Country Music: a Biographical Dictionary.
Country Music Sources: A Biblio-Discography of Commercially Recorded Traditional Music. Meade, Jr., with Dick Spottswood and Douglas S. Meade. Chapel Hill: Southern Folklife Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries, in association with the John Edwards Memorial Forum, 2002. [xxii, 1002 p. ISBN 0-8078-2723-1. $90.] Bibliography, indexes.
Historians, folklorists, and English professors were the first to venture into the somewhat eccentric area of country music scholarship--a study that only slowly won its place within the conservative purview of musicology. The precariousness of country music's respectability within that world makes the potential impact of new works all the more powerful. Country music scholarship, along with that of other vernacular musics, raises another related issue in that audiences outside academia find it interesting. Richard Carlin's Biographical Dictionary and the Biblio-Discography by Meade, Spottswood, and Meade take directly opposite aim in relation to these two audiences: the former toward a popular audience and the latter toward scholars, collectors, and other serious researchers. As concerns their relative appeal to readers, the two works seem almost entirely mutually exclusive.
The Dictionary includes major stars as well as side musicians, comedians, producers, and songwriters. Carlin's aim is not to provide new information on important figures or trends, but to condense information found elsewhere into "essential thumbnail portraits" (p. xv). Biographical entries follow a set format: birthplace, birth date, and if appropriate, death date; a one- or twosentence description; an overview of childhood, musical development, and commercial success; a summary that includes any combination of career denouement, postmortem reflection, and look toward future possibilities. A select discography follows most entries and emphasizes current, accessible compact discs; some listings include annotation, either informative ("Ten of his Capitol hits from the mid-1960s," Del Reeves entry) or more colorfully opinionated ("1999 album of instrumentals shows [Jerry] Reed still knows how to boogie," pp. 335-37).
Opinion drives the reference, as the author makes clear when he informs readers that the "book suffers from a high degree of subjectivity" (p. xv). This subjectivity creates some pleasant surprises as well as some curious omissions. There is, for example, an entry for Bob Dunn but not for Don Rich, one for Steve Sholes but not Jerry Kennedy. One stumbles upon more idiosyncratic entries (again, with some odd omissions) hidden among the biographical sketches: song categories (weepers, for instance, but not ballads), instruments (pedal steel guitar but not harmonica), locales (Branson, Missouri but not Bristol, Tennessee), subgenres ("countrypolitan" but not country blues or new traditionalists). Carlin occasionally includes essays on broader aspects of the country music landscape (singer/songwriter, record labels, social commentary, and politics). Readers seeking an orientation to the genre will find these useful.
Other aspects of the book will enhance its appeal to audiences being introduced to country music history. Cross-referencing allows readers to unravel threads of related entries. Two appendices organize performers and other notables according to country subgenres and instruments (pp. 451-58 and 459-60). The bibliography provides good basic coverage of popular and scholarly secondary sources. The book's "Name Index" includes proper names that appear inside individual entries. As a result, David Byrne appears in the index because the entry for singer/songwriter Terry Allen (p. 6) mentions their collaboration in the 1986 movie True Stories. The index lists Martha Trachtenberg because she was guitarist/ vocalist in the 1974-79 bluegrass revival group the Buffalo Gals (p. 46). This kind of information is more difficult to access in a nonindexed reference work of this type.
The book's major shortcoming is its permeating looseness. For example, the index neglects useful names such as companies or radio stations. Okeh Records or WSM do not appear there; Grand Ole Opry and Louisiana Hayride do appear, but only with page numbers for their full entries. There is a laxness in occasional details, something of which the author seems aware when he warns, "if this work is not always reliable on facts, I hope it is very reliable on its 'feels'" (19. xv). Mistakes are bound to creep into so ambitious an undertaking by a single author; even so, it seems curious, for exampie, that George D. Hay's story of coining the name "Grand Ole Opry" is recounted twice, and Hay's quotation is different each time (pp. xi, 177). Carelessness in recording information extends to a lack of scrupulous attention to style, tone, and other matters of craft. Certain writing habits reach almost the level of tics. For example, replacing the final "g" with an apostrophe in a gerund is tempting when the topic is country music; but after too much drinkin', lovin', losin', leavin', bein' lonely, and cheatin', the habit begins to detract. By the same token, descriptions can become formulaic and thereby lose their potency: too many songwriters "soldiered on," and too many singersare "perky" (females) or "hat-wearing hunks" (males). (This may be more a critique of Nashville than of the Dictionary.)
Cutting the opening section titled "A Short History of Country Music" would relieve the book of the necessarily doomed undertaking of accounting for country music in under seven pages. This step, along with greater attention to detail, might heighten the work's more successful aspects. Indeed, Carlin generally succeeds in creating "feels" for the music of the personalities, and sometimes both. And his blunt subjectivity, at times entertaining, seems to grow from solid musical taste and a healthy dissatisfaction with Nashville conformity. Furthermore, he leans toward a welcome inclusiveness of country music's connections to folk, rock, Tejano, and other roots genres, as well as some of country's less than mainstream performers.
If the Dictionary presents an idiosyncratic collection of "feels," the Discography of Meade, Spottswood, and Meade presents a sheer wall of facts. This publication is the achievement of a diligent and lifelong passion for traditional music of the late archivist and folklorist Gus Meade. Begun by Meade during the 1950s and completed in the decade following his death, the work takes as its parameters commercial recordings of white country music between 1921 and 1942 (p. xvi), but the results overlap with traditional song artifacts before and after these dates.
