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Country Music Originals The Legends and the Lost

By Tony Russell

Oxford University Press, 258 pages, $29.95
Reviewed by C. Eric Banister, April 2008
See it on Amazon

In his essay on the forgotten duo of Fleming and Townsend, author, researcher and historian Tony Russell sums up the reason for his new book "Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost": "Reissues...rewrite history, and the historian is required to stake a claim for the artists who have been written out." And so Russell has.

Russell has been a long time researcher of and commentator on American vernacular music as well as jazz and blues. His new book draws on the 20 years of research that went into Russell's previous book on the subject, the ambitious "Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921-1942" in which he was able to catalog every recording related to country music beginning 7 years before the famous Bristol Sessions.

Here, Russell provides biographic essays on 110 artists presented in a chronological order, introducing many forgotten artists like Kelly Harrell, Lowe Stokes, Dr. Smith's Champion Hoss Hair Pullers, Claude Casey and Ted Daffen, while also reminding us of the importance of artists like "Fiddlin'" John Carson, Charlie Poole, Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills and Rose Maddox.

Using new research and interviews with the artists or their families Russell is able to frame the artists and their contributions within their historical context bringing each to life and letting their work speak for them. His writing style and extensive knowledge of the genre make reading about the most obscure artists, such as, say, Henry Whitter, as compelling as reading about the more popular artists like Gene Autry.

The book itself is laid out as a reference book with each artist getting their own separate entry with nothing tying them together. Russell notes in the introduction that he choose this format to enable a reader to skip around if they like, likening it to a jigsaw puzzle where one can work on many sections, but toward the same whole.

Russell also notes that the 110 artists he selected for the book were chosen because of an originality they represent and that he also passed over a few well-known artists due to the abundance of writings on them that exist. Many artists included might have only produced a handful of recordings, but they possess something unique in their presentation that qualifies them as an original. It is this type of artist that Russell focuses on, and he comments that he has many other essays filed away, perhaps awaiting a sequel to this collection.

To aid the reader in discovering more about the artists Russell has placed a list of suggested listening at the end of each essay pointing to albums that include either selections from the artist or full catalogs of their work.

A book of this nature is an important addition to the study of American vernacular music and sheds light on the types of people who made up the early country music recording "industry." Some had being a professional musician in mind, some only wanted to record for posterity and others still after only a quick buck. All in all, some things never change.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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