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Pickers, Slickers, Cheatin' Hearts & Superstars : COUNTRY : The Music and the Musicians : essays by Chet Flippo, Ken Tucker, Robert Palmer, et al, edited by Paul Kingsbury, Country Music Foundation , and Alan Axelrod, Abbeville Press (Country Music Foundation/ Abbeville Press: $65; 595 pp., illustrated; 0-89659-868-3)

December 11, 1988|Rene Engel | Engel is the producer/host of "Citybilly," heard on FM 89.3 KPCC Monday evenings at 8. and

They call it "country." Defining country music has always been elusive to the listening public, yet, today it is bigger than ever. Its influence on musicians in all genres is being acknowledged to the greatest degree, and country music is winning more adherents every day.

"Country" leaves no stone unturned in illuminating what country music has been, from its folk origins, to what it has become, an industry annually worth more than $200 million. One might be tempted to relegate this tome to the reference shelf, but in truth, "Country" is the best kind of coffeetable book. Easy to access, one can capture some insight into the music's evolution by browsing through fascinating photographs or reading one of the historic essays, without feeling required to finish.

In his foreword, Paul Kingsbury rightfully reminds us that this collection of 16 essays is an illustrated history, beginning in the 1920s, when country music first emerged as a distinct commerical genre. Some 800 rare photographs do indeed expand beyond the text, enhancing our vision of this American music.

And still, that vision grows ever broader. While the discography in "Country" provides an excellent and indispensable, listening index to the story, our listening may well include some stretches of definition "Country" doesn't even consider, or has yet to encounter. Due to the constraints of a printing schedule, this chronicle ends in mid-1988, and we surely know that country music's next superstar lies just around the corner in 1989.

The emphasis in this volume is not on thoroughness but rather on essence. "Country" is a collection of writings by some of the more respected journalists and authors from the East Coast communities. Nick Tosch, the author of Jerry Lee Lewis' biography and "Country: America's Biggest Music," writes about honky-tonkin' in his essay, "Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams and the Bartenders Muse," and the honky-tonk angels answer in the chapter "Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline" by Robert K. Oermann. Both essays make one yearn for more depth, hopefully biographies, on major influences on today's generation like Lefty Frizzell or Rose Maddox. It didn't take hillbilly music long to discover how to package itself to greatest commercial advantage. The music's first "superstar," Jimmie Rodgers, relished his image as a rake and rambler, the "singing brakeman" or "blue yodeler" of legend, and used it to cultivate curiosity in his recordings. The impact of country radio is attested to by the success of "National Barn Dance" favorite Bradley Kincaid, whose treatments of Tin Pan Alley tunes on Chicago's WLS in the late 1920s garnered more than 100,000 letters a year.

The commericial potential of radio in America and how country music flourished in this medium is explored in chapters by Grand Ol Opry historian Charles Wolfe, "The Triumph of the Hills: Country Radio, 1920-1950," and Edward Morris' "Country Radio Since 1950." Bill Ivey, director of the Country Music Foundation, provides an essay on "The Bottom Line: Business Practices That Shaped Country Music."

Stoking the star-maker machinery is a concept that didn't just arrive with the advent of pop culture. Awareness of the public has been omnipresent through country music's recorded legacy, and this volume astutely views this marriage of marketing and music, balancing sales with musical purity.

Band leader Roy Newman insisted that his elegant Texas string band of the early '30s played hot jazz. "Country" examines the full spectrum of cross pollination of American music, be it this "swing" transported West, the evolution of rural traditions through Bluegrass or the glorification of the "Cowboy Way," as modern exponents of Western music Riders in the Sky like to put it. Douglas B. Green, Ranger Doug of Riders in the Sky, is one of the contributors to "Country," providing an insightful essay entitled "Gene Autry, Bob Wills, and the Dream of the West."

Call it Rockabilly, Western Swing, hot jazz or Honky-Tonk, this music some call "white blues" is all revealingly and entertainingly considered in "Country."

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