Black Music Matters Festival

Book Reviews

To see the complete list of book reviews, visit the book review archive.
Country Music: An Illustrated History – by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns
Finally! It certainly seems as though country music should have gotten the Ken Burns treatment long before now. It's been around way longer than jazz or baseball or any of the other subjects Burns has masterfully illuminated. It's roots are even older than the Civil War, arguably Burns's magnum opus - way older, actually. Maybe Burns just wanted to take the time to do it right, and if that's the case, then all is forgiven because this companion to the 16-hour PBS documentary series, definitely does it right. The pictures alone are worth the price of admission. These coffee table books are often advertised as being lavishly illustrated, but in this case it's an understatement. A lot of them are rare - and some, like the one of 12-year-old Marty Stuart meeting his musical idol and future wife Connie Smith are cute - and the book format, unlike video, gives one a chance to savor and study them. You can dip into this book just about anywhere and pick up a... »»»
At Randy Travis's Country Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Garth Brooks said, ""Name me any artist from any genre in the history of all music that took a format, turned it 180 degrees back to where it came from and made it bigger than it has ever been before." And that is not an exaggeration. Travis's first album "Storms of Life" arrived like a bomb in 1986, shaking up country radio that was then dominated by pop sounds from people like Marie Osmond, Dan Seals and Billie Joe Royal. Nobody else sounded like Randy Travis, and he did not need to wear a cowboy hat to let you know he was country. When one heard that deep baritone of his, there was no doubt. "Storms of Life" - the first country record to go Platinum in its first year of release, by the way - changed everything and ushered in the neo-traditional country music movement, paving the way the way for artists like Alan Jackson, Clint Black and Garth Brooks... »»»
Americana Music – by Lee Zimmerman
The number of books about Americana music has been few and far in between. A few readers came from the vaults of No Depression magazine and website, which were characterized more as books about alt.-country. So, for that alone author Lee Zimmerman deserves credit for his extensive look mainly at the artists that are part of Americana. But that also would be selling Zimmerman and his book short. Zimmerman is a most compassionate supporter of Americana, and that comes through loud and clear throughout. Zimmerman covers the artists either through question-and-answer segments or regular feature pieces. He also knows his artists well and deserves credit for at times pushing them to answer questions more fully. Zimmerman does his best to explain the background of Americana, no easy task given that the movement or genre has never escaped the question: what is Americana music? Of course, as Zimmerman ably explains, it's lots of genres, including the blues, Celtic and, of course, country... »»»
Bluegrass Generation: A Memoir – by Neil V. Rosenberg
Neil V. Rosenberg has, quite literally, written the history of bluegrass music (see "Bluegrass: A History"). An academic and banjoist, in no particular order, Rosenberg has captured the essential narrative of bluegrass music over many years. Rosenberg's memoir, "Bluegrass Generation," seems to have a modest field of vision; namely a telling of his early academic days and their interrelation with the nascent bluegrass music scene of the early 1960s. But "Bluegrass Generation" turns out to be much more. It lays out the case for bluegrass music as a uniquely American music genre and, in the telling of the tales, shows why it stands apart from other genres. The centerpiece of Rosenberg's memoir is his time (first as a visitor and later as a manager) for Bill Monroe's Bean Blossom music venue in that era. Bean Blossom was owned by Bill Monroe and run by Birch, his brother. Monroe is a powerful figure in the book, as he is in... »»»
Big City Cat: My Life in Folk-Rock – by Steve Forbert with Therese Boyd
Particularly if you've been listening to Steve Forbert's music for many years, you're bound to have some fun with his new memoir, "Big City Cat." The book, which lifts its title from that of a track on "Alive on Arrival," his 1978 debut LP, offers lots of commentary on the inspiration for Forbert's songs and the making of his albums. You'll also discover mentions of many of the artists he admires - some predictable (assorted folkies), some rather surprising (Talking Heads, Blondie, The Ramones). Musical references aside, however, this memoir disappoints. You'd have to be quite a fan - or perhaps even a member of Forbert's entourage - to care about all the minutiae here regarding the ups and downs of his relationships with record companies, producers and managers. And don't go looking for the kind of introspection that imbued Springsteen's recent autobiography: there's virtually nothing in this book that sheds... »»»
Smiling Banjo: A Half Century of Love and Music at the Philadelphia Folk Festival – by Eric L. Ring, Jayne Toohey and John T. Lupton
Music Festivals come and go. Most feed a need and fill a particular niche. But there are some that endure, despite the vagaries of the music business and challenges to the working musician. The Philadelphia Folk Festival has endured for a half-century. The PFF has reflected then-current cultural sensibilities and grown with the times. Eric L. Ring, Jayne Toohey and John T. Lupton have authored a remarkably rich and beautiful compilation of stories reminiscences and photos about the first 50 years of PFF. People who have attended the festivals over the years will revel in this book. Those who have not have a treat in store. "Smiling Banjo: A Half Century of Love and Music at the Philadelphia Folk Festival" is a startling, and finely composed work. The authors have selected hundreds of photos of artists and patrons at the Philadelphia Folk Festival over the years to accompany their text. It's a work that draws the reader in. Musical insights and curiosities abound... »»»
The Horseshoe Tavern is a modest throwback bar, which has endured through Toronto's growth as an international city. Even today, it exists as an island amongst shiny steel and urban growth. It shares its DNA with the countless anachronistic outposts that dot the cityscapes of North America: reminders of barnstorming days of country and western and bluegrass artists. Nashville's Station Inn, situated as it is in the chrome and glass of the modern-day Gulch might be a close analog for those that are unfamiliar with Toronto. This circumstance alone does not warrant a full history, but David McPherson has taken The Horseshoe and allowed its walls to talk, giving the reader and wonderful tour through country music from the mid-20th century to now. This conceit, when executed well, as McPherson does, gives a rich feeling of place and time. And, despite being a chronicle of country and western acts for the last 60 years, McPherson's telling has a uniquely Canadian... »»»
Bluegrass music fans are gently, but constantly, reminded that theirs is a niche interest. This, however, does not stop the devoted from mining the veins of bluegrass artists, old and new, to create a narrative for a style of music that started in the Appalachian and Mountain, but burst forward as a new genre in the 1940s, thanks to Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys. Given the short time span of its existence, and the powerful personalities which formed the bluegrass tale, discussion of early bluegrass artists often falls into the arena of hagiography. Monroe was the founder; Flat and Scruggs expanded the sound, and others came along the muddy river of the bluegrass sound. Jimmy Martin was there at the beginning, or close to it, and played with all of them. The King of Bluegrass (which was Martin's own name for himself) gets a casual mention here or there, but never gets his due. Nor did he during his lifetime. He never became part of the Grand Ole Opry (more about that in a... »»»