This Week’s Releases (4/19-25)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?]

Diary of a Madman: The Geto Boys, Life, Death, and the Roots of Southern Rap, Brad “Scarface” Jordan and Benjamin Meadows Ingram, Dey Street Books, Apr 21, 2015

Christian Metal: History, Ideology, Scene (Bloomsbury Studies in Religion and Popular Music), Marcus Moberg, Bloomsbury, Apr 23, 2015

Religion in Hip Hop: Mapping the New Terrain in the US (Bloomsbury Studies in Religion and Popular Music), Monica R. Miller and Anthony B. Pinn, Bloomsbury, Apr 23, 2015

This Week’s Releases (4/12-18)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?]

Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock, Bob Kealing, University Press of Florida, Apr 15, 2015

Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues, Joel Selvin, Counterpoint, Apr 15, 2014 Paperback Edition

The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music, Paul Hemphill, University of Georgia Press, Apr 15, 2015, New Edition

Funk & Soul Covers, Joaquim Paulo and Julius Wiedemann, Taschen, Apr 15, 2015

In Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music (Chicago Review Press)—his much anticipated biography of the revolutionary producer and publisher, music historian Barry Mazor thoughtfully examines in elegant, crystalline prose the life and work of Ralph Peer, who was instrumental in the recording of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues”—the record that sparked the blues craze—and the first country recording sessions; he discovered Jimmie Rodgers—the Singing Brakeman—and the Carter Family at the famed Bristol sessions, and he helped popularize Latin American music during World War II.peer

Henry Carrigan caught up by phone with Mazor at his home in Nashville just before he headed out to speak about Peer and this new book at the Country Music Hall of Fame and at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.

Music Tomes: Why this book now? Why Ralph Peer?

Barry Mazor: Well, this book happened as a direct result of my earlier book, Meeting Jimmie Rodgers (Oxford 2009; paperback 2012). Members of the Peer family had read that book, and they made an offer of a vast cache of material that had never before been seen. This was a real treasure trove that helped me get at this story, which is not just a biography but in part is a business story.

MT: How long did it take you to write the book?

BM: I spent five years working on it. One of the real difficulties of writing this book was that I didn’t have access directly to a lot of people; I mean, most of the folks in this story have died. I had to work in a different way to get this story told. Part of what I wanted to show in the book is that Peer’s characteristic temperament came to be reflected in the music industry; many of the changes in the music business we take for granted happened because of him.

MT: What was Peer’s greatest gift?

BM: You know, it’s very difficult to identify music that people will take to, but Peer did. He had a real gift for matching performers and performances and the interests of people, and he worked relentlessly to do this.

MT: What was Peer’s greatest limitation?

BM: Well, as I said, this is not simply a biography, so I wasn’t really thinking in those ways, but nobody can read this story and think I was writing a hagiography. Sure, the man was not without flaws. He was reserved, shy, and often came across as a very slick guy. He’d dress in suits and look like an Ivy League guy, but he wasn’t that person at all; he was really interested in making music that hadn’t before been heard accessible to a larger world and in getting the artists in front of audiences.

MT: What are Peer’s three greatest achievements?

BM: First, he served the underserved. There was fascinating music in America made by people that the mainstream was not paying attention to; he realized that this music might reach people, and for that we have to feel grateful. He was instrumental in establishing specialized lines of recordings separate from the mainstream pop of his day; so, he brought the music of African American artists to black audiences and hillbilly music to rural and small-town, working-class Southern whites. Second, Peer was a great experimenter. He recognized that it made good business sense to go into areas where others had not gone. He wasn’t interested in locking down these musical lines he had helped establish; so, when artists working in country, jazz, hillbilly, or Latin music demonstrated that they could expand beyond these categories, he did everything in his power to make that happen. As I try to show in the book, he played a key role in breaking down the walls those genres helped to erect. Finally, Peer made it possible for a lot of these artists to make a living from their music. When Peer started out, ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) was not interested in the kind of music that Peer had discovered; ASCAP controlled the songs and artists that people heard, and controlled the money those artists made. 80% of all the music played on the radio was controlled by ASCAP, and all popular music was left out. Peer set up BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) which was crucial in getting these artists started by producing their music. For instance, in 1940-41 when the Latin craze took off, nobody would have played those records without BMI having been established. Peer had this sense of expansiveness, and he brought this vision to all these fields.

MT: What do you want readers to take away from your book?

BM: With Peer, people often tend to focus on the Bristol sessions and his discovery of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. I hope people don’t they’re getting a book that’s 50 years of Bristol. There is this mythology about Peer that I hope the book will correct; important as Bristol was, Peer accomplished far more and is instrumental even today in the ways we think about popular music and roots music. The payoff will be if people understand his story better and if I can clear up who Peer was, how he worked, and what difference he made.

MT: What’s next for you?

BM: I’ll be traveling and speaking some around this book. I have some exciting news about the book that I can’t talk about just yet. [Mazor recently announced the exciting news that the audiobook version of the book, narrated by Marty Stuart, Ketch Secor, and Dom Flemons, is due out this summer from Lyric Audiobooks, which is headed up by Andi Arndt.] I’m casting about for the next book project and have some ideas, but I’m not ready to talk about them just yet.

