This Week’s Release (2/22-28)newreleases

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Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism, Thomas Brothers, W. W. Norton, Feb 23, 2015, Paperback Edition

Girl in a Band: A Memoir, Kim Gordon, Dey Street Press, Feb 24, 2015

One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band, Alan Paul, St Martins Griffen, Feb 24, 2015, Paperback Edition

A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man, Holly George-Warren, Penguin, Feb 24, 2015, Paperback Edition

Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937-–1946 (Languages and Folklore of Upper Midwest), James P. Leary, University of Wisconsin Press, Feb 25, 2015

We’ll Have Manhattan: The Early Work of Rodgers & Hart (Broadway Legacies), Dominic Symonds, Oxford University Press, Feb 25, 2015

How to Write About Music: Excerpts from the 33 1/3 Series, Magazines, Books and Blogs with Advice from Industry-leading Writers, Marc Woodworth and Ally-Jane Grossan (Editors), Bloomsbury, Feb 26, 2015

Gary Reid’s new book The Music of the Stanley Brothers is an essential entry in the work of chronicling the history of bluegrass and its practitioners. Reid began this labor of love many years ago and his work is now available for fans of the Stanley Brothers and bluegrass. What Neil Rosenberg and Charles K. Wolfe did for the music chronicling the work of Bill Monroe, Reid has done for the Stanley Brothers. Reid also runs the bluegrass label Copper Creek where he works to preserve bluegrass music history in that way, too. Today he talked to us about the process and future plans.ReidF14 (1)

Music Tomes: Aside from the discography you have a one-man show on the music of Carter Stanley. What drew you to the music of the Stanley Brothers enough to devote so much time to it?

Gary Reid: I first discovered the music of the Stanley Brothers in 1973. A political science teacher at my high school had been to a police auction in downtown Washington, DC, and among his winnings were stacks and stacks of mostly then-recently country music albums. He offered to let me have any of them I wanted for the sum of 33 cents apiece; it’s probably no coincidence that LPs rotate on the turn table at the rate of 33 RPMs per minute! In any event, mixed in with all of those country LPs were two albums by Bill Monroe, two by Flatt & Scruggs, and one by the Stanley Brothers. I wasn’t looking for bluegrass at the time. I wasn’t all that familiar with the genre. But… when the needle touched down on those five albums, something magical happened and I became an instant convert.

As I soon came to find out, the DC where I grew up was a hotbed for bluegrass. Groups like the Seldom Scene and the Country Gentlemen dominated the local music scene. Being a newbie to the music, I listened to all of it for a while, but… there was something about the music of the Stanley Brothers that pulled me in. There was an emotional intensity to their singing that was missing from a lot of the other bluegrass styled groups. Unknown to me at the time, Carter Stanley was a troubled individual… he had a lot of ache and pain in his life. He channeled that hurt into his music though a bevy of songs he wrote about lost loves, aging parents at home, and, occasionally, the solace that could be found in the bars and taverns that supported the music of the Stanley Brothers over the years.

Added to the mix were the trademark harmony vocals and individualistic style of banjo playing of Ralph Stanley. For whatever reason, the combination of the talents of the two brothers struck a responsive chord in me that remains unabated to this day.

MT: In the pre-Internet days, what techniques and methods did you use to gather detailed information?

GR: My own research started with a copy of a Ralph Stanley Fan Club Journal which contained a basic discography of the Stanley Brothers. As I would come across various tidbits of additional or conflicting information, I started making notes in the margins of the Journal. Some of this info came from articles in publications such as Bluegrass Unlimited. I did a lot of corresponding with scholars…Neil Rosenberg, Charles Wolfe, etc.  I was fortunate, too, that I lived not far from folks like Pete Kuykendall and Walt Saunders… people who shared an interest in the recordings of the Stanley Brothers and who did their own research prior to mine. I also made a lot of phone calls to the musicians who helped make the recordings; sometimes I made road trips for in-person interviews.  Some of my early memorable jaunts were to Valdese, North Carolina, to interview George Shuffler, and to Detroit, to interview Bill Napier.

MT: How does your career running a record label influence how you put together the discography? Likewise, how did putting together such an in-depth discography influence what you do at the label?