The singular unique feature of this discography is its arrangement according to tunes. The authors designate four major sections ("Ballads," "Songs," "Religious Music," and "Instrumentals") that ave then subdivided, making it easy, for example, to separate traditional British ballads from those of American origin from more contemporary topical material, or, among religious recordings, Jubilee songs from Sacred Harp tunes. Drinking songs appear under the subheading Intoxicants (pp. vi-vii).
The tome is not necessarily easy to use, requiring much flipping between front and back in order to decipher the system of abbreviations. The bibliography, which also serves as one of the legends for abbreviations, is itself subdivided into several sections: "Early Vernacular Songsters and Hymnals," "Scholarly and Popular Collections," and "Hillbilly Song Folios." Keys to finding names of record labels and instruments appear in two sections in the book's front matter (pp. xx-xxi, xxii). One suggestion for future editions would be to add a sample entry, annotated in such a way that the reader walks step-by-step through the layers of each entry. Students of the art of discography might benefit in much the same way students of bibliography use sample entries as models. That said, the athleticism required to use the book pays of L
For any particular recording, one finds the expected discographic information: label, catalog and matrix numbers, performer(s), instrumentation, recording date and locale, composer credits and dates (when available), although the data does not include session musicians. The extraordinary nature of this publication stems from the other information that is readily available. Any one recording is listed with releases of the same tune by other preWorld War II country artists and references to the tune in hymnals, songbooks, song folios, and other printed sources. Furthermore, the discographers refer to recordings that fall outside the established parameters, "i.e., black, Irish, post 1942, and field recordings" (p. xix). These also contain discographical information, with underlines indicating rereleases on longplaying records or compact discs that may he more readily available. Song collectors will find this approach to organization a cause for joy. Its possibilities seem equally exciting, however, to a broader scholarly interest, especially at a time ripe for embracing connections among the wide array of America's musical roots. After all, the Discography literally lays out these connections among recordings from white and black artists, along with related print sources.
For example, to look up the recording of "Jack of Diamonds" by Jules Allen in 1928 (pp. 380-81), one finds four separate releases of Allen's version including a Bear Family rerelease (as it turns out, a vinyl compilation titled The Texas Cowboy, now deleted from their catalog). At least eleven other white country artists recorded the tune between 1921 and 1942, sometimes under different titles, from Riley Puckett's "A Corn Licker Still in Georgia" (further indicated as part of a medley) to Tex Ritter's "Rye Whiskey." Furthermore, thereare at least nine print sources in popular or scholarly collections, all of which show relevant volume and page numbers, and the tune is treated with some measure of depth in two pages of a 1982 book about Pennsylvania folk music (Samuel P. Bayard, Dance to the Fiddle March to the File: Instrumental Folk Tunes in Pennsylvania [University Park: Penn State University Press, 1982]). In 1965, the Blue Sky Boys recorded it for Capitol (Presenting the Blue Sky Boys, Capitol T-2483 , LP), later rereleased by the John Edwards Memorial Forum (JEMF-l04, Capitol ST-2483 , LP).
No such monumental enterprise, as this Discography could be exhaustive, it seems, but Meade, Spottswood, and Meade offer a solid foundation upon which other scholars will build. Besides looking elsewhere for session musicians, readers should approach the entries as a starting point because there are inevitable holes. A cursory look, for example, shows no reference to the religions adaptation of "Jack of Diamonds" called "John Adkin's Farewell." The listing for "Away Out on the Mountain" begins with Jimmie Rodgers's 1927 recording and lists three others, ending with Frankie Marvin's 1928 cut; absent is Jimmie Davis's 1928 version on the obscure Doggone label. This absence may reflect the fact that the discography's major research effort ended with Gus Meade's death in 1991, and since then, Davis's version has become more accessible with the issue of the singer's entire opus (Nobody's. Darlin' But Mine and You Are My Sunshine, Bear Family 15943 and 16216 [2CD set, 1998]). Other anecdotal examples indicate that there are stones still left to turn: Rodgers's "Blue Yodel No. 4" (California Blues), for instance, is not found there, nor does the entry for "Old Gospel Ship" refer to Alan Lomax's field recording of Ruby Vass (The Gospel Ship: Baptist Hymns and White Spirituals from the Southern Mountains, New World Records NWR 294 , LP; NWR 80294 , CD). Again, it seems more appropriate to applaud the structure around which future generations will add knowledge than to lament any omissions. Likewise, any hesitancy about the limitations of the book's format should be alleviated by the two separate and thorough indexes, one for song titles and one for performers, which allow researchers to use the discography in a traiditional way.
Aimed at different audiences, both the Dictionary, and the Discography seek to make connections, but ultimately stand in contrasting relationships to their respective peer publications. Carlin's Dictionary, painted with broad strokes, acknowledges connections across roots genres. Nevertheless, in its substance and utility as a comprehensive reference tool it cannot surpass the efforts by Paul Kingsbury (The Encyclopedia of Country Music: The Ultimate Guide to the Music [New York: Oxford University Press, 1998]) or Barry McCloud (Definitive Country: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Country Music and Its Performers [New York: Berkley
Publishing Group, 1995]); it ultimately stands as a fun read. Meade's Discography, meticulous in its approach, encourages connections across time and across cultural and racial boundaries. While not without omissions and somewhat cumbersome in its apparatus, it ultimately fills a long-empty space on the reference shelves, where it will be joined by the much-anticipated (and more traditionally organized) discography of Tony Russell (Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921-1942 [New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming]). Recognition of country music's significance by a variety of academic presses can only be good news for country music scholars of all stripes.
TRACEY E. W. LAIRD Agnes Scott College
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|Title Annotation:||Country Music Sources: A Biblio-Discography of Commercially Recorded Traditional Music|
|Author:||Laird, Tracey E. W.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2003|
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