MT: What are your favorite music tomes?

BM: Eric Weisbard’s Top 40 Democracy (University of Chicago), which is in many ways a continuation of this story and picks it up to talk about what happens in popular music after 1960. Charles Hughes’ Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South (UNC). Preston Lauterbach’s Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis (Norton).

Henry Carrigan writes about music and music books for Engine 145, American Songwriter, No Depression, Publishers Weekly, and BookPage.

This Week’s Release (3/29-4/4)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?]

Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis, Preston Lauterbach, W. W. Norton & Company, Mar 24, 2015

AC/DC FAQ: All Thats Left to Know About the Worlds True Rock n Roll Band (FAQ Series), Susan Masino, BackBeat Books, Mar 31, 2015

Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, John Szwed, Viking, Mar 31, 2015

I Found My Friends: The Oral History of Nirvana, Nick Soulsby, St. Martin’s Griffin, Mar 31, 2015

Today we continue the conversation with Eric Weibard, author of Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music.

Eric Banister: I’m doing some research on Red Foley in broadcasting, and going through some old issues of it. I came across an article, just a couple of days ago actually, 1948, and Roy Acuff left the Grand Ole Opry and they brought Red Foley in. Most books just say that. “Roy left. Red came in, took over his portion.” But I came across an article finally about, “How to lose your top star and not your ratings.”

Through the whole article they talked — in 1948, and this is what blows people’s minds I think — in 1948 they were talking about they hired this group to come in and basically focus group the Grand Ole Opry listeners, in 1948. The histories just wanted it to remain that folksy barn dance. They would go, “Oh, well Red Foley was popular and good ol’ Roy left so Red came in.” But it talked about how many people they polled, and what percentage of the people wanted music, but they didn’t want too much of this kind of music, or this kind of music. So that’s how they settled on Red Foley. That kind of stuff is really fascinating to me.top40

Eric Weibard: Right. And he’s fascinating. I mean, he’s definitely one of those people who looms larger when you look at music through the eyes of like the perspective I’m bringing to this book. When you think about less in terms of, “Who is the greatest artist who sort of defines the genre,” and more like, “Who is the savvy artist who saw possibilities for how to expand the format?” Who said, “Country can be this, but it could also be this and this. I need to be open.” He was someone who, sometimes through marriage, and sometimes through family connections, but a lot in just the benign quality he brought to his inclusiveness.

It just ended up bringing a lot of stuff in, so he wasn’t the hard-core country figure in some ways, but the space he made had room for a Porter Wagoner in one spot, or Brenda Lee, and a million people.

EB: Yeah, and while he’s having these kind of — I wouldn’t even call them country-politan at the time — but he was doing…

EW: In some ways he was foreshadowing that, yeah.

EB: And at the same time he’s doing duet records with Ernest Tubb, who is hard core.

EW: Right, right, I know. And in that way it’s not unlike Dolly, who could swing both ways. Is Dolly Parton hard core or softshell? That’s an unanswerable question. No one would ever accuse Dolly Parton of not being a true country figure, but also, no one would ever accuse Dolly Parton of being a purist.

I think those are two things that you would get almost universal agreement on. Because 100% country and she’s never made music that has to be heard as purely country. When she feels like it, she does anything she wants.

To me, the thing about county in particular — and I’m really building on Diane Pecknold’s great book on country music — is that it’s the one category where the industry had a very clear sense of itself as an industry. And the artists and the fans were all interested in seeing how well country as an industry did. So it wasn’t just that they were rooting for particular performers to do well, but they wanted, in this collective sense, to see, “Where can country go? How big can it get? Can we make sure it doesn’t die?”

So in that way, it’s a rarity. Country is format and genre, and it’s comfortable, its fans, its artists, its people, are comfortable rooting for it as a format. It’s the only one that I can think of where that is really understood. Like someone would get up at an award show and say, among other things, “I want to thank the country music industry.” And it’s not being said in a cynical way. A rocker would always talk about the music industry in a cynical way. You would expect that. Not so with country.

EB: I was curious about country, because it is such a genre and a format. Then you have, especially it happened since the ’40s, but it’s still a topic today, “Country is not what it used to be.” You touch on it in the book. I think you put it in the book, or there is a quote, where they talk about pop music. You could find four or five different stations, four or five different versions of pop music, or rock music. But country is country.

EW: Right.

EB: And there’s no… Even though they’ve tried: “classic country.” They tried, and the funny part to me is there is a whole bunch of stations that do “classic country,” but the classic country that they play is really the “pop country” of the ’70s, that in the ’70s people complained wasn’t “classic country.”

EW: Yeah, it’s another way that country has got some unique qualities. To me, the most tragic story of the music genres is rock. Because rock was so against the notion of being a format, of being self-conscious, of promoting itself as a category, that rock radio kind of disintegrated. It became this form that could not escape its past, that just was going to play Led Zeppelin until the end of time.

