Monday, May 12, 2008

Down The Tracks; Peter Guralnick, Lost Highway

"Lost Highway" was the second book on my summer reading list that I finished in almost a heartbeat. Peter Guralnick's book is often seen as the seminal work on Country music, first published in 1979 it certainly captures Country music at a new hight. In the mid seventies, just when Country, much like R&R, threatened to drown in a swamp of mediocrity and easy listening, the outlaw movement put it back on track. Artists like Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams junior saved the genre from itself much in the same way as Punk and Springsteen redeemed R&R. Funnily enough one of the clubs that was instrumental in that movement was Max's Kansas City in NY. These days the club seems exclusively annexed by Punk historian, who often, conveniently, fail to mention the broad array of music that was featured on that small stage.

Guralnick is a pleasant rarity in music criticism. By his own admission it was his love for Blues that made him decide to write the book "Feel Like Going Home". When he finished that classic work he seriously considered to turn his back on writing, feeling he became too much of a professional to capture the essence of music. As this book and his classic biographies on Elvis testify, we're very lucky he didn't. Guralnick is able to capture the essence of the artists he portrays here, he captures in words qualities that often seem fleeting, an emotional experience that often seems beyond the grasps of words. Guralnick gets under the skin of not only the music, but the artists as well. With Guralnick many of the artists he portrays seem to be able to relax enough for their private personality to shine through the professional stance or myth created around them.

The figures we encounter through out Guralnick's book are often tragic and heroic at the same time. There's Charlie Feathers insisting on his place in Elvis' myth by claiming his success as his. There's the nearly forgotten Charlie Rich, unable to handle both his lack of success and his rise to fame, trapped by the bottle in both stages of his career. Gurlanick makes you marvel at obscure names as Sleepy LaBeef, stuck in a forgotten corner of America, playing the local truck stop, because his tour bus burned down. Cowboy Jack Clement explains his all compassing knowledge of Shakespeare with out ever having read a word the man wrote, or his plans on settling in outer space. Page by page the insane reality of these men unfolds, or rather these giants of individuality. No matter how lost or crazy some of these artists become, they inspire with their singularity as much as they do with their words. It is no coincidence that a head strong Sam Philips turns out to be at the very center of this book.

Although this book is built up around seemingly independent portraits and skips some of Country's biggest and most influential figures, it could be argued that few books capture the spirit of Country music as well as "Lost Highway". At first you might raise your eyebrows seeing portraits of Rufus Thomas and Bobby Bland amongst Ernest Tubb or Hank Snow but slowly and surely it becomes apparent how much Country and Blues are entwined. It seems everybody in this book was raised and influenced by the Opry, including the Blues artists featured here. Yet at the same time many of the Country stars here profess to be influenced by Blues names as Arthur Big Boy Crudup. Without making it explicit, Guralnick tears down the racial lines created in the music industry and makes the cultural exchange between the races in the deep South tangible. Without throwing it in your face, Guralnick forces you to reflect on American society, about things you hold true about it, about the music that on the surface seems to stress the division but in truth is as much of a melting pot as the country itself.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Just starting this book. About 50pgs in and it is a True Gem so far. I've read about Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Jimmie Rodgers & Deford Bailey. Incredible stories of Americana. Get this book... and while yer at it - get SWEET SOUL MUSIC by Guralnick as well - one of my alltime favorite reads, in any genre!