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Book Review

Haslam, Gerald W.
Workin' Man Blues: Country Music In California
University of California Press, 379 pp. hardcover

cd cover With Workin' Man Blues: Country Music in California, Gerald Haslam tells the near mythological story of country music and fascinating social discourse between what is represented by the term "Nashville" and music played outside that system. The story is familiar. It follows the tale of how Ralph Peer "discovered" Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family leading a nascent recording industry to find there was money to mined in the backcountry hills that were, so the story goes, full of songs and music of times gone by. It was never that simple, however, and often the times weren't that long ago. Frequently the ideal envisioned as "authentic" country were tunes a generation removed from the minstrel and medicine shows that spread them throughout the region. Haslam's telling of the tale is better than most and clarifies America's own roots music with superb writing skill.

Start where you will, country music didn't spring forth from Nashville. Chicago and Atlanta preceded the Opry's WSM. Almost from its advent, country music found a home in California, and Hollywood was a favorite well before the Oklahoma migration and the music it brought west. Reminders such as Jimmie Rodgers' ten-minute short "The Singing Brakeman" show how film became a home for country musicians in the decades to come. Early appearances by Ernest Tubb, Jimmie Davis, Cowboy Copas, Eddy Arnold and others were precursors to the "horse operas" that would eventually come to such popular venues for country musicians ensconced far from Nashville. Haslam vividly charts the rise of performers like Merle Travis and the singing cowboys. His social history of California's honky tonks during the 1940s is insightful and nostalgic. The world in which musicians such as Dude Martin, Hank Penny, Tex Williams, Tex Ritter and many more made their livings is brought to life. Chapters on the Maddoxes and the telling of the rise and fall of Spade Cooley effectively illustrate their eras.

The ebb and flow between East and West is fascinating. By the late 1940s, the charts were dominated by West Coasters. Not until Hank Williams did the music world shift back to the provence of the Country Music Association, allowing Nashville to make its claim for being Music City, USA. But out west, the distinct sounds tangled categories and led to a "hard country" that to this day counterpoints the emasculated "cookie cutter music" that epitomizes the Nashville sound. Touchstones of this West Coast alternative like Kern County and artists such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard receive generous and appreciative attention in the telling of their stories.

Workin' Man Blues also reminds us of country music's sometimes strange byways. Remember Olivia Newton-John ("the symbolic low point in this music's pandering for a pop audience")? How about "Urban Cowboy" and the neo-country disco music it spawned? On into the '90s, country music has taken some other weird twists and turns-often great for sales if not product quality-to the point that the corporate, pop version of country heard on the radio has some 70 million listeners. Throughout the often quirky journey, places like Bakersfield and southern California offered refuge to the outsiders and bands, ranging from Dwight Yoakam to Nick Chavin's Country Porn. Since at least the waning of the '60s, a cultural reconciliation of sorts has taken place between those who saw country music as the domain of America's conservative stalwarts and the post-war youth generation that comes to embrace an authenticity as unavailable in its own music machine as it was for country music fans in theirs. Lines are again blurred, but from Gram Parsons, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens to Linda Ronstadt and bands such as the Eagles, all have made enormous contributions to the music of the Golden State.

Workin' Man Blues is a satisfying look at the history of the music that added the word "western" to "country" and led bib overalls and straw hats to give way to boots and Stetsons. Rich black-and-white photographs, several "musical interludes" that provide snapshot profiles of working musicians, a bibliographic essay - there's a lot more than the writing of this history of West Coast country music. It's an essential sideline that may well be the music's mainline, at least until the next real thing comes along. - Richard Dorsett

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