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In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music

In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music
Author: Nicholas Dawidoff
ISBN 13: 9780375700828
ISBN 10: 37570082
Edition: 1st
Publisher: Vintage Books / Random House
Publication Date: 1998-04-28
Format: Paperback
Pages: 386
List Price: $18.95

From the author of the bestselling The Catcher Was a Spy comes an exhilarating exploration of the performers, places, and experiences which form country music—a genre which is uniquely and authentically American. 40 photos.

Mark Athitakis

Country music met the enemy, and it was Garth Brooks. Or Billy Ray Cyrus, or Lorrie Morgan, or any of the innumerable performers who transformed the music from a soulful art into a profit venture. At the end of the century, country feels dead, a rotting, Faulkneresque haunted house filled only with the scent of whiskey, the sound of clawhammer banjos and a faint memory of d-i-v-o-r-c-e.

As a welcome and loving attempt at a resurrection, Nicholas Dawidoff's In the Country of Country makes no claim to be the authoritative book on the music. But in this collection of interviews with performers from the early vanguard, a full and colorful landscape begins to emerge: Harlan Howard writing lyrics on a bar napkin in Nashville; Doc Watson rising up from North Carolina to Carnegie Hall; Rose Maddox's ascension from poverty and slide back down again. Traveling through the towns that helped form the music, Dawidoff finds a world that's almost remained in a vacuum. In Earl Scruggs' hometown of Flint Hill, N.C., a local tells the author that back in the 1930s, there were only three houses in town. "Now, well, there's about nine." The music still thrives in these places, but the rest of the world sped along, heading elsewhere.

Like any myth, country's supposed world of hard drinking and living does have a kernel of truth to it, and the interviews here show a more complex reality than the tabloid headlines. Ira Louvin and Carter Stanley of the Louvin Brothers were both alcoholics, but also tortured souls, unable to reconcile their religious fervor with their darker compulsions. It's a memory that surviving brother Charlie Louvin still has trouble shaking: "If I'm playing a Louvin Brothers song, when I get to the harmony part, I move off to one side of the mike." For George Jones, whose notorious addictions brought him to within an inch of a Hank Williams-style implosion, the situation was even more desperate. Dawidoff describes Jones' marriage to Tammy Wynette as "a finger curled against the trigger of his frazzled emotions," and Jones himself remembers a cocaine-addled moment where "I thought everything happening around me was in a science-fiction theater. You saw things that weren't there."

Some of the interviews aren't quite as compelling, not because the stories are less interesting, but because country performers are a reticent lot. The plainspokenness that makes them so wonderful on record doesn't always translate into enlightening quotes. While playing the banjo in his speedy and engrossing three-finger style, Earl Scruggs is lucid and eloquent, but his overwhelming humility leaves him with very little to say for himself. When asked about the praise he's received, he says: "Everybody likes a pat on the back, I guess." "With a banjo in his hand," Dawidoff quips, "Scruggs is a witty guy."

Dawidoff does find cause for continued hope -- particularly in Emmylou Harris and Iris DeMent -- but a bittersweet feeling hangs over most of the book's interviews. Visiting bluegrass trailblazer Bill Monroe at his 83rd birthday party, a few months before his death, the author finds him playing through the night for a small circle of friends, singing lines like "Memories of how we once loved each other/And now you are saying goodbye." There's joy in the music, but Dawidoff's anger at the circumstance is palpable. Monroe should be heard by all country listeners, you can hear him thinking, not just these lucky few. But Dawidoff has done his research, and he should know better; that's what you get for hanging around haunted houses. -- Salon