Lucid, jam-packed, richly illustrated companion to the Ken Burns documentary series.
Was Earl Scruggs the Eddie Van Halen of his day? Quoting John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Duncan (Seed of the Future: Yosemite and the Evolution of the National Park Idea, 2013, etc.) makes the connection between the banjo master and the guitar shredder: “It was so fast. It was what excited people.” In the same way, Hank Williams was a punk rocker in his time, while Willie Nelson—well, Willie is unmistakably himself. As Rhiannon Giddens, of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, has lately been demonstrating, country music is the music of rural blacks, whites, and Native people, a style, writes the author, that “was not invented; it emerged.” Rising from the bottom up and drawing, like the blues, on black gospel, country music was popularized by the new medium of radio, becoming a staple through “hillbilly” variety shows throughout the South. As a mix of ethnic forms, it ironically slipped through Henry Ford’s racist denunciation of jazz, gaining in popularity at the same time. Some country stars came to prominence accidentally: Roy Acuff might have been a baseball star had it not been for a case of sunstroke, and had he not been abused as a child, Hank Snow might not have run away from home. And then there are the working-class strivers: the ill-fated Williams, Wanda Jackson, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline. Duncan has broad tastes and an appreciation for the many strains that feed into the musical form, so that Dwight Yoakam, the Judds, Gram Parsons, and Guy Clark get as much play as Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash, and George Jones. He also tracks the rising and waning commercial fortunes of country, which found plenty of room for the likes of Garth Brooks and new pop-y stars while freezing out old-timers like Nelson and Cash.
Country music is America’s music—which is to say, music from every culture and ethnicity. An essential guide.