GR: Researching the discography probably had more of an effect of shaping the label than the label shaping the discography. I started Copper Creek Records in 1978. By this time, I had been involved in researching the recording career of the Stanley Brothers for about three years.  The immersion into the study of their recordings eventually fueled a desire to do more than just study other people’s recordings; I wanted to make some of my own! By fits and by starts, the label took off. In some respects, the early recording career of the Stanley Brothers shaped our early recording activities. A number of Carter and Ralph’s earliest recordings were made in the studios of local radio stations. So, it seemed natural for some of our first recordings by the Johnson Mountain Boys to be recorded in that manner… engineered by popular DC disc jockey Gary Henderson at WAMU in Washington, DC. Being aware of session sheets and master numbers and the like… early on I tried to keep track of our own catalog of masters in a similar manner. But, by the time Copper Creek was started, the process of recording was much different. Unlike the early days of the Stanley Brothers, when unions dictated that four songs were to be recorded at a three-hour session, new technologies allowed songs to be built by layering tracks over a period of time; songs were no longer created on one specific date anymore. So, attempts to emulate the bookkeeping end of making recordings from days gone by quickly went out the window.

MT: What are you currently working on?

GR: Musicologist/DJ Dick Spottswood and I are putting the finishing touches on a “best of bluegrass” 4-CD set for the folks in Nashville who own the old King and Starday catalogs. Several of Carter Stanley’s children have approached me about doing a book about their father. As was mentioned in your opening question, I have been working on a one-man play, A Life of Sorrow – the Life and Times of Carter Stanley. I started working on the play about 5 years ago. I’d never done any acting before, so I signed up for several semesters of acting at our local community college. To hone my newfound thespian skills, I began auditioning for a host of community theatre productions; to date I have about 60 productions to my credit as an actor, producer, and stage manager. The impetus for this was a desire to do something that would put me in touch with people who knew and saw the Stanley Brothers years ago. Sadly, that generation is fast fading away.

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

GR: As an offshoot of my record collecting and research, I have, out of necessity, also become a book and magazine collector… so I can learn about the music I have collected. Some that I consult fairly often to trace the histories of songs are Country Music Sources by Gus Meade and Dick Spottswood and Country Music Records by Tony Russell. Some books I might buy because they contain an account of just one song, such as Ballad Makin’ in the Mountains of Kentucky, which profiles Jilson Setters’ (aka James Wilson Day) performance of a ballad performed by the Stanley Brothers called “Come All You Tenderhearted.” In an attempt to trace the histories of the many gospel songs that the Stanley Brothers recorded, I began collecting paperback shape note hymnals that were issued back in the 1920’s, ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s by publishers such Stamps-Baxter, Winsett, and Vaughan. With a collection that now numbers 900+ separate such publications, I was able to source all but 2 or 3 of their sacred recordings. Lately, in attempt to get a clearer perspective on the Stanley Brothers’ place, or lack thereof, in the broader country music scene of the day, I’ve been collecting 1950s magazines such as Country Song Roundup and Country & Western Jamboree. Reviews of their recordings were oftentimes panned for being too backwoods, or too hillbilly… traits that today endear them to a legion of loyal followers.

This Week’s Release (2/15-21)newreleases

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Strange Way to Live: A Story of Rock ‘n’ Roll Resurrection, Carl Dixon, Dundurn, Feb 17, 2015

Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, Clinton Walker, Verse Chorus Press, Feb 17, 2015, Revised and Updated Edition

Alan Rifkin is a veteran journalist who has written for Details and LA Weekly, among others. With his new book, Wounds to Bind: A Memoir of the Folk-Rock Revolution, Rifkin adds co-author to his credits, teaming with folk-rock pioneer Jerry Burgan to tell the story of the beginning of the music from the point of view of one of the artists there at its beginnings. Rifkin, in his role as co-writer, brings the stories to life with vivid descriptions and honest portrayals. Alan took a few minutes to talk to us a little about the book and the journey of getting it published:wounds

Music Tomes: In Wounds To Bind you help Jerry Burgan, who had a front row seat at the beginning of the folk revival, tell his story. Why do you think it is important to remember this part of music history?

