One day I came across this article a few months back on the legacy of John Mellencamp. I’m a huge Mellencamp fan from way back. Since the beginning of his career, in fact, when my mom and dad attended the Johnny Cougar days show at the Seymour National Guard Armory and brought home his debut album. I grew up between his birthplace of Seymour, Indiana, and his current home of Bloomington, so his music–and the Mellencamp sightings–were everywhere. The prospect of a new books on Mellencamp piqued my interest, so I reached out to the writer of the article, David Masciotra, who has such a book on Mellencamp coming out in 2015, to give us a little more info on the project.

Photo credit: Chester Alamo & Costello

Photo credit: Chester Alamo & Costello

Music Tomes: Tell us a little about Mellencamp: American Troubadour.

David Masciotra: Mellencamp: American Troubadour, published by the University Press of Kentucky, is what I call an “artistic biography.” It is a biographical look at John Mellencamp’s life through the vantage point he provides with his work; always generous in spirit, large in thought, and perhaps most importantly – because it is rock ‘n’ roll – fun.

An artistic biography keeps alive the idea that art is more important than gossip. American culture celebrates celebrity over artistry, and it treats even important artists – in music, film, literature – as if their divorce proceedings are more important than their work. American culture has also now reached a weird and miserable state of idolizing people who have done nothing to earn their status as idols. Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, and the real housewives of name-your-city, are now household names when, unlike someone like John Mellencamp, they have done absolutely nothing to make American culture less boring, more interesting, richer, or deeper.

As fans of Mellencamp know, and readers of my book will learn, Mellencamp’s music is a hybrid of rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, funk, and folk. In the spirit and tradition of John Mellencamp, I have written Mellencamp: American Troubadour as a hybrid of biography, musical criticism, and cultural criticism.

It is about John Mellencamp, but because Mellencamp’s music is about America, it too is about America: The America when “holding hands meant something,” the America of “thundering hearts”, the America brimming with the electricity of integration and miscegenation, and the America forever suspended “between a laugh and a tear.”

MT: What inspired the project?

DM: I suppose I started writing the book – intellectually and emotionally – when I was thirteen years old. Because I am younger than the typical Mellencamp fan (29), I had never heard of John Mellencamp as a young boy. One summer afternoon, a neighborhood friend and I in the south suburbs of Chicago, were playing basketball in his driveway. His older brother came outside to work in the garage, and he put on the album American Fool. I immediately fell in love with the muscular drive of the music, the libidinous sleaze of the lyrics, and the strength and warmth in Mellencamp’s voice. It was at that moment that I also began my lifelong romance with rock ‘n’ roll.

In high school, I discovered the music of Bruce Springsteen, and became obsessive about tracking down all of his songs, collecting bootleg concert recordings, and attending his live shows. I wrote my first book – Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen (Continuum Books, 2010) – after graduating college. Something unexpected happened as I grew older.

I found myself feeling more deeply and thinking more introspectively while listening to Mellencamp than when listening to Springsteen. I soon realized that the overblown romanticism of Springsteen’s songs appealed to me as a high school and college student, because the experiences that Springsteen imagined were the experiences I wanted. Once I accumulated actual experiences, his music seemed like the naïve and melodramatic property of fantasy. John Mellencamp’s music, from the other speaker, grew and gained, as I grew and gained in experience. The experience that informs Mellencamp’s music is not imagined or guarded, it is direct. It comes through him, not merely from him.

Tim White, the late editor of Billboard and a critical champion of Mellencamp, once said, “When you listen to John Mellencamp, you don’t think about John Mellencamp. You think about you.” White’s words capture my experience as a John Mellencamp fan. As a critic, I developed an enhanced appreciation of Mellencamp’s innovation, within rock ‘n’ roll, his consistency as an excellent songwriter, and mastery of a variety of genres.

I felt I needed to write about John Mellencamp’s music in such a way that would illuminate its greatness and relevance, while making social and cultural connections to the very ideas that have inspired some of Mellencamp’s best songs – the melancholia of life, the joy of surprise, the demand for physical release and sexual pleasure, America’s brutal and beautiful history of racial integration, small town life, and the ongoing disappointment of corruption and cowardice in American politics.

The Mellencamp story is an important one to American music, and it has far reaching implications for American culture. After all, he is man who began as a brand – Johnny Cougar. Year after year, through his own will, dedication, and authenticity – he discovered his own humanity, and through the creation of his music, shared that discovery with his audience. It is an inspirational story for anyone trying to author their own story in a culture of script doctors.

So, there is the personal motivation in writing this book – my own love for the music and my desire to right the wrong of my own writing history – and there are the larger musical, cultural, and philosophical ideas I felt were worthy of long form exploration.

mellencampMT: Do you feel Mellencamp hasn’t gotten his due over the years as a songwriter and representative of a Midwestern ideology?

