Nashville-based critic Oermann, one of journalism’s best known authorities on country music, takes an ambitious look at the genre’s evolution from its hillbilly origins at the turn of the century to the mainstream success it is today.
His chronicle begins, appropriately enough, in 1900, when, according to Oermann, the New York Journal became the first publication to use the word “hillbilly” in print. Oermann takes his time explaining the origins of the hillbilly culture, and while this material creates a strong reference point for the development of country music, the opening chapter bogs down in minutiae. Oermann more than atones for the dryness, however, as the century and his chronology progress and the characters become more colorful, from Jimmie Rodgers (“ ‘We thinks about Elvis and the thousands of people that would mob Elvis. But back in 1933, it was like that with Jimmie Rodgers,’ said BoxCar Willie”) to the Grand Ole Opry, which began on December 26, 1925 on WSM radio. Obviously, there are certain giants of country—Hank Williams and Patsy Cline—who deserve more attention, but who have also been written about repeatedly. Oermann does a good job of them their due while coming up with something new. He starts the passage about Williams by writing, “Hank Williams was honky-tonk music’s tortured genius.” To put in perspective the unparalleled influence Williams had on country, Oermann cites Don Helms, Jimmy Dickens, and several other musicians. Of Cline, Oermann says, “She remains the voice against which all other female country singers must measure themselves.” To hear what many of today’s contemporary stars, including Kathy Mattea and Shelby Lynne, have to say of Cline is especially intriguing.
Oermann effectively bridges the gap between the country music giants of yore and today’s stars, such as the Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain, and Garth Brooks. (Over 200 b&w and color photos)