Alan Rifkin: I guess I’d had a ten-year-old’s notion ever since the mid-‘60s that something incredibly auspicious was being born, or rhymed, or revealed, in the 12-string jangle and epic harmony that The Byrds and We Five both hit on in the summer of 1965. Probably I was projecting my secret hopes and sorrows onto the world at large. I’m no scholar, but I don’t think there could have been a better marriage of lyric and sound fusing sorrow into triumph than “You Were On My Mind” –for God’s sake, having lyrics like “I’ve got troubles, I’ve got worries, I’ve got wounds to bind” transform into these freaky, joyful, paradoxical treasures. A lot of that was due to Beverly Bivens’ lead vocal, but it was also peculiar to the moment. You could hear the same kind of world-uniting effervescence in, say, the Seekers’ “Georgy Girl”—which led, as we relate in the book, to all kinds of commercial fiascos as Madison Avenue tried to make Coke commercials out of the sound.

The fact that We Five’s creative genius, who did the arrangement of YWOMM, was Mike Stewart, the younger brother of the Kingston Trio’s John Stewart, is also interesting to me, because it showed the torch of folk music being passed to a next generation. The size of the baby boom was something Jerry and I tried all along to keep in readers’ minds, but the other day I heard it framed in better terms than I think I ever achieved in the book: More than half the world, midpoint in the 1960s, was under the age of 25.

So I liked to think that all the Utopian (forgive me if that’s corny) promise of the ‘60s somehow converged in the vortex of the moment we were writing about. In retrospect, I think you can hear some of the tenuousness as well. Somewhere in the manuscript, we talk about how AM Radio then represented a “probably lost-forever, suspended note of musical coexistence”—a missing-link time when you’d hear everyone from Henry Mancini to the Rolling Stones in the course of half an hour. It was the last, tenuous convergence before all those strains of culture stopped speaking to one another. So when I met Jerry and began to hear We Five’s story, it seemed to us that his Everyman journey—from sudden preeminence, to the center not holding, to fragmentation and philosophy–could be fashioned as a whole generation’s story at the cultural pivot point of the 1960s.

In fact, our first working subtitle (not very commercial, I’m afraid) was “How a pop anthem briefly harmonized Everything in the dawn of folk rock—and what came after.”

MT: While working with Burgan, what was the most interesting thing you learned?

AR: I learned that collaboration can be greater than the sum of the parts. Some of my early efforts to write as Jerry sounded less like him than me, and he had to gently, patiently (thank God) rein me in. But as I developed more of a sense of his flow and inflection and how to coax out his natural figures of speech, I found that you can shape and trim them according to your own trained ear without getting in the way. . . much the way that a novelist learns to do when a character comes to life with a voice of his or her own. I’m biased, coming from a kind of double-major in journalism and fiction, but I’ve always thought writing nonfiction can only improve you as a writer of fiction. When Jerry began to recognize himself in the prose, I felt I’d accomplished something I’d never been confident I could, being someone who’s hugely protective of my own style. Even though my friends tell me they’re glad I can go get back to writing my own stuff, I don’t think the lessons of collaboration make me any less proud, or feel any less my own.

By way of music history, I was doing nothing but learning. I’d attached all this mystique to We Five’s hit song, but the actual players and forces at work behind the screen had never been fleshed out to me—especially the saga of Frank Werber, the former Kingston Trio manager who tried to control the folk-rock tsunami, and may even have told himself he’d created it, only to wind up being wiped out. He’s a character you might have had to make up out of the times if you hadn’t been sat down and told about him. I came to see something sacrificial, or Darwinistic, about the whole We Five story. I knew they had that magical hit that bridged the folk and rock eras, and then vanished fairly quickly, but until I met Jerry, I could not have connected the dots or articulated how that band’s short happy life made the latter half of the sixties possible, even while they themselves couldn’t survive the upheavals. I don’t think anybody knew that story except Jerry. Certainly no one had written it.

MT: What was the most difficult part of writing the book for you?