DM: That’s an interesting question, because on paper, Mellencamp is incredibly acclaimed. He is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a Grammy winner, and a recipient of the John Steinbeck Award.

Within the culture, however, there is a prevailing belief that Mellencamp is the “poor man’s Springsteen,” and he never quite receives the recognition he deserves. He acknowledges this himself. He once attributed it to his Midwestern roots and home, claiming that he and, one of his heroes and friends, Michigan native Bob Seger ,are always cast as “second string”, because they aren’t part of the coastal elite in arts and entertainment.

Regardless of the reason for it – and I do think there is a bias against Midwestern artists in music and literature – there is a failure among rock critics and fans to acknowledge some of the amazing achievements of Mellencamp’s music career. His albums Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee are probably responsible for the “No Depression” movement of alternative country and Americana. Before Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown, before O Brother Where Art Thou, and before Robert Plant and Allison Krauss, Mellencamp – alone in American popular music – was scoring hits with moving and poignant songs about everyday life in the American heartland, featuring traditional instrumentation – violin, banjo, dobro, accordion. Mellencamp called it “gypsy rock”, because it combines the blues of the delta, the gospel of the southern black church, and the folk of rural America, with the electric aggression of rock ‘n’ roll. It was a stunning innovation, and something that critics and fans routinely ignore.

In the mid-1990s, he wrote folk songs and dressed them up with the instrumentation and beats of R&B. In my book, I call it “funky folk”, and one of his former band members who helped him shape the sound – Moe ZMD – a keyboardist who had previously worked with Michael Jackson and Tupac Shakur – called it “rock ‘n’ roll with a street edge.”

If you look at Mellencamp’s output from 1982, with American Fool, to 2010, with No Better Than This, you’ll find it nearly impossible to find any major American recording artist who has written and performed such an eclectic variety of high quality music with the same consistency.

One of the reasons I wrote Mellencamp: American Troubadour is that I wanted to make an argument that, while not hagiographic, is unapologetic in its insistence that Mellencamp is a true prizefighter of rock ‘n’ roll.

As for Mellencamp’s place in Midwestern art and culture, it is undeniably enormous. I wouldn’t use the word “ideology” to describe it, but in my book I argue that there is a Midwestern sensibility in art. In music, Bob Seger, John Prine, and Mellencamp have it. In literature, a reader can trace it in Jim Harrison, Sinclair Lewis, and Theodore Dreiser, and in the visual arts, there is Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry. There are many staples of Midwestern art – pastoral scenes, small town settings, colorful characters – but the heart and soul of it is the swirling of melancholia and joy. Mellencamp’s record title, The Lonesome Jubilee, captures it in a phrase as fine as any. While Mellencamp was far from the first to create art according to this sensibility, because of his popularity and visibility, at least within the past thirty years, he’s been the most successful exemplar of it.

The book has that same quality. There are passages that are full of joy – passages about Mellencamp songs like “Hurts So Good”, “The Authority Song”, and “Small Town” – then there are passages that are pretty dark, like the songs “Jackie Brown”, “Rain On the Scarecrow”, and “Human Wheels.”

Mellencamp is a songwriter and singer who is constantly trying to figure himself out, and his place in a troubled, confusing world. I’m trying to do that too, as are most writers, from people who write books like this to novelists.

There is something exciting and sad about it, because in the end, we all fail, but with the right focus and commitment, we all have some fun trying.

Keep up with David Masciotra at his Website.

neilrosenbergLast week the International Bluegrass Music Association announced their 2014 inductees into their Hall of Fame and on that list was author Neil V. Rosenberg. Rosenberg has been a longtime writer on the subject of bluegrass and folk music, editing several scholarly journals and penning books of his own. His book Bluegrass: A History is a seminal work in the genre of bluegrass.

“First of all, for someone whose career as musician and writer has largely been concerned with bluegrass music, I’m deeply moved by this honor,” Mr. Rosenberg says.

Mr. Rosenberg is the sixth writer to be included since the Hall of Fame was established in 1991. The list includes Pete Kuykendall, David Freeman, Bill Vernon, Charles K. Wolfe, and Ralph Rinzler. “I’m proud to be included in the list with this illustrious group,” he says.

“As an American who has lived for 45 years in Canada (I’m a citizen of both countries) I’m also proud to be the first ‘international’ inductee,” he notes.

Mr. Rosenberg is currently recovering from a heart attack and we wish him a speedy recovery and a heartfelt congratulations on his Hall of Fame induction.

Martin Popoff is arguably the most prolific rock writer publishing today. His new book draws from his deep interview archive to assemble The Big Book of Hair Metal: The Illustrated Oral History of Heavy Metal’s Debauched Decade. It’s filled with tons of fantastic pictures, from posters and backstage passes to rare publicity shots and album covers. A combination of oral history and timeline, the book is a fun ride through the past and some fun music.

