In his foreword to the anthology Music City Reader 2005: Great Writing on Country & Bluegrass Music (Music City Books, 240 pp.), Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw writes that “sometimes you gotta cover a lot of miles in order to stand backstage somewhere.” Kershaw is talking about performing, but the Reader, which was edited by Nashville State Community College professor Randy Rudder, also covers a lot of ground, from simple interviews to in-depth essays. The collection is uneven—many of the career retrospectives, especially, read like little more than puff pieces—but a few of the selections can rightly be called great.
For example, Benjamin Filene’s “O Brother, What Next? Making Sense of the Folk Fad” provides a well-reasoned corrective to that film’s “cartoonish” and otherworldly depiction of the prewar South. Filene, who’s the author of Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music (University of North Carolina Press, 2000), maintains that such images portray the folk tradition as distant and deviant. By so doing, the Coen brothers and their like ignore Appalachian culture’s contributions to the mainstream while simultaneously distancing the listener from the true suffering of the people: “The folk fad, then, becomes a flavor du jour,” Filene says, “not a deep, sustaining current in American Culture.”
David Hickey’s “His Mickey Mouse Ways: An Appreciation of Waylon Jennings” is another of Music City Reader’s standout entries. In an imaginative and compassionate look at the misunderstood outlaw country star, Hickey (whose postmodern style is featured in two collections of his work, Air Guitar and The Invisible Dragon) describes a conversation between Jennings and two portly fans, whose nervousness is easily quieted by the star’s mischievous charm. Waylon “sinks heavily into the pillows of the couch while the fat ladies seem to float weightlessly,” he writes. “I am imagining the strain the ladies are putting on their knees, trying not to look heavy, when I realize that, at that moment, they are not heavy at all. They are in heaven.”
Music writing can’t be content to merely inform. Hickey, for example, is as much a social theorist as he is an art critic, and his idiosyncratic prose is nothing if not entertaining. More than having access to artists and getting facts straight, such work is compelling as an art in its own right—a fact that the best essays in Music City Reader amply demonstrate.