AR: How sad the odds against publication were. When we started sending around chapters, we encountered people of two types: those who, like me, were transformed by “You Were On My Mind,” and those who’d either never heard of it or considered the subject hopelessly long ago and minor. I’m fatally attracted to subjects that are hopelessly minor. The first type kept running into a buzz saw trying to pitch it to the second type. Early on, we landed an agent (from the first type) who promptly sent it to the ten most obvious publishers, none of whom saw any commercial potential at all. Just like that, we were damaged goods, because every subsequent agent required a list of our earlier rejections. At one point we considered making the manuscript into a souvenir program to sell at We Five concerts; at another point Jerry offered to bow out and gave me his blessing (unasked) to refashion it as fiction. I used to spend an hour every morning, the way you’d rise and do your stretches, reading Publishers Lunch and sending the manuscript out to whoever had just bought or sold a music memoir of any type that week. That was how we found our editor, Bennett Graff at Rowman & Littlefield.

MT: What are you currently work on?

AR: Now that I’m in flow as a collaborator, I’ve begun some kind of co-written memoir or auto-fiction, in two voices, with a grown son who has battled mental illness, juxtaposing my young adulthood in LA in the 1980s with his own harrowing attempt to have one, forty years later. (The centerpiece is a week he spent on the run from hospitalization.) I’m also shopping a collection of spiritually tinged personal adventures, a pretty difficult sell as well. If someone would help me make co-written music memoirs more of a specialty or (dare I hope) a partial livelihood, I’d have no objections at all.

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

AR: I’ve liked reading the interviews on MusicTomes partly because I’m embarrassingly illiterate within this genre. Either the writers you interview tend to be deeper into craft than the rest, or I’ve simply never paid enough attention. In any case, I love to read books after I’ve read the back matter, so to speak. But the music memoirs that have stayed with me so far have been those that would have reached me even had I never heard the music. Myra Friedman’s Buried Alive had a voice and felt like it was onto some kind of inner syllogism the author was trying to round off. So did David Crosby’s Long Time Gone, maybe because of his unselfconsciousness about plumbing his own ego and his obsessiveness, whether the substance is harmonies or drugs. I know I read parts of Eric Clapton’s, but I didn’t feel his integrity in every utterance the way I do his music. I love generalists who light upon a musical subject the same way they would any other, so I’m afraid I remember magazine pieces by generalists as much as books, things like Steve Erickson on the meaning of Neil Young, Norman Mailer on the meaning of Madonna. I don’t care as much as I should how badly Mailer captured Madonna or how shamelessly he eclipsed her. Just so long as I feel he’s after a larger purpose.

Keep up with Alan at his Web site:

This Week’s Release (2/8-14)newreleases

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Love Songs: The Hidden History, Ted Gioia, Oxford University Press, Feb 10, 2015

The Living Years: The First Genesis Memoir, Mike Rutherford, Thomas Dunne Books, Feb 10, 2015

Elvis is Alive: The Complete Conspiracy, Xaviant Haze, Adventures Unlimited Press, Feb 12, 2015

I first got to know Matt Smith-Lahrman in a pretty one-sided relationship where he was the host of the podcast New Books in Popular Music and I was a faceless listener. After listening to his excellent and insightful interviews with a variety of authors, I was excited to hear about his new book, The Meat Puppets and the Lyrics of Curt Kirkwood from Meat Puppets II to No Joke!, I was interested to see his take on the lyrics of the punk band. Matt took time out of his schedule as the professor of Sociology at Dixie State University to talk to us about the book.meatpuppets

Music Tomes: When someone thinks of a book with a deep analysis of an acts lyrics, Meat Puppets probably isn’t the first band to jump to mind for most people. What made them jump to mind for you?

Matt Smith-Lahrman: It was a practical decision, really. I was looking for some new research and writing that wouldn’t take me away from being a father on a daily basis (my son was two when I started writing this book). I was already a meathead (Meat Puppets fan). In the process of free writing and journaling I noticed how much I like Curt Kirkwood’s lyrics. I like the way he mashes images together, making nonsense make sense (see “Liquified” from Mirage for a great example of this). I like the way he creates lyrics based on meter and flow, using words not necessarily for their meaning, but for how they sound in the song (see “(Attacked by) Monsters” from Monsters for a good example of this). So writing a book about Curt’s lyrics allowed me to be deeply intellectual about a great band while also being deeply involved in the raising of my kids.