Martin was kind enough to talk to us about the book, self-publishing, and the music itself:hair metal

Music Tomes: The Big Book of Hair Metal is an incredible collection that combines a lot of great pictures, a timeline of events in the evolution of hair metal, and a fantastic oral history. How did you start the process of pulling together the interviews from your archives?

Martin Popoff: I got into this format when I did a pair of similar books covering Deep Purple, only the cool thing about that, in terms of seeing the way events interlace, was that it was a timeline with quotes project, something like 600 pages, of Deep Purple, Rainbow, Whitesnake, Gillan, and every other subgroup of those guys. And yes, I loved that I was able to go through my archives and find quotes that made sense. To specifically answer your question, I guess almost from memory, for any event that I was going to ascribe a date to, I knew whether I had a good quote for that or not. It’s quite satisfying and easy way to write, because you don’t have to keep it all in your head and keep linear. If you find a date, you just go to that section and pop it in. If you find a quote, you just go to that date and pop it in. In other words, writing a book like this, you somehow don’t have to concentrate as hard as you do when you’re writing something that is just miles and miles of paragraphs. I guess also, you’re sort of asking, well, my interviews are all transcribed and in pretty good order in my computer, by date, in various folders, and there’s also a database, there’s even hard copies of most of them, and then there’s boxes and boxes of cassette tapes that are arranged using a numbering system.

MT: There are those that use “Hair Metal” as a put down. Where does that come from?

MP: There’s definitely good reason for that! The lyrics were silly and hedonistic, even materialistic, sexist. The guys looked ridiculous. There was a lot of copycat stuff going on, there were real and valid jealousies of all these bands quickly going gold and platinum and double platinum, and perhaps maybe not paying their dues. Lots and lots of reasons. Even down to the fact that if we call it hair metal, half of that is metal, and then you can argue up and down whether this is metal or not, or if it’s too poppy and melodic and well produced to be called any form of heavy metal. And yes, bands definitely take exception to being called hair metal. Including Motley Crue, who is on the cover, and people like Sebastian Bach. I say, lighten up. It’s just a term, and yes, it applies to both of those bands quite well, and even Guns N’ Roses, who somehow have been the most successful at avoiding getting tagged with that and being considered somehow great geniuses. It’s all hair metal, and that’s just fine by me, and should be fine by those guys too. Okay, to indulge a little more, hair metal, well, you always hear the argument that rock stars have always had hair, usually have long hair, and even the thrash guys had hair. Big deal. We all know why this is called hair metal!

MT: You cite Boston as a “proto-hair metal original.” Where does Arena Rock fit in to the evolution of hair metal?

MP: I think we are really using an amorphous, abstract term when we use the term arena rock. That’s even worse than hair metal. It’s like indie rock or alternative rock. When an indie or alternative band gets big, they’re no longer the alternative and if they get signed they aren’t indie. And arena rock logically would mean any band big enough in any genre, to play an arena. Anyway, I think Boston fits because of the wall of sound, the heavy guitars, the high melodic vocals, the hooks. It’s all just very sickly sweet hard rock, and that’s, in a very general nutshell, what hair metal is. And yeah, in terms of proto-hair metal, Boston applies, but so does Ted Nugent, Kiss and Aerosmith, but not necessarily Deep Purple, who is as arena rock as any of the American cats.

MT: In the introduction to the book you say that you listen to more of a variety of hair metal now then you did when it was popular. Why is that?

MP: Because at my age I need music to keep me happy, and hair metal is happy music. Plus just things like exercising and jogging. You need music that is uplifting, enthusiastic, optimistic, about fun in the sun, heck, even about reasons to keep fit. Slow, slogging heavy metal, the doom stuff, that won’t keep you motivated to keep running down that road. Now, I listened to tons of hair metal at the time, but it was also an exploratory time in music for me, being the right age, and being very curious about all sorts of music, so at that time, sure, there was also that thing in the back of my mind that was in everybody’s mind, about hair metal being ultimately pretty stupid. So at the time, I was into all that Minneapolis scene stuff, along with the more progressive forms of California punk, and also, like a great river that no one never talks about but is there all the time, every last band I grew up with in the ‘70s, who were making records in the ‘80s; you’re still into all of that at the same time. And then grunge was amazing too. I was living in Vancouver at the time, and buying up all that stuff and loving it. For all the exact same reasons hair metal died a precipitous death in and around 1991, I, too, agreed with all those reasons, the big one being loving grunge to death. But at the same time, I was loving the fact that some of the best hair metal albums were coming out late, like 1991, 1992, 1993, for the very logical reason that in the face of the death of the genre, bands had to really raise their game.

martinMT: You’re arguably the most prolific rock writer out there. What drives you to keep creating?