Maybe there would be room, “Once in a while we’ll put in Nirvana or Pearl Jam,” kind of sounds, right. But by and large, rock has been such a failure, as far as exposing big audiences to new music without having to turn that process into this crazy game of getting a song on a TV show, or a million other kind of weird [ways]…

Country, it’s remarkable. I mean, we can quarrel with what country radio decides to play or not play. When my students ask me, “What is country?” I basically say, “It’s whatever country radio is playing.” But that fact, that it’s not ultimately going to be bound to absolute rules about sounds, and subject matter, it has just meant that country has never stopped breaking new performers.

I mean, one way to judge different kinds of radio stations is, “What ratio of new stuff to old stuff do they play? And how old does the old stuff go? How much of this is about making sure a fan doesn’t turn it off because they hate the new stuff? Or turn it off because they don’t know it.” It’s a real challenge, and these days more than ever because they have the personal people meters, or whatever you call it. The PPM devices that let them know instantly if someone is giving up on a song, giving up on an approach.

I think that it’s a fascinating thing that country recognized that if it got atomized, if it tried to divide into “young country” and “old country,” or working class listeners versus upscale listeners, that it just wasn’t going to have enough listeners, and it wasn’t going to be good for the overall effect of giving new performers the chance to become career artists. All that stuff is tied up in this particular commercial approach.

And I guess the only other thing I would add to that is, one of the things that I came to realize doing the book is that, while the notion of music formats is a rather straightforward notion, once you get it in your head what it’s about, every form of music that gets formatted seems to do it in a slightly different way. By the end of the book, when I’m talking about Latin radio, that divide between regional, Mexican stuff, and the kind of poppish, super-star stuff that’s more like Jennifer Lopez, or whatever, that’s a divide that’s different than the ones in other music.

Every category that I would look at would have some things in common. It was still about commercially reaching a set of listeners, but the forms it took were always different. Because in each case, the people who were involved in the stories had different histories. They had different needs, and so, yeah, I feel like there were more stories to tell along those lines. I was just trying the best I could to outline some of the big parameters of the thing.

But I definitely have this sense, as I started to do this work, of like, if we’re really going to look at it from this upside-down and backwards perspective, where it’s as much about commercial strategy as it is about artistic excellence, there is going to be a lot to get to. And each version of it is going to have some little, embedded surprises.

So yeah, like realizing that the country thing, that time and time again people would go, “Oh, it’s time to divide country into this category and that category.” Then they would try it and realize, “No, it doesn’t work!” That was one of the surprises. I had never had that thought about country until I was seeing it again, and again, and again. But it’s not like that’s a new idea.

One of the amazing things about country is, it’s where Bob Pittman gets his start. So if Clive Davis is somewhat famous to us now, as the master of record labels, he’s been doing record labels, and matching artists to songs, and it doesn’t matter if it was the late ’60 or now, he always seems to have the knack for it.

Bob Pitmann, when he was 20-something, is a country radio programmer who helps country understand how to become a slicker, pop-oriented format and get bigger. Maybe five years later, he’s inventing MTV. And these days, he runs what used to be Clear Channel, now called iHeartRadio. Here’s a guy who essentially, for the last 40 years, has never not been obsessed with the question of broadcasting, and how to do broadcasting in these ways.

For many people, dating back to the ’70s, he’s been one of the most reviled figures of all time. Like in the initial era, he would always talk about how people in country hated him. He was based out of Chicago and he made the Chicago station the biggest in the country. People didn’t like his attitude, his brusqueness, his dismissiveness towards older ways of doing things, but it worked.

So yeah, it’s funny how there were people embedded in this process, whether it’s a Clive Davis for records or a Bob Pittman for radio, who just, for some reason, they were drawn to that. They were interested in almost the chess game, of matching a playlist to create a particular audience, setting up an artist with these songs to create a particular hit that found a certain following. They were not particularly interested in what’s absolutely good or bad, but they were fascinated with what gets a reaction. Like, “What makes people listen?”

What Pitmann realized is that the Olivia Newton-John/John Denver approach was a loser. That the idea that you would expand country by bringing in middle-of-the-road performers and making country a little blander to bring in people who might dislike country wasn’t going to work. What you really wanted was to expand the number of passionate fans, and let the passionate fans bring in some of the outliers, rather than only appeal to the outliers and lose the passionate fans.

His trick was, “Who are the performers? Can I streamline who we play? So we’re creating a sense of passion, but it’s a country passion. It’s not going to cross over into other realms.” So I could totally see him seeing a song like that as being a perfect song to almost draw a line in the sand. And even though some people might have said, “You can’t do that. That’s going to repel too many people.” Pittman’s attitude I think would have been, “A committed 20% versus a passive 80%, that 20% is going to actually take us somewhere.”

EB: Yeah. And even Clive Davis, he signed the Outlaws, who are mainly known today for one song, or two songs. But when he signed them, they were the first rock band signed to Arista. And in looking at their chart rankings and gold and platinums, they were huge. He really pushed them as a southern rock band that was more than a southern rock band. He really tried to break them out of that sub-genre I guess. Which I thought was interesting, because he was mainly known for doing that with straight pop acts, or soul acts.