MT: You mention in the book that Curt Kirkwood, the primary songwriter of the Meat Puppets, refused to interpret lyrics preferring to leave it to the listener. Did that present any special challenges to your work?

MSL: On the contrary, it made it easier. Curt probably won’t dispute what I’ve written; he probably won’t support it either. He likes leaving the interpretation of his art up to the listener (or viewer, when it comes to his paintings). So there never was any pressure on me to get it right. As I mention in the introductory chapter, what’s in the book reflects more upon what I think about the world than what Curt does.

MT: How does your study in sociology informed how you analyzed the lyrics or heard the music?

MSL: There’s a field of sociology known as symbolic interactionism that suggests that meaning is created through language. The words we use to talk to one another, the same words we use to think to ourselves, are our realities. Culture, being interactional rather than, say, biological, is passed on from generation to generation through language. Cultural reality is socially constructed, they say. Art of all kinds is one of the ways that reality is constructed. To analyze a songwriter’s lyrics, then, is to analyze one person’s ideas about reality as they are embedded within a larger cultural context. Curt’s ideas aren’t simply his own, they are the ideas of the culture in which he lives, filtered through his unique writing style. To read my interpretations of Curt’s lyrics is to understand my ideas about reality as I see Curt’s ideas about reality embedded within the culture in which I live.

MT: As you mention in the book, when you started the book the band hadn’t released an album in eight years. But since then they’ve released a few others. How do they stack up to what you’ve covered?

MSL: The Meat Puppets are still putting out great records. They’ve released four LPs (do we still use that term?) and a split seven-inch (with Cass McCombs) since 2007 when they reformed. I particularly like Sewn Together (2009) and their most recent, Rat Farm (2014). As we would expect, the songs on these records show a more mature Curt, a Curt coming to grips with his place in life. He seems more content and satisfied with life on the songs on these records.

MT: What are you currently working on?

MSL: I’m in the beginning stages of a sociology of religion project. I’m doing a lot of reading on the subject and, as I did with the Meat Puppets project early on, free writing and journaling about it. I’m not sure where it will go, but I hope to write a book-length treatise on the topic.

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

In no particular order:
• Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming
• Joe Carducci, Enter Naomi
• Greg Prato, Too High to Die
• Dennis McNally, A Long Strange Trip
• Robert Palmer, Rock & Roll
• Sean Wilentz, Bob Dylan in America
• Andy Neil, Had Me a Real Good Time
• Alice Bag, Violence Girl
• Will Hermes, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire
• David Kirby, Little Richard
• Preston Lauterbach, The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll
• Miles Davis, Miles

This Week’s Release (2/1-7)newreleases

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Cliff Richard and The Shadows – A Rock & Roll Memoir, Royston Ellis, Tomahawk Press, Feb 2, 2015

Tragedies and Mysteries of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Michele Primi, White Star Publishers, Feb 3, 2015

1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music, Andrew Grant Jackson, Thomas Dunne Books, Feb 3, 2015

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, Robert Gordon, Bloomsbury, Feb 3, 2015, Paperback Edition

Stevie Nicks: Visions, Dreams & Rumors, Zoë Howe, Overlook, Feb 5, 2015

Waiting for the Man: The Life and Career of Lou Reed, Jeremy Reed, Overlook, Feb 5, 2015

In his new book, The Country Music Reader, Travis Stimeling takes readers through country music history using a host of primary sources as a guide. Assembling country music writing from newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals the book is a great look at many oft quoted articles in a format that makes them readily available and accessible. Stimeling provides in-depth intros to each article placing them in context and discussing offshoot subjects pertaining to the article. Readers of this blog will also love the further reading sections at the end of each article. Today Stimeling talks to us a bit about the project: cmr

Music Tomes: The book is essentially a tour through the history of country music–from the early fiddler contests to a 2010 profile of Miranda Lambert–through the eyes of news reporters and music writers. How did you strike on the idea for the book?

