Lost Highway: Journeys & Arrivals of American Musicians
Why else would I spend the scant time I have available for reading with an author whose work I am on record as finding less than pleasurable? The answer is unsatisfying: I bought the book and felt compelled to read it. No more, no less but no free pass for having a predisposition against the author.
Peter Guralnick is best known for his two-volume biography of Elvis Presley. In reality, though, he’s been writing about popular music for about as long as it’s been possible to make a living doing that. So you’d think he’d be in the pantheon. I can remember lots of work from back in the day by the likes of Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus and Ben Fong-Torres and Robert Christgau and J.D. Considine. That I have no memory of Guralnick–their contemporary–probably speaks volumes.
In this collection of his work the focus is on what has come to be called roots music. And now that I’ve googled it I’m not even sure who has come to call it that because there is a distinct lack of online information. So let me offer my definition: roots music is the stuff that came together to form the earliest rock ‘n’ roll records. That means blues and country mostly but those terms encompass a broad swath as you’ll discover if you light out for the territory.
Guralnick’s stew is different from mine. For him rockabilly is part of the mix (I’d say it’s the result) as are the early products of Sun Studio and the later work of the country musicians who came to be called the outlaws by the Nashville establishment. (Not to be confused with The Outlaws, the Jacksonville, FL southern rockers following in the steps of Lynyrd Skynyrd.)
I’m sure I could argue about this for a solid couple of hours but it’s really a matter of preference. Where Guralnick sees a continuum I see categories. We end up in the same place so why bother with how we got there.
As with the previous volume, there’s a little too much of the author in these pieces for my liking. I realized while reading this book that I’d make that criticism about a lot of music writing. Tell me, in the way Sasha Frere-Jones often does, that the paradiddles on the high hat or the layered chorus transport you and I’m going along for the trip. Gush endlessly about Howling Wolf‘s art and I can’t go along despite my love of Chester. (And I’m the guy who once dragged two colleagues with zero blues knowledge to the Wolf ‘shrine’ in the Harold Washington Library Center.)
In part that’s because I can’t abide this conceit that I’d argue writers about music borrow from the visual arts. Unlike some other arts the popular forms of music are commercial products, created for the marketplace. Film works the same way. Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, BB King even Robert Johnson wanted an audience; it’s how they ate. To strip out the commercial aspect is unfair to who and what they were: working musicians with the emphasis on working.
That doesn’t mean they didn’t love music. It doesn’t mean they never got on a stage and created magic. But it’s a different context than sitting around thinking about their ‘art.’ I sometimes think it’s a distinctly middle class, college-educated outlook that says as much about how the writer views their own craft as about what’s really going on. Live with people fixed on making sure the bills are paid and there’s food on the table and you’ll be disabused of romantic notions of artistry.
There is one unalloyed good about this book. Just about every musician profiled is worth knowing. So it’s a convenient place to meet them. You’ll meet the unsung (Charlie Feathers), the semi-obscure (Sleepy LaBeef) and, if all you know is the pop stardom, the improbable (Charlie Rich), even the, at the time of writing, newfound (Son Seals). Every on eof these guys has given me hours of listening pleasure.
At the end of the day, just like the bard said, the tune’s the thing. Dip in, scan the discography (which is the book’s highpoint–not a dud or arguable selection in it) and get your ears and dancing shoes on. Because whatever I think of the writer, his subject is what keeps me going.