EW: Well, I would say “yes and no.” The thing about Clive Davis was he was ultimately an artist and repertoire man. He believed in matching an artist with repertoire, and he recognized that in some cases the artist had to generate their own repertoire, but in other cases, the artist might be delusional. So his sense of it was, “If you’re really a genius, yeah, I want you to do your own thing, make your own mistakes, and the audience will follow you. If you’re not a genius, I still want to work with you, but I’m going to bully you, and find you material. Because you don’t necessarily know what’s right for you.”

He had similar attitudes towards things that were political. It was an era of black nationalism, so if you were going to break a rhythm and blues record, you really needed to have people in your company who were African-American. You needed to brand the music as being connected to black identity. And so here’s this white guy, but he totally buys into that. He hires black executives. One of the reasons he signs the Isley Brothers is he feels like they understand what their repertoire should be, so he could trust them to create their own repertoire.

So he never challenges the prevailing, political mood. He just works within it. If a lot of people feel one way, he’s like, “All right. I get it.” And then he figures out how to keep going within that. If it changes, he’s like, “Okay, I get it now,” and switches gears. So that’s his thing. It’s a fascinating thing that in his first memoir, which is published after he gets fired from Columbia, he’s really justifying himself more than ever before in his history or since.

He is explaining carefully why Bob Dylan as an artist is different than a middle-of-the-road performer. Why you have to see this as a world where different people expect different things from music, and a good record company executive gets that and works within what the world offers. Then in his second memoir, he has this twist, which is with all his open-mindedness, he ends the book by talking about how he realizes he’s bisexual, and people don’t like to think about bisexuality as an identity. They tend to believe that someone is ultimately either leaning one way or the other way. But he feels he truly is bisexual.

I just think that is so perfectly in line with his attitudes as a record label. He’s just the guy who was sexually open to everything, and he was musically open to everything, and he was financially open to everything. So yeah, he is kind of one of the secret heroes of the book in some ways.

EB: What led you to pick the specific people that you picked to represent each area?

EW: Yeah, in some cases it was very much about what was available. With the Isley Brothers, I felt like there was a great story that had never been told. It just amazed me that a group that had hits for 40+ years — so they were such a sterling example of longevity within a particular category — had only ever been written about at length in the liner notes to a box set. I mean, they just basically had never gotten their due, so on that level, that one, the attraction was just, “Wow. I get to tell this amazing story that no one has laid out at length?” I honestly couldn’t believe that that story hadn’t been told before, and I kept looking for someone who had told it, and they just hadn’t then. So that was amazing.

So the Isley’s was just like “untold story, I want to tell the story.” With Dolly, the story had been told a little bit, and I wanted to tell it. But there, the motivation was also just that there was such a great collection of clippings about her at the Country Music Hall of Fame. They had subscribed to clipping services for many, many years, and so between that and the trade stuff they had, they let me document her career in a way that wouldn’t have been possible for pretty much any other category of music. So I felt that she was right.

I knew it would need to be a country figure. There were a couple of other people that I could have thought about. A lot has been written about Johnny Cash, so I didn’t want to go in that direction. There had been stuff written about her, but she was perfect for this approach, and the archival stuff was there.

With A&M, it was simply the fact that that collection of papers was given to UCLA, so it provided me with an ideal archive. With WMMS, same thing, ideal archive. So in those two cases… I really thought about doing a chapter on Clive Davis, as opposed to A&M, and I went back and forth. Clive Davis is the perfect figure, but I decided that having the paper trail to understand A&M from the inside made more sense than trying to track Clive Davis through his speeches. It still may not have been the right decision, but yeah, we make choices. That one was a really close call.

Elton John, I went back and forth with him a little bit. I loved just the simple fact that he had had that 30-year run of Top 40 hits. It meant that once again, as with the Isley’s, I knew that his story could stand in for changes in a category over and extended period of time. The only downside was I wasn’t positive I should be doing it around a British figure. But what I ended up feeling as I did the work was that that was fine, because Top 40 became this global phenomenon, more than any other category of American music, I think. And so, having a non-American-born figure in that slot was actually better in some ways.

But it leads to this funny thing where people will tease me, because the book’s called, “The Rival Mainstreams of American Music,” and there’s a British guy on the cover. So there’s a funny duality there. And the other thing about Elton that I realized was going to be good was, more than any other figure in the book, people wrote a ton about him at the time. There are so many mediocre books about Elton John, like dozens. People could not stop because they were fascinated by his success, and yet, all the books are flawed because he’s not public about his sexuality.

What became so great about all this material is it all was there to be rethought from the perspective of now. And so, that fact, which I wasn’t really even thinking about when I decided, “All right, 230 years of Top 40 hits, let’s do them.” That fact became to me the funnest part of that chapter. The way that chapter structured, section by section, is about, “Here’s what the public Elton was doing. Here’s what the private Elton was doing.” Public. Private. In some cases it’s sexual. In some cases, it’s Private Elton is sending a cake to a radio station program director.

