The Best History of Country & Western Music. Ever.Culture Watch
Published in November, 1977, Nick Tosches’s Country holds a prominent place in the pop culture canon; it is an unflinching, brilliantly rendered history of the genre’s depraved underbelly. Critics lauded the work early on. The Houston Post called it an “absolute steamroller of a book…with some of the juiciest, grittiest passages ever found in any C&W study.” High Fidelity declared that “tales of drug abuse, murder, racism, and brawling…suffuse Country, and the numbing fumes of alcohol rise from every page.” The Village Voice asserted that “almost any page you look at leaves you stunned. Crazy-brilliant.” Over time, the encomium continued. Country “is widely recognized as a vital, though resolutely sleazy, cornerstone of country music scholarship,” maintained Rex Doane in Salon in 1999. And Will Blythe, writing in the New York Times in 2002, praised the text as “a roguish archival dig into the dirty roots of country music.”
Tosches went on to write many other acclaimed studies, including Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll (1984) and boss biographies of Jerry Lee Lewis (1982), Dean Martin (1992), and prizefighter Sonny Liston (2000). He designed Country, his smashing debut, to be “something that could be…read for entertainment and used as history.” It is, to be sure, an engrossing and informative volume.
Tosches plumbs the ancient origins of country music. “Its roots,” he argues, “descend deeper into the past than those of any other popular music.” Tosches shows, for example, that Doyle Holly’s 1973 hit, “Queen of the Silver Dollar,” may be traced back to an eighteenth-century British lyric, “The Bottle Preferr’d,” printed in Allan Ramsay’s 1737 Tea-Table Miscellany.
A blunt, witty scholar, Tosches extols certain artists while disparaging others. Emmett Miller, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Sun-period Elvis are among his favorites. Miller’s voice, Tosches observes, “was congested, nasal, full of after-hours liquor and crazy times. He often swirled his lyrics off into high, weird yodels—a manic but wholly pleasant effect. He was the greatest song stylist of his generation, and until Jerry Lee came along no one jumped songs with such sheer country class.” Tosches views the Killer as “the heart of redneck rock…and one of the greatest country singers who ever lived. Talk about rock-and-roll depravados: Jerry Lee makes them all look like Wayne Newton. Talk about honky-tonk heroes: Next to Jerry Lee, they’re a bunch of frat-party pukers…He is the last American wild man, homo agrestis americanus ultimus.” Tosches lionizes Elvis as the “avatar” of rockabilly. Presley’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” was “not merely a party song, but an invitation to a holocaust,” while “Mystery Train” was no less than “a demonic incantation.” But by the middle of the Sixties, Tosches avers, Elvis had lost his way; the King was woefully out of touch, starring in such embarrassing Hollywood schlock as “Clambake.” Tosches claims that it “is the sheer, superhuman tastelessness of Elvis that shakes the mind. In 1965, as Western civilization lay on its tummy peeking over the brink at the rapids of psilocybin and ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,’ Elvis, for all the world to see, was hopping about singing ‘Do the Clam.’” Tosches belittles other country performers, including Maybelle Carter, “whose influence as a country music instrumentalist is equal to that of, say, Rudy Vallee,” Johnny Cash, whose “mind seems to grow more monomaniacal” each year, and Roy Acuff, whose later work had become “stale and tedious.”
Country features a graphic, unsettling chapter on Western Swing artist Spade Cooley, who, in 1961, forced his fourteen year old daughter to look on as he brutally murdered his wife, Ella Mae. Tosches calls this disturbing chapter “You’re Going to Watch Me Kill Her.” Before the slaying, Cooley “had been drinking and eating pills.” When the musician’s manager arrived, Tosches relates, Mrs. Cooley “was naked, bruised and red and dying. Her breasts had been burned with a cigarette. Spade stood there, in shock. There was blood on his fancy cowboy boots.” Chilling stuff.
Tosches also comments, sometimes caustically, on previous country music scholarship. For instance, he derides such books as My Husband Jimmie Rodgers (1935) by Carrie Rodgers and Dorothy Hendricks, Hubbin’ It: The Life of Bob Wills (1938) by Ruth Sheldon, and Chet Atkins (1967) by Red O’Donnell as “junk country books…the literature of yech.” Of the latter biography, Tosches sneers, “reading it is like watching Cheez-Whiz slowly coagulate on someone’s chin during lunch.” However, he compliments Bill C. Malone’s Country Music U.S.A. (1968) as “the first noble lunge out of darkness,” and commends Emma Bell Miles’s article, “Some Real American Music” (1904), as the “most beautiful prose written of country music.”
Tosches explores the issue of race in country, examining the “musical miscegenation” that sometimes occurred. He cites such examples as “the Ravens covering Hank Williams…[and] Ernest Tubb covering Chuck Berry.” Tosches also notes that several major country artists, including Roy Acuff, Bob Wills, and Jimmie Rodgers appeared “as blackface performers early in their careers.” On a few occasions, white country performers worked with African American musicians. Rodgers used Louis Armstrong on “Blue Yodel No. 9,” Jimmie Davis recorded songs with steel guitarist Oscar Woods, and Al Dexter played with an all black band. But sadly, that was rare. “One night in the late 1930s,” Tosches reports, “Bob Wills got drunk and hired a black trumpet player in Tulsa. The next morning he fired him.”
In the book’s most intriguing chapter, Tosches discusses the history of “rustic smut.” Many great country artists, including Roy Acuff, Gene Autry, Cliff Carlisle, Homer Clemons, Buddy Jones, Hank Penny, Ted West, and Jimmie Davis, recorded risqué material. In the 1930s, for instance, Davis cut such suggestive songs as “Bed Bug Blues,” “High Behind Blues,” “Organ-Grinder Blues,” and “Tom Cat and Pussy Blues.” (Interestingly, he also recorded the classic “You Are My Sunshine,” and later in his life was twice elected governor of Louisiana.)
In short, Country is an extraordinary history, grandly written; it’s heady, hip, dark, droll, acerbic, and insightful. Check it out, buckaroo.
NOTE: All quotes in this essay are from the 1996 Da Capo Press revised edition of Country, the one with the ultra-garish pink and green cover featuring a photo of blind Georgia singer Riley Puckett. You’ll know it.
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