By Michael Lindgren
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; C04
Three books about musical stars
Rosanne Cash, Johnny Cash and Ralph Stanley.
You've heard that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It's a vivid analogy, conveying the inherent difficulty of capturing the power of one art form in another. Yet each month provides a fresh slew of earnest pop-music exegeses. The task is especially challenging when it comes to writing about American folk and country music, so much of which has a stubbornly vernacular tradition and a simplicity that are resistant to extended analysis. Three recent books struggle mightily with this fundamental conundrum.
The 82-year-old bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley has a lifetime's worth of stories to tell. Unfortunately, reading Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times (Gotham, $27.50) feels like a lifetime of a different sort. Stanley, whose singing and playing on such classics as "Rank Stranger" are among the foundational performances in American music, is a sweet and pious man. But sitting him down with a tape recorder and then transcribing, apparently verbatim, more than 400 pages' worth of meandering reminiscence does not an enthralling read make. The book cries out for drastic editorial intervention, for shaping and pruning; the decision to let Stanley "pull your ear for a good while, if you have the patience to set a spell" in his own unvarnished words is respectful but ill-advised. As it is, only bluegrass fanatics or postgraduate musicologists will be transfixed by this slow-paced, often repetitious account. It's hard to write the following without feeling like a crumb -- it's like panning Grandpa -- but these days your $27.50 could be better put toward buying the Stanley Brothers' entire extant recorded output, none of which has lost an ounce of its piercing, lonesome power.
Time has not been kind to Johnny Cash's album "Bitter Tears," which makes Antonio D'Ambrosio's decision to devote a whole book to it seem downright bizarre. Recorded in 1964 as a set of Native American protest songs in the Dylan/Baez mode and deservedly long out of print, the album falls somewhere on the slippery continuum between "amusingly dated" and "cringe-inducingly racist." A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears (Nation, $26.95) places the record at the intersection of the civil rights movement, the Greenwich Village folk scene, Cash's own troubled and erratic career, and the wider context of the social upheavals of the '60s. D'Ambrosio's account is often concise and illuminating, especially concerning the U.S. government's repeated abrogations of promises made to Native Americans, which D'Ambrosio correctly portrays as a legal -- as opposed to a civil rights -- concern. Where the author falters is in his assessment of the music. He cites commentator Gene Lee's caustic putdown of "music that rarely if ever exceeds the esthetic level of children's chants" as an example of wrongheaded critical carping, but Lee's statement inadvertently registers as prescient and fully accurate. In his notes, D'Ambrosio informs us that he "listened daily for over a year to the album," a touching if alarming sign of authorial commitment.
Some nine years after the release of "Bitter Tears," Johnny Cash handed his then-teenage daughter Rosanne a list of 100 songs he deemed central to the American tradition. This long-lost artifact is the basis of her recently released album "The List" and Michael Streissguth's companion book, Always Been There: Rosanne Cash, the List, and the Spirit of Southern Music (Da Capo, $24). Streissguth spent a year on the road and in the studio with the former superstar, documenting her mercurial attitudes toward her heritage and her legacies both musical and personal. Somewhat charmingly, Streissguth admits to being cowed by his subject, viewing himself as "the supplicant, looking for a story and always worrying that she'll withhold it from me"; for her part, Cash comes across as alternately imperious and petulant. As a result, "Always Been There" is more interesting as a meditation on fandom and an inside look at the tortuous process of recording a contemporary album than as straightforward biography. Rosanne Cash is a gifted singer and forceful personality, but her fulminations as recorded by the worshipful Streissguth are no more insightful than Ralph Stanley's and a good deal more irritating. As for the record whose genesis the book chronicles, the careful sonic manicuring provided by Cash's husband and producer John Leventhal has produced music so inoffensive and Starbucks-ready that to cast it as the apotheosis of a half-century of American music's heat and soul -- as Streissguth is forced to do -- is laughable. Cash senior was capable of dismally inappropriate musical decisions, but the results were never bland or timid. Some architecture, as it turns out, is not worth dancing about.
Lindgren is a poet and musician who divides his time between Manhattan and Pennsylvania.