And then finally, you get to the end of the story, and the public and the private coincide. It’s the funeral of Princess Diana after the funeral of Gianni Versace, and now Elton is fully out, and everything about his public life and his private life has kind of merged, so the story stops being a revisionist story. That one was fun to just see what form it would take.

But there were things that I flirted with along the way. Like who would you do as a rock figure if you wanted to not do it on a radio station, but a specific performer? Would it be a Bob Seger? Aerosmith maybe. I could never find the right person to stand in. I didn’t want to do Bruce Springsteen. Way too… I didn’t feel like I had a new story to tell about Bruce Springsteen. So in a lot of ways the choices were either stories that hadn’t been told well, stories that needed to be retold. Stories where the archival sources were irresistible. Stories where I felt like I could take something in a new direction.

Eric Banister: I thought using the radio stations were great. If I had to pick a favorite chapter, that’s probably it.

Eric Weisbard: Yeah, because a radio book needs a radio chapter.

EB: Yeah. It was so behind-the-scenes, and I think if you had chosen a rock figure, say like Aerosmith, you could have told that story. But the way the radio station worked, you saw the music move through it. Some of the same characters were there, playing Aerosmith, and then playing Candlebox, or whatever.

EW: Yeah, yeah. Now to me, the other challenge of that chapter was, “Can you tell a story about rock that isn’t rockist?” If to a certain extent, the rockism versus poptimism arguments had almost been framed along the lines of, “Stop paying attention to rock and start paying attention to these other subjects.” And that chapter was not in the dissertation. It was only in the finished book. It’s something I worked on after the dissertation was done.

I realized, “No, I can come back to rock, and I can bring the same kinds of questions.” Because in fact, what happened to rock radio was they only ended up playing certain kinds of rock for certain kinds of people, and not other kinds of rock for other kinds of people, and the choices that they’re making along the way. If you tell it that way, rock is not necessarily this imperialist form conquering everything around it and not caring. Rock is actually a perpetually embattled form on radio, with as much insecurity about what it’s doing as country radio had, or as R&B radio had. It didn’t quite know what it was supposed to be on radio.

So, from this format perspective, because rock could never figure out how to be a format, it was really fun to do that chapter. And it made the book, I think, much less reductive. If that chapter isn’t in the book, one thing is it wouldn’t have had a radio station chapter, so that would suck. But the other thing is, it would have ended up feeling like a book whose premise was, “We need to tell the history of pop music not rock music.” And what I ended up trying to do is tell the story of pop music, including rock music.

EB: In high school I wanted to go into broadcasting and my high school had a radio station that played over the local cable system. The records we had were what people had donated or what we carried in, so it was pretty eclectic. In the area we had a classic rock station, a country one and a Top 40 station, so we were playing things they weren’t, and getting requests from the listeners because of it.

EW: Right, right. It’s amazing. I mean, that’s another area where I’m only scratching the surface. One of the things that makes radio such a challenging area to study is very few of the broadcasts have been archived. You’re mostly left with playlists, and playlists give you some sense of what was specifically airing. But not nearly the visceral sense that listening to an hour of broadcast gives you, of just what that felt like.

And so wherever possible, and not as much as I would have liked, I tried to spot listen on radio and get a sense of this and that. But my hope is that there’s enough of that stuff lurking out there in people’s collections, and starting to become available as the Internet connects information, that we’ll get to where that side of it will get emphasized still more than I did.

Radio is at the core of my book, but it’s not ultimately a book about radio. It uses radio to talk about formatting, but formatting is the conversation, and pop music in general is the conversation. Radio is one piece of that. I feel like there’s a lot more to be done on radio in this later era, because the funny thing is, much of the work on radio has been on radio before television. Radio in the era of the programs, the Jack Benny’s, and all that stuff. That was a shorter number of years than radio in the era of playing records over the airways. And yet, there’s less prestige associated with the records-over-the-airwaves decades, and so it just doesn’t get studied as much.

I would love it if there was more breaking down some of the key stations, and thinking more, yeah, about how things interconnected, and why different time periods allowed different things to flourish or not flourish. I just think that if more people came at that subject, just interested in knowing how it related to the rest of it, we would learn a lot. So we’ll see.

This Week’s Release (3/22-27)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?]

Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South, Charles L. Hughes, University of North Carolina Press, Mar 23, 2015

Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Science of Hedonism and the Hedonism of Science, Zoe Cormier, Da Capo Press, Mar 24, 2015

The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style, Nelson George, William Morrow, Mar 25, 2014, Paperback Edition

Rebel Rebel, Chris O’Leary, Zero Books, Mar 27, 2015

I grew up with my ear practically glued to the radio. My small town had no music store until I was in high school, so I relied on the record collection of my Uncle and what I could hear on the radio. So when a book comes along like Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music I’m instantly interested in diving in to examine what the writer is put forth. In this Case the writer, Eric Weisbard, has presented a history of the Top 40 format using a varied group of artists to do so. On a snow covered, frigid day while he was passing through my town from a speaking engagement on the topic, Weisbard stopped over for some local Mexican food and a great conversation.top40

Now, I’ll admit upfront that the conversation started with me misunderstanding a statement in the acknowledgments of the book, where instead of reading diss as short for dissertation, I read it as dis, which really roused my curiosity. Weisbard, to his credit, stayed for the rest of the interview.