Travis Stimeling: During my graduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I had the great fortune of working as a teaching assistant for Jocelyn Neal’s country music history class. As a consequence, I became very familiar with the available textbooks for such a course, which, at the time, were few. Moreover, I had taken a jazz history course with Chris Wilkinson at West Virginia University that used Robert Gottlieb’s Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now as a primary text. It was there that I had learned the value of encouraging students to engage with primary historical sources and teaching them how to make sense out of these rich, but sometimes confounding, documents. In the summer of 2008, I (with help of two research assistants, Will Frankenberger and Alyssa Callaghan) began collecting newspaper and magazine articles discussing country music in all of its forms with the ultimate goal of organizing them into an anthology that could be used in country music history courses. At the same time, as a country music historian, I also recognized that much of the best source material is tucked away in defunct publications, vertical files, and out-of-print memoirs. So it was my secondary goal to present some of the most interesting primary sources–including several that have been cited widely in the scholarly literature–for my colleagues in the field.

MT: How did you decide what articles to include?

TS: There were a number of factors that I considered when I decided what to include in the book. First, I wanted to make sure that the sources I selected engaged with some of the primary themes in country music studies: representations of country musicians and their audiences, the “Southernness” of country music, the mass media, gender and sexuality, and so on. Some of the sources I selected touched on more than one of these themes, while others reflected only one. Second, I wanted to choose sources that were written by people from diverse backgrounds, including not only musicians and journalists, but fans and industry insiders. It was my hope that this anthology would be as inclusive as possible. Third, I was concerned about accessibility, especially because I hope that the book will be of interest to students as well as the general reader.

MT: As you went on this tour of country music history, what impressions did you get about how the music was and is covered in the press?

TS: Country music has been the source of great fascination since long before the first “hillbilly” records in the 1920s, and it should be no surprise that the press has treated the genre differently at different times in its history. However, there is no doubt that certain themes emerge time and again. For instance, writers frequently discuss the “authenticity” of country music composition and performance. At various times throughout the genre’s history, country music is depicted as a connection to a pure–and ideally European American–musical past, a commercialized bastardization of that pure folk tradition, or a genuine representation of a particular group of people (rural, working-class, Southern, American, etc.).

Another subject of interest has been the business of country music. Whether documenting the fees that recording artists garnered at the Bristol Sessions, the formation of the Country Music Association, or the development of the arena concert, reporters seem to be fascinated by the ways that country musicians–who often play to hillbilly or redneck stereotypes–are able to capitalize on their talents and function as significant economic forces. One article that I found fascinating was an early report on singing cowboy star Gene Autry that discussed the ways that Autry licensed his likeness and created an additional revenue stream that supplemented his film, radio, and recording incomes. The author of the piece, Saturday Evening Post contributor Alva Johnson, seemed absolutely astonished by Autry’s business acumen, which, of course, would help him become a major business leader in Southern California during the 1950s and 1960s.

Finally, it was interesting to me that so much of the journalism around country music does not engage with the music as a sonic artifact. That is, they seldom talk about the sound of country music. Rather, many journalists–even those with astute critical ears–tend to focus on lyrics and iconography and only speak of music in the most general terms. This may be my own bias as a musicologist and musician, but I think there are lots of interesting things that we can learn from listening critically and trying to talk about the sounds we hear.

MT: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

TS: I imagine that most readers will have some working knowledge of country music history or have a great primer on hand as they read this book. With that in mind, it is my hope that The Country Music Reader challenges readers to engage critically with the established narratives around country music and to work to formulate their own understandings. I have offered brief critical introductions to each of the readings to present what I see as some of the interesting themes that emerge from each source, and I hope that readers will use those introductions as a way to frame their own reading. Finally, I have offered extensive reading lists to accompany each source. It would be great if this book led readers to pick up some of the other great writings on country music, as well.

MT: What are you currently working on?

TS: I’m currently working on a book tentatively titled Nashville Cats: Record Production in Nashville, 1955-1973​, which explores the development of the so-called “Nashville Sound” through the eyes of the session musicians, arrangers, engineers, and producers who worked in the city’s recording studios. I’ve been conducting interviews with some of Nashville’s most recorded musicians, including several members of the legendary Nashville “A Team,” and I’ve also spent a great deal of time in the archives at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University, and the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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

TS: I’ve read a lot of really great books on music lately. Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music, edited by Diane Pecknold, is an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the complicated racial politics of country music culture. Clifford R. Murphy’s Yankee Twang: Country and Western Music in New England challenges us to consider the logic of local and regional country music communities. And Ryan Banagale’s Arranging Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and the Creation of an American Icon is a remarkable work of reception history that presents a treasure trove of new archival evidence to demonstrate how musicians have constantly arranged and rearranged Rhapsody in Blue to suit their specific musical, economic, and social purposes.