MP: Well, first off, there’s less liner notes and bio work, writing for print magazines work, and even writing for websites that pay work. That’s one thing. Also, my slow selling off of thousands of CDs and records and other rock memorabilia, we know that sales in all that stuff has declined as well. Or at least, definitely, the CDs. So I can’t throw a lot of hours at that as well. But even without all that, my favorite thing in this business to do is write these books. And the reason I like to do it is I like documenting history, assimilating all these different sources along with my own interviews and my own opinions and descriptions of things, and putting them into a book, so I can purge it out of my mind, and I know it’s there for history. I imagine that these bands are pleased as well. That somebody’s gone and put in the effort to do this, and it’s something they can show their grandkids as well. I just love knowledge, history, research. You know, but I never fool myself that it’s all that worthy a job. To me, the worthy job is the art itself, which is actually why most of these books are about the records, usually on a pretty strict song by song basis, which, I noticed that when a lot of these guys write their own books, they barely even go over. It’s more about the lifestyle. So I’m fulfilling a service there, writing about all the nerdy, geeky stuff, all the detail, interviewing producers and talking to engineers and stuff like that. Anyway, I digress. Basically, I’ve turned being a fan into a job, or hobby into a job. What’s more important is art. I’m pretty sure all these guys I interview think I’m a loser and I totally agree, in comparison to them. And that’s why I have to quit all this sooner than later, and get back to painting, drawing, illustration. I have so many ideas, and to me that’s the ultimate job. Oddly, I’ve got no desire to write fiction. And even more oddly, maybe this is just age, but I have little desire to make music, even though I do play drums, I definitely know I could write lyrics and I could even write songs if I had to, and I do plunk away at bass and guitar. But the idea of making music is way down the list past the idea of getting back to painting, which I’m sure I can be successful at. Everything I’ve done that I wanted to sell has sold. It’s stupid. I’ve wasted all this time, but on the list of cool jobs, I console myself that having written 50-odd metal books is quite high up the chain, just definitely below any job where you actually make art.

MT: You do a lot of self publishing. How you do you think the rise of self publishing–both print and digital–can benefit music journalism?

MP: The most amazing thing about this is you don’t have to rely on anyone. Any idea you can come up with, you can make it a reality, and sure, you have to put in a lot of hours, but there’s not really a lot of financial risk, other than the throwing away of all those hours, because with self-publishing, and the idea that you could make print books using a digital process rather than going to old traditional press, means that you can economically fire up 200, 300, 500 copies of whatever you want. There’s layout cost, the cost of the print job, but if you can find even a small modest audience like that and sell mail-order, it works out pretty good. Plus digital is very exciting. Have had some success with e-books, but what I really am sort of passionate about exploring more is putting out dozens… Well, I’ve already done dozens, but hundreds of short documents, for a low price of like $.99 or $1.99. That is a very intriguing business model that I’ve done a bunch of, in conjunction with a cool partner Chris Pike (buy his Budgie books!) but haven’t really had much success at. But basically, forget music, writing, this whole process opens up the door for anybody who’s passionate about anything or has become somewhat of an expert in any field. You can just go out and publish. There’s no more excuses not to do it. And sorry, you say, how can it benefit music journalism? Well, I guess it’s the same answer. Anything you want to write about, you can just go out and write about it. And you don’t need a publisher, you don’t have to go through all that rejection, you just have to put in the hours and spend a little bit of money. That’s it. Any obscure band you want to write about that there’s never been a book on… just get out there and do it.

MT: What are you currently working on?

MP: I don’t really like to talk about that, because you don’t know if you’re letting out secrets that a publisher doesn’t want let out or what. One thing I can say, because I don’t have a deal for it yet and I’ll just self-publish it if I don’t get a publisher, is a book called Who Invented Heavy Metal? Which, I’ve given a little talk on at a few conferences, and I have a sort of interesting, complex four-part answer, and basically I have to have it ready for a conference in Finland in mid-2015 anyway. So, publisher or not, I gotta get that thing ready, and I suppose that’s going to be the next book. But I have lots of ideas, in fact probably one idea a day, for a book project. It’s just getting the time to do it. Which, long story, but I’m trying to look for a publisher, maybe even something visionary like a digital publisher or app maker, somebody who wants to buy out my entire archive of interviews and all the books I have rights to, and all the books where the rights are going to revert to me, for a nice package deal, and then even go work for that publisher for five years, to free me up to write more and take a lot of these other tasks away. There is so much pent-up potential sales in what’s been done so far, and in my interview archive of 1600 interviews, that I think selling all of this intellectual capital in one big deal to a publisher, and then going and working for the buyer, is the way to go for the next five years, and then try get back to art.

MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?

MP: Man, I always draw a blank when asked this, because there are so many coming all the time, and I read them, and just like pizza, they’re all basically good. Plus I have so many friends that write music books, I don’t want to start naming them and then leave other guys out! I suppose in general terms, you don’t like it when it’s too much cut and paste and not enough original interview footage. My whole rule with doing any these books is I won’t write a book on anybody until I’ve talked to them 20 or 25 or 30 times. Always like to have something new to add to the table. And on top of that, I do realize that one satisfying part of this is weaving in my own opinion, criticism into this stuff. Some people like that, some people think it’s out of place and is stupid, and who cares what this Canadian idiot thinks? Also, I suppose, books can be too long-winded, in need of an edit, or off-topic from what you really care about. Which again, for me, and I get lots of positive feedback in this respect, I’m really that guy who wants to talk about every song on every album, even less popular albums, and not blow by anything too fast. God love him, I just got back from vacation and was reading Dick Wagner’s autobiography, and then the day I get back, he dies! I knew Dick and I interviewed him a few times, and he called me for advice on his book. But I’m amazed, although I loved the book, and I’m glad he covered what he did cover in it, I was amazed at how little there was about the specifics of writing and recording all of that Alice Cooper material. It’s just funny, the rock star himself, some writer, working on an authorized biography with a rock star, some unauthorized writer… everybody has their area of interest, and they will chew up their word count in that area of interest. Mine happens to be songwriting, most importantly lyrics, recording, the performances right on the record. Because, as a fan, that’s what you’ve got sitting in your collection that you go back to time and time again, is the studio albums. The live experience, live albums, talking about the tour, all that other stuff, to me… the lasting, most important part of all these rock stars is that little pile of studio albums that they’ve made. And that’s what I want talked about at length in any rock bio that I read, and that’s why I write them that way.

Keep up with Martin Popoff at his Website

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acdcThe Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC by Jesse Fink
Reviewed by SteveJ

One of rock ‘n’ roll’s basic tenets is that being in a band is like being in a gang; it’s all for one and one for all. One of life’s tenets is that blood is thicker than water. Combine those two beliefs and you have the core of Jesse Fink’s excellent new book The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, a fresh take on AC/DC filtered through the Scottish clan’s lens.

Those relationships, particularly that of former Easybeat George, and younger brothers Malcolm and Angus, build the AC/DC band — soon-to-become “brand” — brick by brick. They keep and streamline what works, and discard ideas that do not fit their vision, and personnel that betray the family’s code of silence. George (along with Harry Vanda) led The Easybeats, easily Australia’s greatest band, but excepting “Friday On My Mind,” the group was never able to break America. Their career was alternately undermined from both inside the band, and outsiders, including the press, radio and their record company. George Young never forgot those lessons, and schooled his guitar-playing brothers well. His and Vanda’s superior songwriting and production skills would be critical towards developing and nurturing the band until rhythm guitarist and riff-meister Malcolm could assume control and assert himself as the power behind the throne.

To their credit, the band’s decision-making process is guided by their vision of “what’s best for the band,” and, if cutthroat at times, it’s consistent. Even lead singer and lyricist Bon Scott’s place in the band comes under scrutiny when he is suspected of hard drug use. He would be safe — for now — but it would not be long before Scott would pay the ultimate price. The band, ever pragmatic, would replace him and reach even greater heights.

It’s that consistency and stubbornness to their craft, their sound and vision that is the strength of both the Youngs and AC/DC. Critics were often late to the party with bands like AC/DC, hailing them as “stupid” and suggesting “someone ought to pull the plug on them” (Robert Hilburn)” or dismissing them as having “nothing to say musically” (Rolling Stone’s Billy Altman). Of course, as the band became one of the biggest in the world, the critics would later revise their opinions, offering bouquets of backhanded praise.

Likewise, managers, record men and radio people — seemingly ANYONE who worked with the band and was interviewed for this book — are willing to take a fair measure of credit for the band’s success. It only reinforces to me just who is actually responsible for the band’s success; that would be the Youngs and the band itself.

Fink is also not afraid to call out other biographers of the band on inconsistencies and half-truths, perhaps promulgated by the Young’s themselves, and offer up tantalizing alternatives. Back In Black, the album that launched the band into the stratosphere, has long been rumored to have Bon Scott’s fingerprints on some of the lyrics (including the title song), rather than replacement Brian Johnson’s, who received songwriting credit on the album. Fink provides some compelling analysis, comparing Scott’s often tongue-in-cheek style to Johnson’s clumsy sexual metaphors and pointing out his lack of input on subsequent albums. The author, as do I, also favors the Scott-era’s penultimate album Powerage as the band’s definitive musical statement, rather than the more successful Highway to Hell or Back in Black, which gracefully closed the curtain on one version of the band while launching a new one. Powerage however, is a fresh, foot-tapping distillation of the blues and blues boogie; just listen to “Gone Shootin’,” by far my favorite song in the band’s catalog, and an overlooked classic.