Eric Weisbard: Right, no, no, no. The truth of it is that, for me, the life course was I was a grad student in American History at UC Berkeley. I completed all the requirements to get the PhD, except for writing the dissertation, and at that stage in my life, Spin magazine offered me a job as an editor I accepted it, knowing that that meant turning my back on grad school.

A bunch of years went by, and I had edited at Spin and The Village Voice. I had gone to Experience Music Project and organize this Pop Conference, and I suddenly found myself at a bit of a crossroads, where the EMP job was not going to work out long term, and journalism was less interested in the kind of intellectual that I liked to do.

But the good news was that the Pop Conference experience had shown me that there were many more academics working in popular music than had been when I left grad school in the mid-’90s. It was at that point, roughly ten years ago, that I said to Ann, “Everyone has been talking about rockism and poptimism ever since Kelefa Sanneh wrote his piece in The New York Times about it.” That piece came out in 2004.

“I think I could write a book that was more of a history of where different types of pop music emerged from, and I think it could actually, finally be the dissertation that I never wrote for the UC Berkeley history department.” So I called up Berkeley, asked them, “All these years later, is it still possible for me to do the dissertation and get the degree?”

And because I had done a fair amount of academic work, even as a non-academic — I had edited a couple of books for university presses, and worked for academic journals — they said “Sure.” So this book completed an almost-20-year process between when I entered grad school and when I finished the dissertation. More than 20 years if you go from when I entered grad school to when this book appeared. But it’s not the book that I intended to write when I was a grad student. It just gave me the chance to complete the degree that I always intended to complete, and make the career transition to academia. So it’s been an interesting journey.

The reason that’s in the acknowledgments — and it never occurred to me that it would read as that — because for me, just in the other direction, it’s spelled with one “s.” It never occurred to me that it could be read in the other direction, so there you go.

Eric Banister: So now we’ve established that I may have misread the entire book.

EW: I’ll keep pointing it out if I disagree. I’m not afraid to dis people, but it’s not… I mean, I would say that in a way the book does implicitly dis any Baby Boomer who sees music through the prism of Woodstock rock and a certain kind of purist esthetic. In the divide between optimists and poptimists, I’m sorry, rockists and poptimists, I’m definitely more on the optimist side, although I try to bring some new terminology to the discussion.

So yeah, if it’s a dis, it’s a dis of anyone who, you know, has been telling the same story of popular music through the way Rolling Stone magazine sort of tells it.

EB: Right. I think that’s maybe why I read it that way, is because like you said, it was to go into the rockists versus poptimists debate. So I think I read it that way because I thought, “One side or the other is going to take this as…”

EW: Yeah. What I was trying to do was not just celebrate the diversity of commercial music, but put some kind of history around that. Say that it’s not just that it’s different from the more hard core genre stuff in rock, or country, or hip hop, but that it serves a different purpose. And the more I could account for that purpose, and how following that channel gave certain kinds of artists possibilities that they wouldn’t have had, had they pursued the other channel.

It gave certain kinds of listeners an experience that wasn’t available in the other realm. That to me takes a general point about this fluffy pop music, interesting because it gives more women a voice, or it gives more people of color a voice. Take that and it gives it deeper roots.

EB: So when you were thinking about that debate, what led you to the formats? To focus on the formats to explore that?

EW: It’s interesting, because I was pretty far along in the process when I realized that the word “format” was going to turn out to be a very important word for me. I always knew that what I wanted to do was explore different kinds of performers who represented different kinds of cultural centers. I knew that the Isley Brothers, Elton John, Dolly Parton, were all successful, mainstream performers, and yet they were all very different from one another. And none of them would be considered a “rock” performer. They had aspects you could compare to rock, but fundamentally they weren’t mainly that.

So my starting point was sort of that. “Here are some interesting stories; let’s tell it.” As I was going through the process of starting to talk about the work with people, and go beyond the individual histories I was tracing, and needing to give it a more unified set of connections, I realized that that was really at the basis of it all. That how radio had become central to American music wasn’t just that it could promote hit records, because it certainly always could do that. But that, in that moment of the late ’60s and early ’70s, when so many people were using music to express identity, that radio took that as a challenge and they found a way to commercialize that.

They found a way to commercialize the very social quality that had attached to music in that period, when some people were hippies and some people were pursuing Black Power, and some people were pursuing feminism, and some people were pissed off at all the hippies, and feminists, and Black Power people out there. There were all these different groups in the country, and they each had music that spoke to them.

A commercial system can’t really survive with culture that’s that angry, or music that’s that angry, so it took those sentiments and smoothed them out a little bit. But it still did the work of learning to speak to different kinds of people in different ways. The more I understood that that was not something to be dismissive about, but something to be curious about, the more the book opened up.