This Week’s Release (1/25-31)newreleases

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The Country Music Reader, Travis D. Stimeling, Oxford University Press, Jan 30, 2015

The story of Bobbie Gentry has fascinated music fans for decades now. Riding a wave of fame and then, seemingly, suddenly leaving the business never to be heard from again. Well, that’s maybe an oversimplification, but it’s the narrative that has emerged over time and one that Tara Murtha in the newest entry in the 33 1/3 series, Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe, both confirms and deconstructs this story. The book is an engaging read and a shining example of what the 33 1/3 series should be. Today Tara talked with us about the book:otbj

Music Tomes: What was it that drew you in to Bobbie Gentry’s story?

Tara Murtha: It started innocently enough, with listening to the record and watching the clip of her performing “Niki Hoeky” on The Smothers Brothers Show. I was initially intrigued by the fact that I didn’t already know all that much about her. How could I not know about this hardscrabble but incredibly sexy pioneering feminist country music singer who, after breaking all kinds of records and glass ceilings—suddenly vanished from the spotlight, never to perform in public again? And what’s not to love about that? Then I read an interview from 1974 where Bobbie Gentry claimed that she produced the record Ode to Billie Joe, but didn’t get credit because women just didn’t get credit in recording studios in 1967. The reporter in me couldn’t help tugging on that thread, wondering if the answers there would help illuminate the twin mysteries of the production of Ode to Billie Joe and her disappearance. And I think they do.

MT: You mention that there were a few near misses getting a feeling you might actually get to talk to her. That must have been a bit of an emotional roller coaster. How did that affect your view of Gentry?

TM: I wasn’t expecting to suddenly pick up the phone and hear Bobbie’s voice, but I’d say I kept my ringer on more than I normally would, which is hardly ever. I didn’t approach this project as an excuse to get to talk with her, though. It’s been an investigative pop history all along. I guess the suspense did get to me a little bit, though. One night, I had what felt almost like a lucid dream with Bobbie in it. It was one of those sleeps where it feels like your body sinks down to center earth, like knitting needles are shifting things around in your brain. In the dream, I visited her at a house in Los Angeles, a mansion just off a busy freeway, right in plain sight but set back behind an elaborate garden with ornate fountains and botanical sculptures. Everything was flooded in that golden L.A. magic hour light. The house reminded me of the primordial garden with the dinosaur topiary where Katherine Hepburn’s character in Suddenly Last Summer meets the doctor who is treating Elizabeth Taylor. The Bobbie Gentry I met in my dream was regal, but relaxed. I walked up a staircase to talk with her, then I woke up.

Anyway, I see the book as one part in a larger project, so maybe I’ll get to talk with her yet. Of course, I’d love to hear her take on everyone else’s recollections. And I wonder how connected, if at all, she feels, to the young woman I wrote about and her show biz life. That alone is super interesting.

MT: At one point Gentry says that what was thrown off of the bridge in “Ode to Billie Joe” doesn’t matter, that it was just a device to get to the point, but it also served as a hook that brought in a lot of interview requests with people probably hoping to be the one to get the “real answer.” Do you think that was calculated by Gentry in any way? Or did it just happen to work out well?


TM: Calculated, without question. What interests me is that another edit, the deletion of the girl’s name from the original first stanza, which shifted Gentry’s role from third-party observant narrator to inhabiting the song’ character. She spent the rest of her public life fielding just as many questions about if the story was “true” or not as ones about what happened at the bridge.

MT: Something I appreciated was that you came at this as a fan of Gentry, someone who was curious about her, but it doesn’t turn in to hagiography. You also, skillfully, peeled back some of the layers of her mystique without completely destroying them or making them sound like a deception or detriment. Was that something you found difficult to do?

