From Southbound to the Killer: Five Books on Music History

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In some of the more notable books on roots-leaning music published in 2014, the writers did the work of illumination — illumination of categorizations and characterizations often taken for granted, of connections previously unrecognized or minimized. In others, they amplified a musical persona and reputation. But whatever the approach, it’s no small thing they found new ways to treat and talk about music that’s mattered to lots of people and given voice to marginalized vantage points of its time.

Southbound: An Illustrated History of Southern Rock offers more than just year-by-year, band-by-band chronology of the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band and their ilk. Author Scott Bomar does plenty of that, and expertly, but he also gets at questions of identity: who’s been making and staking a claim to this music since the late ‘60s. At first it was the young, hippie longhairs of the American South, though as he points out, they were sometimes pegged more as culturally backward than countercultural by rock critics from outside the region.

Later on, Hank Williams Jr. dared to incorporate Southern rock into his style, and Charlie Daniels, once regarded as a sort of patriarch in the Southern rock scene, saw his commercial success skew country — not because he’d significantly altered his music, but because there’d been a significant alteration in what the audience embraced as country. Bomar shows that a meaty, guitar-driven, Southern rock attack’s been a building block of both mainstream country and left-of-mainstream Americana pretty much ever since, so fundamental that it goes unnamed.

In Tune: Charley Patton, Jimmie Rodgers and the Roots of American Music focuses on a single era of music-making — the early 20th century in the Jim Crow South. Patton and Rodgers each had their heydays of popularity. For Patton, known as the Father of the Delta Blues, it came posthumously, while Rodgers, called the Father of Country Music, got a taste of it in his short lifetime. They’ve each been talked about, written about and covered plenty, but seldom considered side by side, as historian Ben Wynne does in his book.

He shifts the focus from the bold-faced, commercially-inscribed racial divide between Patton’s black blues and Rodgers’ white country to the hardships they shared in common as poor, low-class Southerners struggling to survive in an economic system set up to keep them subservient. Among other things, Wynne points to how they both responded to their experiences with songs about restless rambling freedom — escape, in other words — and served as professional models for generations of down-home musicians.

Rodgers appears on the cover and within the pages of Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music. Music journalist Barry Mazor’s book is a biography of Peer, the influential record man and music publisher who introduced the world to Rodgers and the Carter Family. The narrative also turns out to be an important history of how myriad flavors of regionally and ethnically rooted music — from hillbilly ballads to vaudeville blues, Mexican Bolero, western swing, mariachi, bluegrass and much more — came to be viewed as music with an audience and therefore commercially viable and worth recording, releasing and promoting.

Before Peer came along, it certainly wasn’t a foregone conclusion these things were so. The burgeoning music industry revolved around the mainstream pop compositions of Tin Pan Alley. In Mazor’s telling, the fact that Peer brought commercial instincts to all sorts of untapped music and saw it as a business proposition, rather than an academic one, made all the difference.

In Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music, historian Eric Weisbard essentially picks up where Mazor leaves off, examining the many flavors of popular radio formats that emerged from the ‘70s on. Weisbard makes a convincing argument that to talk only about musical genres and not pay attention to hit-driven formats is to ignore much of how music has spoken to the masses.

He devotes an entire chapter to recounting the rise of Top 40 country, casting Dolly Parton in the leading role. As much ink as has been spilled on her elsewhere, she takes on genuinely fresh significance here as a singer and songwriter who put both authentically ancient Appalachian storytelling sensibilities and the sellable persona of a modern, ambitious woman in front of a broad audience and helped forge a tradition-loving, popularity-courting middle ground in country music.

Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story is a whopper of a book — just short of 500 pages, in fact — that focuses on one big personality. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Bragg does a grand, gritty job of mythologizing Lewis, especially the myriad ways that the piano-pounding performer has vigorously exerted his independence and exceptionalism since his hardscrabble Louisiana childhood.

Lewis first absorbs caught-up, charismatic church music, unruly juke joint fare and Hank Williams’ honky-tonk heartache, then floors Sun Records’ Sam Phillips — and most of teen America — with the wildness of his rock ‘n’ roll. Later he scores hits with stone-country ballads while weathering numerous lows. The impression is one of a force-of-nature musician bending the more visceral sounds of the working-class South to his will.