I think that remains an important path for people who want to read this book. I’m almost saying to a reader, “I want to tell this story of things you kind of know, but I want to tell it in a way that you’re not as accustomed to hearing it told, If you can follow me into this Chamber of Mirrors, that is like radio, and formats, not albums and genres, I’m going to tell you this story again, but the emphasis points are going to be a little different.”

EB: One thing I liked in the book was the way you used contemporaneous quotes from program directors, and people that were actually… Because a lot of times we hear the story told from the artist point of view, and a large percentage of the time they didn’t really care, as far as who was playing them. They just wanted to be played. So when you were looking through those kinds of quotes, and that kind of information on radio and records, were there things in there that jumped out at you? That really challenged what you had thought initially, going in?

EW: Yeah, good question. One of the big challenges in general for doing popular music history is, for many years, no one was really keeping an archive. There wasn’t a central place storing up all of the source material. So when you try to do historical work, which is typically about finding archives and finding voices on those archives, you have to make complicated decisions.

In a couple of cases I was able to find mini-archives. Like Herb Alpert gave his papers to UCLA, and so there’s the A&M Records papers. They’re probably one-one-hundredth of one percent of the total paper material that A&M generated as a record label. It’s 160 boxes. It’s still enough that it takes up a lot of room, but a fraction of the whole thing. But still archival stuff.

Radio program director in Cleveland, John Gorman, kept his program files, all the memos he sent out to the deejays and the other people of the station over a 14-year period. Once again, archived. So in those cases I was able to go, “Whoo!” In other cases though, there just wasn’t something so perfect, and for that, trade magazines are really wonderful. Because the way trade magazines work, whether it’s Radio & Records, or Billboard, those were probably my two biggest, but also Broadcasting, and Cashbox, is that more than anything else, they talk to the same people who subscribe.

It’s the radio station people, the record company people, the very people who are paying for these always rather pricey subscriptions, because you kind of had to be in the industry to be able to afford it, and it was for the industry, not the general public. So as a reward in a sense, they would call up the people who were part of the industry and ask them at any given time, “What do you think? What’s going on? What do you make of it?”

That’s promotional for the people being interviewed so they’re happy to talk about it, because they wouldn’t be asked if they weren’t seen as having something valuable to say. And what you get is you get snapshots of how people in the moment, living on a very fast timetable… On radio you’re judged every three months by how your radio ratings are in the spring, summer, winter, and fall. If you’re part of a record company, you’re judged really almost release by release, so everyone is amped up and hyper. Everyone is trying to read the tea leaves of what’s going to happen next, and how to evaluate what’s just happened.

If you read that kind of material over a really extended period of time, it’s bizarre. Because what you’re doing is you’re reading an incredibly tight, super-charged, present-oriented set of writing from the perspective of the future, looking back on the past. That’s crazy. Because sometimes you can see right through it. Like, “Wait, you think this is going to happen? No!” But then that’s telling, because what it gives you is a sense of how many other possibilities there were in a given moment, how many things that didn’t make it into the official history, that we now sort of say to ourselves, “Well, that must be what happened,” wasn’t necessarily what people thought at the time.

What I absolutely did love was just going back and realizing that in the early 1980s, radio program people were obsessed with the yuppie. “What are we going to make of the fact that it’s a recession and our advertisers really want to reach affluent people? There’s this new category of them called ‘yuppies,’ but there’s not that many of them, and we don’t know what it is. Does that mean we have to give up on all the people we have been reaching?”

You can find these moments that are just fascinating. That’s the early ’80s. In the early ’70s, another similar moment was, “What do we make of this counterculture? Does that mean we shouldn’t do Top 40 any more? Everything has got to be progressive? No, that doesn’t seem right.” So it’s all these moments when people are kind of trying to think through what’s happening in the culture, and they have a commercial interest in doing so. But they’re not dumb. They’re smart people trying to make sense of something before anyone else is really forced to. So I love that.

Join us Wednesday, March 25 for Part 2

This Week’s Release (3/14-21)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?]

A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music (Music in American Life), Robert Marovich, University of Illinois Press, Mar 15, 2015

John Prine: In Spite of Himself (American Music Series), Eddie Huffman, University of Texas Press, Mar 15, 2015

Rhythm Makers: The Drumming Legends of Nashville in Their Own Words, Tony Artimisi, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Mar 15, 2015

Sail Away: Whitesnake’s Fantastic Voyage, Martin Popoff, Soundcheck Books, Mar 15, 2015

West Virginia’s Traditional Country Music (Images of America), Ivan M. Tribe and Jacob L. Bapst, Arcadia Publishing, Mar 16, 2015

Sounding Race in Rap Songs, Loren Kajikawa, University of California Press, Mar 19, 2015

This Week’s Release (3/8-14)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 Eagles FAQ: All Thats Left to Know About Classic Rocks Superstars (FAQ Series), Andrew Vaughan, BackBeat Books, Mar 10, 2015

Guitar Player: The Inside Story of the First Two Decades of the Most Successful Guitar Magazine Ever, Jim Crockett and Dara Crockett, BackBeat Books, Mar 10, 2015

While doing research for my Johnny Cash FAQ a couple of years ago, I was amazed to find out how little information there was out there about the origins of the song “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” a song that put Cash back on the charts in 1979. In my current research on the songs of Southern Rock I revisited that research when looking into the version recorded by the Outlaws (around the same time as Cash’s), I ran across this book. In Ghost Riders in the Sky, Michael Ward not only takes a look at the song, but digs into the interesting and adventurous life of the songs writer, Stan Jones. It’s a great read filled with fascinating characters like Jones and Eden Ahbez.