TM: I appreciate that you noticed that because that was and is my intention. The way I see it, initially, she was very interested in exploring the culture of the South and that part of her identity. Her roots. She called it “regional material.” But like any true artist, she had other interests and territory to explore. I think she tried to take fans with her, but some had a hard time. People were really invested in the rags-to-riches Southern pin-up persona that came with “Ode to Billie Joe.” It was just so American and beautiful and so full of hope, in a way, at a tumultuous time in our country’s history.

As for authenticity, you can’t explore Bobbie Gentry without acknowledging that the evaluation of a performer’s authenticity is very gendered. Bobbie was really fascinated with Southern culture and mannerisms, but she also regularly explored themes of gender, freedom, femininity, intimacy and independence. All of those themes course through the idea of Southern culture, of course.

Bobbie’s a multi-instrumentalist pop composer sometimes dismissed as a one-hit country wonder. The real story has way more mystique than the flimsy one-dimensional one. She played piano, guitar, banjo, ukulele and vibes; sang in English, Spanish, Italian and Japanese; designed her personal wardrobe and stage costumes; danced; and wrote and composed music. She’s also a talented painter. God knows what else she can do or taught herself to do in the last 30 years.

MT: What was the most difficult part about writing the book?

TM: I thought a lot about how to write the story for three audiences. The first audience is people who hardly know anything about her, or maybe even never heard of her at all. Why should they care? The second audience is people who think they know who she was and what she was about, but have it all wrong based on reading a handful of internet bios full of recycled errors. And the third audience are the fans who get it, who know her catalogue beyond “Ode,” know about the Vegas years, and understand that she was an artist and businesswoman ahead of her time. I wanted to be able to introduce her, dispute the popular persona, and also bury deep new details for super-fans, all in one narrative. It was hard to know where to begin the story. You can’t begin disputing a reputation some readers never heard of to begin with. When I found the videotape of her talking on stage in Vegas about her relationship to her public image, it both confirmed for me that I was on the right track, and gave me my opening.

Logistically, the biggest challenge was time, no question. Researching and writing a book while already working more than 40 hours a week is no joke.

MT: What are you currently working on?

TM: For my Philadelphia book launch, producer and bassist Phil D’Agostino assembled an 11-piece band and they performed the record Ode to Billie Joe in its entirety. It was spectacular. I’m working on figuring out how to get the show to other cities. I’d love to see it done in New York, Los Angeles and Nashville. Of course, Mississippi would be amazing.

I’ve also teamed up with Ruth Lietman, a badass documentary filmmaker who has created some of my favorite films, like Lipstick & Dynamite and the cult classic Wildwood, NJ. We’re in the very early stages of developing a companion documentary. We both feel it is tremendously important to document Bobbie Gentry’s pioneering accomplishments, and really, it’s an aural and visual story. I mean you have to see this Elvis tribute.

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

TM: I just read the other 33 1/3 book that was released with mine, which is Hole’s Live Through This by Anwen Crawford, and it’s one of the best in the series, hands down. Rat Girl by Kristin Hersh is one of my all-time favorites. I really connect with Hersh’s jagged and winding artistic sensibility. I recently enjoyed Simon Critchley’s Bowie, which weaves philosophical meditations in with recollections of how Bowie influenced him as a kid. I thought about Bowie a lot while writing this, because I see some of Gentry’s later performances, especially in Vegas, as glam rock in that they subvert the pop machine by ripping holes in the facade while succeeding within it. It’s been a while, but I really loved Janis Ian’s Society’s Child for the way it threaded Ian’s life story into a panoramic view of the music industry at the time, and how her feminist lens is just her eyeballs, you know, not treated as some precious monocle that marginalizes her own point of view. Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be by Jen Trynin. Just Kids by Patti Smith, of course. Out of the Vinyl Deeps by Ellen Willis. I used to work with the late Steven Wells, and I think of his work when I’m starting to take myself too seriously, which can happen when I don’t go outside enough. I loved Ozzy Osbourne’s autobiography, and got to interview him about it, and he was really funny and cool. I liked Keith Richards’ memoir too, even though it was a bit sanitized. Right now I have Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell at Any Price, Bob Stanley’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! and Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes: Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys on my night table.