Undercover: Country music: poetry and dissipation (01/12/78)

When, some years back, critic Nick Tosches shifted his pri­mary interest from rock & roll to country, I mourned his loss—figuratively speaking, anyway. Tosches’ work had always been freewheeling, unpredictable, and passionate; he wallowed in sleaze, went straight to the point and knew his music cold. Now, finally, his big book on country music is out, and we can all see what he has made of his apostasy.

Country: The Biggest Music in America (Stein and Day, 258 pp., illustrated, $10.95) is not what it looks like, which is a conventional, historical survey of country music. Dolly Parton isn’t even mentioned, and there are only single passing references to Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty. There is a whole chapter on Spade Cooley, the Western Swing bandleader who murdered his wife, but not a word about Asleep at the Wheel. And so on.

After a bit, the book begins to seem bizarre. Tosches will spend pages on the permutations of a song, trace it back to its roots, and then shoot it twenty years out of its time into the future; he will unearth salacious lyrics in the early recordings of a star today famed only for his piety and his Comstockian hauteur. He will offer the usual array of illustrations—posed band shots, record labels and old ads—and mix in a picture of Johnny Cash fondling a pistol with a barrel you could stick your fist in, or a shot of Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Barry White and a woman with seven-inch fingernails.

What’s going on here is this: Tosches dove headfirst into country and came back with a book of obsessions—his, and the music’s. They are these: continuity and change, illustrated by the persistence of couplets across decades, even centuries; miscegenation, illustrated by incidents of racial cross-fertilization (musically, that is) and racial hatred; violence, illustrated by tales of murder, torture, self-destruction
and self-loathing; yodeling, illustrated by a lot of facts about yodeling; Emmett Miller, a forgotten performer whom Tosches considers an avatar of the music. Tosches brings some of these off, and misses on others. Nothing anyone could write would make me care about yodeling.

On the other hand, much of the obsessive spirit of the book passed into me as I read. I began to care deeply about how many different versions of “Black Jack David” Tosches had found, and where they took him—the fact that the Orpheus myth, which dates to at least 400 B.C., could, by a thousand twists and turns, appear in a song issued on Sun Records in 1956 is a sort of miracle, and Tosches makes it seem like one. The way he follows the jumps of lyric themes back and forth between singers black and white, the Twenties and the Sixties, the country and the city, ultimately gives one a sense of unity that no other book on country music—or any American music—has ever quite achieved: a unity one can apprehend but not touch. Tosches is well aware, as most musical scholars are not, that to investigate the sources of songs is to tamper with mystery.

Tosches has two instincts: (1) to go after facts (he mentions no one without telling us when, if relevant or known, the person in question was born, died, killed someone, moved to Nashville, got religion or changed labels), and (2) to go for the underside of facts. If this means myth in the case of songs, it usually means ugliness in the case of performers. There’s a hatred for the cover up, for the denial of the real story to the audience, all through the book.

A record company executive recalls [a] meeting [Tosches writes] between Jerry Lee [Lewis] and Chuck Berry. The executive was producing a concert in which both singers were to appear. Jerry Lee started a fight with Berry backstage; much drinking and aggravation followed. When the executive called for the curtains to be opened, there at center stage stood Jerry Lee, Chuck Berry, and Elmo Lewis. Chuck Berry was holding a knife to Jerry Lee’s throat, and Pappy Lewis had the open end of a shotgun pressed to the base of Berry’s skull.

Tosches may not even believe this story. It’s here, I think, because Tosches is sure that this is what both Jerry Lee and Berry wanted, even if they never had the nerve to act it out. The same goes for the final chapter of the book: one page of murderous fantasies by a singer who is, after a few paragraphs, himself murdered. We aren’t told who it is, or if it really happened. By the time one reaches this page, its effect is shocking—what does this have to do with Tosches’ laborious musicology, with his summation of the Barbara Allen myth, with the labyrinth of Black Jack David? Why’s he mixing poetry and dissipation?

Well, “Barbara Allen” is about unquiet death. “Black Jack David” is about woman-stealing, and describes the motives of the singer who wants to kill and who is about to die. Poetry and dissipation are mixed because they are linked not, as is the way with most music books, “tragically,” but as a matter of fact.

Tosches has no respect. He writes about country singers as if they were criminals, because some of them were and more of them wanted to be—and because most pretend the thought never entered their minds, just as most of them never much wondered where their songs came from or where they might end up. And so what Tosches has produced is an ill-organized, superbly detailed, sometimes inaccurate (Rabbit Brown was not the first white to record blues, because he was black) assault on everything country music honors as most holy, and a loving, scholarly, scabrous portrait of those things in country music that are kept quiet, or ignored—in other words, on what is most holy.

Rolling Stone, January 12, 1978

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