, and sitting in church a few hours later. This tension makes country music--trite lyrics or not--an emotional experience for both performers and listeners. "Good is good, bad will suffer, and your cheatin' heart will make you weep," Howard says.The lives of those profiled in Country are amazing, not at all surprising, and very, very complex. But Dawidoff shows that these artists maintain integrity, whatever the expense, and are careful not to "put on airs." They would all probably object to being called "artists"; in fact, I'm sure they'd prefer the term "workers."So what do you do, driving scared, or at least displaced, through America, trying to make a connection between the pure, honest music coming from your CD player and the guy in overalls squinting at you suspiciously from his front porch? Dawidoff, perhaps unintentionally, establishes a feeling that many of these musicians are specific geniuses, good only at packing a hundred years of emotion into each minute of recorded music, or creating innovative guitar, banjo, and mandolin stylings without formal instruction, drawing on a wide breadth of gospel, blues, and folk without knowing it, innovating completely by accident. These people are very practical, and they take everything in stride. Some are bitter and caustic; some, like Doc Watson, who lost his son (and guitar player) too early, are resigned and peaceful.The road hasn't been easy for anyone but Buck Owens; Johnny Cash hasn't written a decent song since "Big River," and Sister Rose Maddox got screwed. Without their music, these are good and bad people, farmers and millworkers, preachers, wives, husbands, mothers, and fathers. With their music, they're something else entirely.In his book, Dawidoff tries to give a vocabulary to the rural white people who invented country music. Thankfully, he also had the foresight to include a companion CD with In the Country of Country. He wastes too much space deconstructing and analyzing songs, and is often better off letting his CD, which includes songs by almost every musician featured in the book, do the talking. Through the CD, the author also establishes a direct line all the way from Jimmie Rodgers through Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Emmylou Harris. Dawidoff is very complete, and his only misstep is including lightweight Iris DeMent in this honored lineage. In Country's final chapter, Dawidoff mentions Wilco and Son Volt as a part of something called "alt.country." It would be interesting to hear which other bands he considers part of the family.Who owns country music? Regardless of the "right" answer, there are so many little pieces of country music in so many things AmericanÉ maybe it's owned by all of America. But then the MekonsÉ.

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