Today Michael talked to us a little about the book and Stan Jones:GRITS-cover-1000pix

Music Tomes: Even people who are familiar with the song “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” probably don’t know anything about Stan Jones. Why did you feel his story was important to tell?

Michael Ward: My quest to tell Stan’s story began in Death Valley where he wrote “Ghost Riders” on the front porch of his ranger station in 1947. I lived and worked at Furnace Creek from 1977 until 1991 – when I discovered that one of the great western ballads of all time had been written in the Valley by a park ranger, I figured that would be a perfect topic for a paper to present at the bi-annual Death Valley History Conference. I targeted the Conference to be held in 2008 and began to research Stan in 2006. I quickly discovered that there was essentially nothing substantial written about “The Singing Ranger” aside from a few casual anecdotes about how “Ghost Riders” found its way from Death Valley to Hollywood. It ended up being too big a gap to ignore and my 18 page paper for the 2008 History Conference eventually blossomed into a full biography of Stan. I had no intention of writing a book when I began this journey but in retrospect it just seems right that his unique rags-to-riches story has finally been told.

MT: You write some great stories about Jones’ life and interactions with people, for example, his first meeting with director John Ford, where Jones showed he is just an unassuming, easy going guy. Do you have a favorite story about him?

MW: My favorite Stan Jones story is how he refused the orders to shoot wild non-native burros as a ranger in Death Valley – instead he wrote a lovely, lilting song called “Burro Lullaby” that he would perform whenever he sang for park visitors to get under the skin of T. R. Goodwin the park’s superintendent. Stan was a rebel at heart and darn near lost his job over that issue – he wasn’t about to kill any 4-legged creatures he considered as friends.

MT: Can you pinpoint your favorite version of “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky”?

MW: Always the toughest question I get from “Ghost Riders” enthusiasts. I believe Johnny Cash’s 1979 version of Stan’s song is the best, classic interpretation by a major recording artist. My real, heart-felt favorite recording of the song though is by Keeter Stuart, a grand nephew of Stan Jones, and can be found on his first CD titled “Just.” Keeter and his band’s version of his uncle’s great song is a loose, relaxed yet rollicking ride that feels as if it was played live in the studio – it’s definitely worth seeking out. I have to also mention Mary McCaslin’s eloquent, haunting acoustic reading of “Ghost Riders” – it’s a unique and beautiful rendering of Stan’s song. I’d better stop there – there are so many fine versions in so many genres, it always gets to be a slippery slope trying to definitively declare which cover of “Ghost Riders” is my favorite.

MT: You mention in the book that when you decided to write on Jones life you found that his widow was still alive. What was her reaction when you initially approached her about the project?

MW: I interviewed Olive Jones in April of 2006 at her home in Tarzana, California that she and Stan had bought in 1957. I had no intentions at that time of writing a full biography of Stan. My goal then was to simply learn about the years Olive and her husband shared in Death Valley for the short paper I hoped to present at the Death Valley History Conference. I asked Olive during our time together if she would be interested if someone attempted to write a book about Stan’s life and she politely said, “Oh, I don’t think so.” I tried to follow up with her but she declined to answer any more questions. I remain very grateful to Olive for the one interview – she is a very private person and very likely rues the day she spoke with me, which is unfortunate. What she shared with me in 2006 though eventually served as the basic framework for the biography of Stan that I decided to start writing in 2010.

MT: What was the most challenging part of the project?

MW: The members of Stan’s family who I spoke with during my research had only vague ideas what Stan was up to from 1930 until he married Olive in 1944. I had to really dig to fill in the blanks from those years and I’m amazed I was able to eventually construct a reasonable continuity of Stan’s life during those years – there are still many gaps I would have loved to fill though.

MT: What are you currently working on?

MW: Since the book has only been out for about 4 months I’ve been working to help promote it without going too batty. I have my day job with the National Park Service still so it’s a little soon to start another project. What I’ve mused about lately though is trying my hand at fiction and perhaps begin to write a story inspired by the 15 years I lived in Death Valley. I’m envisioning a Cannery Row style approach that would feature many of the unique characters I met when I lived and worked there. We’ll see – I’ll probably wait until I retire from Saguaro Nation Park before I get serious about starting another book.

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

MW: I’m a huge fan of Tom Waits and I just recently finished an insightful biography written by Barney Hoskyns titled Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits. Robert Hilburn’s recently published biography, Johnny Cash: The Life, is outstanding. Keith Richards autobiography Life is a remarkably well-told and honest account of my first real rock & roll hero’s wild journey of five decades with the Rolling Stones. I heartily recommend any of these fine books.