I’ll leave the last word, however, to David Krebs, one-time manager of AC/DC and a powerhouse in the industry. He compared managing a band (and presumably the subsequent books about bands) to Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” in which “four separate witnesses to a rape and murder give accounts that contradict each other. No matter what, there will always be people who saw the same event in a completely different way.” And while I’m pretty sure that this is the first book to mention AC/DC and Akira Kurosawa in the same breath, that rings pretty true to me. Ultimately, Jesse Fink has delivered a fascinating, highly-readable, sometimes critical account of the Young brothers and AC/DC that all fans of the band should read.

If you want blood….you got it.

Follow me on Twitter @stevejreviews

 

The Week’s Release (8/10-16)newreleases

[Note: These are affiliate links, but if you are going to buy it anyway, why not help out the site at the same time?]

The Next Elvis: Searching for Stardom at Sun Records, Barbara Barnes Sims, Louisiana State University Press, August 11, 2014

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Joel McIver, Omnibus Press, August 11, 2014 (Updated Paperback Edition)

Hotter Than a Match Head: My Life on the Run with The Lovin’ Spoonful, Steve Boone and Tony Moss, ECW Press, August 12, 2014

House of Fun: The Story of Madness, John Reed, Omnibus Press, August 11, 2014

Elvis Has Left the Building: The Day the King Died, Dylan Jones, Overlook, Aug 14, 2014

Lou Reed: The Life, Mick Wall, Orion, August 14, 2014 (Paperback Edition)

The Big Book of Hair Metal: The Illustrated Oral History of Heavy Metal’s Debauched Decade, Martin Popoff, Voyageur Press, August 15, 2014

Southern Rock is a wide term that often covers a wide range of acts. To document the music it takes a good sized volume, and that’s what Scott B. Bomar has given us with Southbound: An Illustrated History of Southern Rock. Concentrating on the heyday of the subgenre, Bomar covers all of the usual suspects (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers Band, Marshall Tucker Band, Charlie Daniels, et al), but also throws in the lesser knowns (Hydra, Stillwater, Cooder Browne, et al).Soutbound_-_final_cover_-_smaller

Music Tomes: How did this project come about?

Scott B. Bomar: Mike Edison, who is a fantastic writer, was an editor at Backbeat Books. He was the guy who worked with Will Romano on an illustrated history of prog rock that came out in 2010. Will’s book was really cool, and Mike thought it would be great to do something similar with Southern rock. He contacted a good friend of mine named Randy Poe, who wrote a great biography of Duane Allman for Backbeat called Skydog. Randy recommended me to Mike. I was not a Southern rock expert, but Randy and I had worked together on some projects, and he thought I would bring a fresh perspective to the subject. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas, so it was just sort of “jump in and go.” This is kind of funny, but the first thing I did was listen to “The South’s Gonna Do It” by the Charlie Daniels Band and I wrote down the names of all the acts he references in the lyrics. From there I began reading everything I could get my hands on, and contacting all the great surviving Southern rockers for interviews. I grew up in the South, and I had listened to a ton of this music growing up, so I really connected with it.

MT: Southern Rock has been something that has been often hard to define. How do you define it?

SBB: In the Introduction to the book I really grapple with this issue. There are a lot of ways that people have defined Southern rock, and most of the artists who are categorized with that label have been pretty resistant to the term. Gregg Allman pointed out that saying “Southern rock” is like saying “rock rock” because rock music originated in the South. Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and all those guys were Southerners. After the British Invasion, rock music shifted away from the South. By the time the psychedelic era ended, however, the Band, Bob Dylan, and Creedence Clearwater Revival heralded a return to the simplicity of rock’s Southern roots. That set the stage for the Allman Brothers Band, which came together in 1969. To me, Southern rock is about an era as much as it is about a sound. It was music that was created by guys (and sometimes girls, but mostly guys) from the same geographical region who shared a similar cultural background. Though you can point to specific sounds – multiple electric guitars, for instance – the music that I would categorize as Southern rock today is the music that best captures the spirit of the golden age of the genre in the 1970s.

MT: Personally I was happy to see the inclusion of Hank Williams, Jr. Why did you decide to do that?

