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Fun but Flawed and Faulty
on September 18, 2006
Tosches is an entertaining and skillful writer and the premise of this book is an important and timely one. Country music has been diluted, softened and stripped of what once made it great and is now in the hands of the pallid "new country" gang of cheeseballs. Tosches saw this coming way back in the mid-70s, resented it and wrote this book. "Country" is meant to be part general history of country music and part examination of how country music left it darker, more authentic roots and became the saccharine/formulistic tripe that passes for Country music these days. It's a good idea but unfortunately this book is full of misconceptions, omissions and serious factual errors. Yes, country music did have a dark side (which Tosches doesn't seen to grasp at all in context of the music's early cultural roots) but it's always had a family and religious side as well. Even in its earliest stages it could cross over into sentimental and mawkish pap. This didn't start in the 50's as Tosches insists but was present in the music of the Carter Family and Jimmy Rogers (Tosches barely mentions either) who between them invented the genre. Their music embraced both sides of the coin as did every great country artist who ever lived including Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. (Tosches savages Cash in this book, accusing him of becoming a weak, mediocre song writer which is odd because in an article written 15 years later, Tosches praises him to the skies although Cash had written no groundbreaking tunes in the intervening years)
Tosches makes much of how the British murder ballad tradition disappeared completely from early country music, ignoring (or perhaps being unaware of) songs like Banks of the Ohio or Knoxville Girl--both of which were major country hits in the 30s and 50s respectively and are both taken directly from the murder ballad tradition as are many, many other country songs.
His chapter on the development of the dobro and steel guitar is potentially interesting but is full of major errors. Tosches seems unaware of the major differences between dobro, slide guitar, steel guitar, pedal steel guitar and so on and at times it sounds like he thinks they're all the same instrument with only minor alterations. For example, he doesn't mention the difference in the number of strings between dobro and pedal steel nor the very different tunings used. This would be acceptable if the discussion were brief but considering the space he devotes to the topic, these omissions are glaring. It would be a bit like saying that the piano is just a big harpsichord.
At one point he strongly disagrees with musicologists who claim that many country guitarists were influenced by jazz guitarists. He claims that the guitarist from Milton Brown's band couldn't have been influenced by Django Reinhardt because--he says--Reinhardt's records didn't reach the states until the late 30's. This is incorrect. Django was first heard in the US in 1934. Early jazz guitarist Eddie Lang, who had a huge influence on country guitarists, is never mentioned nor is Charlie Christian who was emulated by all of Bob Will's guitarists.
But the most unforgiveable mistake is his insistence that Maybelle Carter's guitar playing had as much influence on country music as "Rudy Vallee", as Toshes sardonically puts it. Perhaps he hadn't bothered to ead the history of the Carter Family, "Bury Me Beneath the Willow" which contains many testimonials from the greatest country guitarists ever recorded who all say that their primary influence was Mother Maybelle. This is so evident simply by listening to classic country music rhythm guitar playing that one wonders if Tosches has actually heard any.
As usual, Tosches can't resist proving to us that he is a scholar of Greek and Roman literature and history and his references to this subject are sometimes laughably incongruous, clearly designed to convince us that his scholary credentials are unimpeachable. Usually these tedious asides have nothing to do with the subject at hand.
Still, Tosches is a great writer, full of irreverence and wit and great turns of phrase. This is a fun book to read and Tosches makes some good points. But the multitude of mistakes in this book makes it useless for anyone who wants to get the real goods on the history of country music. If you're looking for truly well researched books on country music that get right to its essence, forget this and pick up Bill Malone's Country Music USA and Rich Kienzle's excellent book Southwest Shuffle, a fantastically researched book which says more about the real roots of Country music (and far more accurately) in one chapter than Tosches says in this entire poorly realized mess of a book.