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Bringing on the Heartaches

David Cantwell has country's Number.

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Music-related lists often exist only to create controversy. Compilations of the twenty greatest guitar solos, fifty most moshworthy metal albums or thirty most otherworldly prog-rock epics serve primarily to pad the letters to the editor section and to validate critics' personal preferences. Though they might claim they're encouraging debate, these authors often write with an artificially authoritative tone that suggests they're trying to end the discussion rather than prolong it.

At first glance, Heartaches by the Number: Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles might seem as if it's luring readers into a similar trap. But like Dave Marsh's The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, which served as its inspiration, Heartaches doesn't try to squeeze subjective assessments until they become facts.

Written by our own David Cantwell, a Pitch contributor whose work has also appeared in No Depression and on Salon.com, along with Nashville-based Bill Friskics-Warren, known for his work in The Nashville Scene and The New York Times, the book tells the story of country music through brief yet detailed essays on selected songs. Favoring historical importance over aesthetic value judgments, Friskics-Warren and Cantwell choose crucial touchstones rather than simply measuring the comparative quality of compelling melodies.

Readers need only consult the first entry, Sammi Smith's 1970 country-chart-topper "Help Me Make It Through the Night," to realize that Heartaches functions more as an entertaining textbook than as a consumer guide. In the page and a half they devote to the tune, Cantwell and Friskics-Warren move from analysis of its opening seconds (a held violin note "suggests some greater longing") to contextual placement ("Help Me" was a "watershed event in the history of Nashville and country music" because it integrated rock and soul influences) to lyrical insights (Kris Kristofferson's "plea for deliverance reveals an existential weight"). Friskics-Warren and Cantwell go on to debunk the myth of country as a change-repellent art form, to explore the sexual ramifications of a single altered pronoun and to use subtle vocal variations to chart a complex character study.

Some readers might quibble with assigning such weight to riffs and lines that listeners have long taken for granted, especially given that many of the artists claim their lyrics reflect personal problems rather than universal issues. The authors note such protests, but Cantwell maintains that they never stretch for meaning.

"That stuff is there to hear, but that doesn't mean Kristofferson meant to put it there," he explains. "Those are separate things. Kristofferson could tell you what he meant when he wrote the song, but a record by definition isn't limited to what he meant. It's not just the words and the melody that he came up with -- it's how they're performed by these musicians, the way Bill Walker arranged them, the way Sammi sings them, the way those ideas intersect with the time the record was released. Really, if at some level you can't hear something beyond the personal in a record, then why does anyone else need to hear it?"

It's no accident that Cantwell always says "record" instead of "song" when he's discussing these singles. A record includes all the aforementioned elements; a song, at its most basic, boils down to merely sheet music. A maudlin, mediocre song (Heartaches cites George Jones' "The Battle" as an example) can become a standout record on the strength of a powerful performance and precise production. A flawlessly composed song can languish in obscurity without proper adornment.

Cantwell and Friskics-Warren narrowed country's thousands of singles, including many that predate the album era, down to 500 that best represent the genre's essence and evolution. A few artists argued irrefutably for inclusion. Once the givens earned their spots, the authors looked for gaps to fill, identified needs (records about back-door affairs, prison or work, for example) and recruited the best representatives. The results are ordered rather than truly ranked; the authors aren't necessarily endorsing "Help Me ... " as superior to the No. 2 tune (Hank Williams' "Lost Highway") or even, say, No. 447 (Willie Nelson's "Always on my Mind"). The order is more conceptually chronological, allowing the authors to establish themes using the most appropriate examples for evidence, then return to these key points in later entries.

Though that format is somewhat misleading, any list will provoke arguments about unworthy inclusions and snubs, and given the staunchly traditional views of country preservationists, Heartaches will be no exception.

Some of the choices might strike purists as crazier than Patsy Cline. Why, for example, did Elvis Presley make the top five -- with the twang-free "Don't Be Cruel"? How did Los Lobos survive the cut? On what planet is Chuck Berry country? And don't these guys get tired of hurting Ronnie Milsap, who bears the brunt of their criticism for the regrettable sugar shock of country's early '80s output?

"We want to make people confront the possibility of a world in which Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry are part of the country story," Cantwell responds. "As long as we can talk about why those things are upsetting to people, that's where the real discussion happens."

Even Heartaches' most unorthodox selections make sense in the context provided by their write-ups. Unfortunately, a Heartaches boxed set will be, at best, a long time coming.

"I'm all for it, but it would be a licensing nightmare," Cantwell says.

Putting together a sequel to the book a decade down the road could be an even more daunting task. Not that country is moving away from its emphasis on singles.

But just because a record is radio-friendly doesn't mean the airwaves will return the affection. From Kansas Citians Iris DeMent and Rex Hobart to elder statesmen such as George Jones and Willie Nelson, high-quality country artists find themselves barred from programming consideration and thus ineligible for singles-only studies. By contemplating how repugnant performers such as Toby Keith currently hog the market, country fans can experience the deep dread of so many of the genre's classic songs firsthand.

But just as its bleakest tunes always offer some sliver of hope, country's soft-shell periods always give way to a hard-core resurgence.

Heartaches documents such cycles, proving that long before the '70s outlaw movement, there were other rebels and other weak trends against which to rebel. The book delivers a detailed diagram of country's proud, complicated past -- its oft-overlooked racial interactions, its blend of unflinching misogyny and uniquely expressed feminism, its underrated ability to incorporate assorted influences and to co-opt the methods of artists on its margins while remaining tethered to its roots. And it inspires optimism for its future in the process.

It should rank high on any country connoisseur's reading list.

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