SBB: The place where the sound and spirit of Southern rock seems to thrive today is within commercial country music. If you turn on a country radio station, you’re going to hear music that sounds a lot more like Lynyrd Skynyrd than Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash. Charlie Daniels, of course, is widely regarded as a country artist now, but he started out as a Southern rocker. His music didn’t change that much, but the way music gets categorized has shifted. A band like Blackberry Smoke, for example, is marketed as a country act, but those guys are a straight-up Southern rock band. If they’d started out in the 1970s they would have been signed to Capricorn Records, and they would have been on the road opening for the Allman Brothers Band. Anyway, I think Hank Williams, Jr. had a lot to do with introducing a Southern rock sensibility into country music. Whereas Charlie Daniels started as a rock guy who later came to be viewed as country, Hank started as a successful country artist. He had seventeen Top 20 country singles between the mid 1960s and the mid 1970s, but in 1975 he released Hank Williams, Jr. and Friends, an LP that really embraced Southern rock. Chuck Leavell from the Allmans played on it. Toy Caldwell from the Marshall Tucker Band played on it. Charlie Daniel played on it. It wasn’t a hugely successful album at the time, but it was a tipping point for country music. By the end of the decade Hank had a couple of big hits with his Southern rock-influenced brand of country, and he became a superstar in the 1980s by bringing country and rock together in way that appealed to the mass country audience. His influence in that regard still reverberates today.

MT: Youíve produced a number of reissue projects. How has that experience affected your writing about music?

SBB: A couple of years ago I decided I wanted to do at least one thing every year that I could point to and say it contributed to the preservation of music history in some small way. I really like the idea of taking things from the past and hopefully showcasing them in such a way that they are recognized by younger generations as having cultural value. I am passionate about classic country music from the 1950s and 60s, but country music has often been its own worst enemy in terms of seeming really uncool to younger fans. Rick Rubin came along and helped younger fans discover Johnny Cash. Now everybody acts like Johnny Cash was always the coolest thing in the world, but there was a time when he was regarded as hopelessly unhip. Rick Rubin found a way to showcase his talent without changing who he was, and he shined the light on Johnny in the right way so that people could rediscover his greatness. Jack White tried to do the same with Loretta Lynn. I love that kind of thing, because it keeps the music alive for new generations. With Southern rock, I think there are a lot of assumptions that have clouded some people’s willingness to give the music a fair chance. One of the things I wanted to do with this book was to say, “Forget what image of Southern rock you think you might have, and discover (or rediscover) the music.” It’s all about the music. If I can make even the tiniest contribution to someone giving historically valuable music a fair listen, then I’m happy.

MT: What are you currently working on?

SBB: I’m currently working on several projects. I’m doing some essays for the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry about Buck Owens, Al Green, and Booker T. & The MGs. I’m also doing a CD project for Bear Family Records spotlighting the music of the Coker Family, who recorded for Abbott and Decca Records in the 1950s. Alvadean Coker is a somewhat unsung heroine of rockabilly music, so I’m excited to get that project wrapped up. I’m also working on a definitive book about the history of country music in Bakersfield called Bakersfield Sounds: The Rise and Fall of Country Music’s Nashville West. That one’s my baby, and I’ve been chiseling away on it for years. I hope to finally wrap that up fairly soon.

MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?

SBB: This question makes me nervous, because I enjoy reading about music about as much as I enjoy listening to music. There have been so many great music books that I’ve loved, and I’m sure as soon as I give you the list, I’ll think of five more I’ll wish I’d included. In the interest of self-discipline, I’ll limit myself to ten books, in no particular order:

Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom by Peter Guralnick
Merle Haggard: The Running Kind by David Cantwell
Say It One Time for the Brokenhearted: Country Soul in the American South by Barney Hoskyns
Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota by Chuck Klosterman
Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters by Robert Gordon
Country Music, U.S.A. by Bill C. Malone & Jocelyn R. Neal
Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Fisk Jubilee Singers, How Black Music Changed America and the World by Andrew Ward
A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry by Charles K. Wolfe
The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop by Dan Charnas
In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music by Nicholas Dawidoff

Keep up with Scott B. Bomar at his Website.

Music Book Podcasts

August 6, 2014 — Leave a comment

Today I thought I’d share a couple of my favorite podcasts, two that are right up the alley of you dear readers.

NBiPM

New Books in Pop Music is a semi-regular podcast featuring interviews with authors of a wide range of music-related topics. You can also check out their companion podcasts, New Books in Music and New Books in Jazz.

prior volumes

Prior Volumes is a podcast that debuted in March, had its second episode in April, but hasn’t updated (yet) since, but I’m hopeful it will continue. The podcasts goal, as stated on the Web site, is to share “lesser-known narratives via songs, sound clips, and conversations with artists and experts.”

I highly recommend both!

The Week’s Release (8/2-9)newreleases

[Note: These are affiliate links, but if you are going to buy it anyway, why not help out the site at the same time?]

