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The Real Thing | RICHARD EDER

IN THE COUNTRY OF COUNTRY: People and Places in American Music. By Nicholas Dawidoff . Pantheon: 368 pp., $25

March 30, 1997|RICHARD EDER

The urban-bred Nicholas Dawidoff got hooked on country music as a boy. A favorite uncle shared his own passion by giving him a record by the Carter family. They sang "in their lilting stoical way," he recalls, "and I couldn't get enough of it after that."

For Dawidoff, it was travel--not to a distant country but to a distant aspect of his own country. "The best country music affected me the same way great books did," he writes, "informing my own experiences even as they gave me a sense of being transported to new places, set down among people who might be said to have nothing to do with my own existence." Except that in America, where we all are immigrants, "existence" is not what you are but what you lack and look for.

"In the Country of Country" is Dawidoff moving to look for what so moved him and still does. He is, he explains, after the pure strain of musical faith, passions and wry sorrows that grew out of the life of country people in the South. It was thought of as poor-white music when the record companies began to send their scouts down in the late 1920s. But the blues and banjos of poor blacks fed into it, at first through subsurface currents that the dam of segregation never did stop--music seeps like ground-water--and later directly.

What he seeks is frail though persisting, Dawidoff writes. Country music, a $2-billion industry is dominated today by a smooth, pop-music simulacrum of the real thing. Known, ironically, as "real country," it is retailed by expensively jeaned white-Stetsoned performers (the purists call them "the Hats") led by the spectacularly successful Garth Brooks. It has a virtual lock on country music radio, and anything rougher or more heartfelt has a poor chance of getting on. Even Merle Haggard, Dawidoff writes, encounters obstacles.

To write of authentic country--a music rooted in its ground and in the lives of those who write and sing it--the author chose to travel to the places it came from and talk to some of its artists or those who remember them. His line begins with Jimmie Rogers, the "father of country," who died in 1936. It goes on to the Carter family and continues among others, through Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Chet Atkins, Patsy Cline, the Louvin Brothers, Doc Watson, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Sister Rose Maddox, Merle Haggard and the younger carriers of the tradition: Emmylou Harris, Iris DeMent and Jimmy Dale Gilmore. Dawidoff's journey is richest at the start, with his accounts of the old-timers, their times and their music. He is a shrewd and sensitive reporter and more: He can evoke as well as describe.

He goes to a backyard barbecue in Meridian, Miss., and summons up the enduring presence of the carousing, yodeling Rogers--who as a boy carried water to the track workers and later haunted the bars and honky-tonks of what was once a rowdy railroad town and now is quiet and strait-laced. Neighbors, still uneasy about the man, cherish his music as if it were their identity.

"Do you know what the Southern definition of a true music lover is?" one of them asked Dawidoff, hospitably offering the stranger a joke as traditional as Rogers' "Give Me the Roses While I Live." "It's a man who, if he hears a woman singing in the shower, puts his ear to the keyhole."

Talking to the descendants of the Carter family--June, a niece, is married to Johnny Cash--the author summons up the old Virginia back country and the spirited individualists who lived there. In 1914, A. P. Carter came over Clinch Mountain selling fruit tree seedlings and heard a vibrant voice singing "Engine 143" from a porch.

It was 16-year-old Sara, who would marry him; 13 years later, she, her husband and her sister-in-law, Maybelle, would be discovered by a scout from the Victor Talking Machine Co. They launched a career that lasted until 1943--though the marriage ended 10 years earlier--and set a plangent, close-harmony country standard with their renditions of "Wabash Cannonball," "Foggy Mountain Top" and other discoveries that became classics.

He writes of Bill Monroe, the hard-driving, spectacularly adept "father" of bluegrass, the purist form of country that limits itself to string-band instruments--fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin and so on--whose virtuoso band brought in Earl Scruggs, the banjo Paganini, and the unearthly tenor of Ralph Stanley.

Dawidoff writes about performance so that you can hear it. He evokes the hard life, the competition, the departures of both Scruggs and Stanley to set up bands on their own, the angry two-decade silence that Monroe observed with them and, later, the reconciliations. One of the book's loveliest scenes is the all-night picking, strumming, singing, dancing picnic organized for Monroe's 83rd birthday. Emmylou Harris brings along Dawidoff and her mother's lemon poppy seed cake.

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