By John Cody
“Country music is the product of a society permeated with the culture of evangelical Protestant Christianity. The ‘Christ-haunted’ South, as novelist Flannery O’Connor described it, consequently produced a style of rural music that was distinctively different from that of the North, and that style has endured as one of the central components of commercial country music.” — Bill C. Maloney, in The Encyclopedia of Country Music
Paul Kingsbury, editor: The Encyclopedia of Country Music, Oxford University Press 1998.
The Encyclopedia of Country Music is by far the most comprehensive, well-researched and readable tome on its subject. Published through the esteemed Country Music Foundation, all areas are covered, from the most obvious to fringe artists, trends, key industry personalities, record labels, radio stations and the like.
Ten essays cover the historical, cultural, artistic, financial and other factors that have shaped the music. A section on album cover art assembles 75 full color representations of Country record jackets over the years.
Bill C. Malone contributes ‘The Gospel Truth: Christianity and Country Music’ which traces the music’s roots and relation to the gospel. Malone is the author of Country Music USA (1968, revised 1985), which still stands as the definitive history of the music. From the neophyte to the serious listener, there could be no better purchase — apart from the music itself — than these two titles. Highly recommended.
Lesley Sussman: Yes, Lord, I’m Coming Home, Galilee, 1997.
As part of the long-standing tradition of Country music stars sharing their spiritual secrets of success, Yes Lord, I’m Comin’ Home! joins such titles as Hit The Glory Road (1969), and He Walks With Me (1977).
Twenty-eight Country music stars are profiled. By sheer attrition fewer old timers are around for this latest volume. Ferlin Husky is the only performer who had a significant presence in the 1950s, but there are ample voices from the sixties through to today’s ‘New Country’ stars.
Too often, however, rather than talking about the holy God of scripture, the performers offer a warm and fuzzy creator or, even worse, more of a testament to the power of positive thinking. Naomi Judd, for example, speaks disconcertingly of being a "co-creator with God in my healing."
There are a few inspiring stories. Glen Campbell, for one, speaks of realizing how little worldly success matters. But for the most part the story, with variations is: "I grew up in the church, got famous, fell away, now I’m back, so come and catch my show in Branson."
A simplistic approach, coupled with overly dramatic writing and suspect theology (teachers like Kenneth Hagin are credited) makes this book a wasted opportunity.
Michael Erlewine, Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, Stephen Thomas Erewine, editors: All Music Guide to Country, Miller Freeman, 1997.
Taking a broad view of Country music, acts generally associated with other genres are included, and even obscure acts are given ample space. More than 6,000 albums are reviewed, and essays on various sub-genres and offshoots put things in perspective. Recommended.
Colin Larkin: The Virgin Encyclopedia of Country Music, Virgin, 1998.
Part of the extensive Virgin Encyclopedia series (which includes R & B, Blues and six other titles), this volume offers bios on more than 1,000 acts. The focus is on the artist and career highlights rather than on individual recordings, although discographies are included where applicable. Fine reference material, and an excellent companion to the All Music Guide to Country.
Rick Jackson: Encyclopedia of Canadian Country Music, Quarry Press, 1997.
A rather perfunctory run through Canada’s Country stars, past and present. This covers the names one would expect, but incomplete discographies are frustrating. Too often the bios appear to come straight off of record company promo sheets. As with most books claiming to cover our entire country, the West Coast contingent is given the bum’s rush. Pioneer acts like The Cement City Cowboys, Cam Molloy and Blue Northern are conspicuous by their absence.
Laurence Leamer: Three Chords and the Truth, HarperCollins, 1997.
Traditionally, Country fans exhibited a loyalty to their stars that far surpassed any other genre. A few hits under your belt and you were set. Radio played your records and the fans attended your shows faithfully. That’s all changed.
Three Chords and the Truth looks at the present day Country music industry through ‘Fan Fair,’ an annual event where the public gets up close to its biggest stars. In-depth profiles, some flattering, some scandalous, illustrate how much has been lost in the race to sell product. Top record executives, almost to a person, admit to the author that they are put off by the mediocre music played on ‘New Country’ radio.
Tony Brown, head of MCA Nashville, who came up singing Gospel with J.D. Sumner and the Stamps before moving on to play piano with Elvis Presley, is one of the good guys, typical of those who are saddened by an industry where looks are more important than talent.
Johnny Cash is an example of overlooked talent. He won a Grammy award for best Country artist last year, yet he’s rarely heard on Country radio. Cash, a Christian who has recorded a number of Gospel albums and sung several times with Billy Graham, was dropped from two record labels in less than a decade, and had been given up as a lost cause.
American Records, a label with no connection to the Country scene, took a chance on him, and helped bring about a creative rebirth. After winning the award, the label placed an ad in trade publications thanking the Country music establishment for its support. The catch was that it featured a vintage photo of an enraged Cash giving the finger — which pretty much sums up the feelings of those who love country music as opposed to what comes out of Nashville these days.
As one executive explains, the criterion for success these days is "a good singer with great jeans and a hat." Colorful characters like Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills are long gone. Today, chart toppers like Garth Brooks bring marketing degrees to the table.
Brooks comes off as a megalomaniac, pursuing loftier sales figures at the expense of friends and family. Having more in common with ’70s rock than anything resembling the rich heritage of country, Brooks lists his influences as Kiss, Journey and Billy Joel. The production of his live shows rival the biggest rock spectaculars. Another act, Brooks and Dunn, have a stage set straight out of Star Wars.
Artists such as Vince Gill, who acknowledge tradition, appear anachronistic standing alone on stage with a guitar.
The drive for success leaves more than a few walking wounded. On The Oprah Winfrey Show, Wynonna Judd declared she would never consider an abortion after seeing what it had done to the career of Patty Loveless. Judd neglected to mention that she had had an abortion herself a few years earlier. Judd’s own unwed pregnancy became news later.
On the other hand, James Bonamy lost his management after refusing to lie about his marriage. As Bonamy insisted family and church comes first, his record company tried to stop him from giving a witness during concerts, and a fish symbol displayed on his guitar was vetoed. Remarkably, he found success, hitting the top 10 with his debut album. But it turned out to be short-lived. Soon after this book was published, Bonamy released a second album that failed to make the expected sales, and he was dropped from the label.
After releasing a handful of albums to critical raves and minor sales in the 1970s, Linda Hargrove experienced a spiritual rebirth and recorded a pair of Gospel albums for a Christian label before disappearing from view. Attempting to re-enter the fray years later, she was met with total disinterest. Regardless of the music’s quality, nobody in Nash-ville wants to hear from a woman in her mid-forties. Ageism permeates the entire music industry, but nowhere as deeply as in New Country scene. It’s everybody’s loss.
© John Cody 1999