ABBA: The Treasures, Ingmarie Halling and Carl Magnus Palm, Carlton Books, August 5, 2014

Live at the Brixton Academy: A Riotous Life in the Music Business, Simon Parkes and J. S. Rafaeli, Serpent’s Tail, August 7, 2014

Few regions are as identified with a specific sound as Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In her new book Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music, Carla Jean Whitley examines not only the famous studios that gave birth to The Sound, but the area and it’s influence on the musicians who brought the music to life.Muscle Shoals Sound Studio cover

Music Tomes: The Muscle Shoals documentary reminded a lot of people about some great music that came out of the area. What you do here is broaden the scope a little beyond just FAME and Rick Hall. How important was it to you to do that?

Carla Jean Whitley: The documentary Muscle Shoals has been an amazing way to remind people of—or in some cases, introduce them to—the area’s amazing music legacy. It seems everyone I talk to, music fan or not, is familiar with the movie. It’s brought so much awareness back to the area, and the film was key in drawing Beats Electronics’ interest in renovating Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

You can’t underestimate the way Rick Hall has affected the Shoals sound; you can’t tell the story of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio without FAME. But as you note, there’s so much to the story. It was great fun to hone in more tightly on a specific part of the Shoals history.

I’m also looking forward to many more tales being told from this area. I know of one book in progress now, which will focus on the Shoals story from the ’80s to present day. I’ve heard whispers about others. There are unbelievable riches here, and I hope all of these stories are shared, whether by those who lived them or historians who preserve these lessons for the future.

MT: Did you run across anything in your research that surprised you?

CJW: I had no idea George Michael had recorded a version of “Careless Whisper” at Muscle Shoals Sound. That version was only released as an international B-side, and I haven’t yet tracked it down. I’ve read that the differences are slight, but I’m eager to hear the Shoals version of the song.

MT: This is your first book, what have you learned from the process?

CJW: It was an extraordinary process! I’m a journalist, and so I’m accustomed to lots of original reporting informed by a bit of research. Writing history flipped that formula on its head. Although I was privileged to spend time with some of these folks, most of the writing process found me with my nose stuck in archive material.

Writing a book also required greater discipline than the magazine and newspaper articles I’d written to date. The skill sets are the same, but a book has staying power that news and magazines can only hope to emulate. I gave up most evenings and weekends to this process, but it was worth it. Knowing that this work would reside on bookshelves for years to come only increased my desire to get it right, and to communicate the story eloquently.

MT: What are you currently working on?

CJW: I’m already at work on my next book, a history of beer in Birmingham, Ala. It’s fascinating for so many reasons. The city’s history with the beverage dates back nearly to Birmingham’s founding, and yet Alabama’s oldest active brewery, Good People Brewing Co., celebrated its sixth anniversary on July 4. I’ve written about local beer a fair bit since the craft beer movement took hold here, and it’s already a lot of fun to dig deeper into both those stories and those that came before. The book is set for publication in spring 2015, also by The History Press.

MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?

CJW: Oh yes! Nick Hornby’s Songbook is a collection of essays in response to songs that span myriad genres. Hornby is one of my favorite writers, and this book beautifully communicates a listener’s relationship to songs he loves.

I’m a big Beatles fan (my cats are named McCartney and Harrison—I might be a bit of a Beatles nerd), and so I love reading just about anything about the band. William Dowlding’s Beatlesongs is a great read for someone like me, who wants as much insight as possible into every word of every song the band recorded. Along those lines, I enjoyed Jim Derogatis and Greg Kot’s The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Rivalry. My dad has often told me stories about how this debate played out on the playgrounds of his youth, and I loved reading about it from the perspective of two of my favorite rock critics.

Can I keep going? Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed my Life by Brian Raftery is great fun, a history-slash-memoir that will keep you singing. Hatch Show Print: The History of a Great American Print Shop by Paul Kingsbury, Elak Horvath and Jim Sherraden is arguably more of an art book, but the history of show prints is tied up in music promotion. My favorite concert posters to this day are letterpress, and I have a number of Hatch prints hanging throughout my home.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ve got still more reading to do!

To keep up with Carla Jean Whitley, check out her Website

The Week’s Release (7/27-8/2)newreleases

[Note: These are affiliate links, but if you are going to buy it anyway, why not help out the site at the same time?]

Southbound: An Illustrated History of Southern Rock, Scott B. Bomar, BackBeat Books, July 28, 2014

Barefoot in Babylon: The Creation of the Woodstock Music Festival, 1969, Bob Spitz, Plume, July 29, 2014

Simply Thrilled: The Preposterous Story of Postcard Records, Simon Goddard, Ebury Press, August 1, 2014

George Clinton & The Cosmic Odyssey of the P-Funk Empire, Kris Needs, Omnibus Press, August 1, 2014