The Pequod Review:
Peter Guralnick is one of our finest music historians, the author of landmark biographies of Elvis Presley, Sam Phillips and Sam Cooke. His books are deeply researched, and unlike many other critics in the genre he brings a passionate love of music to his work. As a result, his narratives are not only intelligent but thrilling. Lost Highway, Guralnick’s third book, explores American roots music, and especially the early pioneers of country, rockabilly and blues: Ernest Tubb, Merle Haggard, Charlie Rich, Hank Snow, Elvis Presley, and Sleepy LaBeef, among others. His book includes rich and detailed profiles of these musicians; here for example is his excellent section on Haggard:
His whole career has been founded upon… paradox. As a young man barely out of prison, he crooned love songs, sounding very much like Marty Robbins, who was hot at the time. It was not even his own compositions that few drew upon the prison experience for him; instead he virtually stumbled upon the song, ‘I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.’ “Liz Anderson [the writer] came to a show we were doing in Sacramento. She said she had some songs, but I wouldn’t have listened if it hadn’t been for my brother Lowell. It turned out she had six hits in her pocket. Well, that kind of opened up a whole trend of songs, such as ‘Branded Man’ and ‘Sing Me Back Home.’ It gave me thought for writing. It gave me a direction for writing. You see, what it was, with that song I was really and finally some way or another come together – musically and image-wise. I mean, it was a true song. I wasn’t trying to shit nobody, because long ago I had made the decision not to try to hide my past, but then I found out it was one of the most interesting things about me.”
Nonetheless, when it looked as if the prison songs were becoming a trap, Merle neatly sidestepped that issue by embarking upon the first in his series of historical albums. And when ‘Okie from Muskogee’ hit in 1969, bringing undreamt-of fame and presidential invitations, Merle’s first inclination (thwarted by his record company) was to release ‘Irma Jackson,’ a tale of interracial love, as the follow-up. His whole career in fact can be looked upon as a series of deliberate avoidances (walking out on the Ed Sullivan show, quitting a network production of Oklahoma), instinctive retreats from the obvious, and restatements of his central role as an outsider (remaining in Bakersfield, rather than moving to Nashville, was one very key element of his alienation; even his blues singing, a major component of his music, stresses over and over that ‘I’m a White Boy,’ a ‘White Man Singin’ the Blues’).
Perhaps this is what has enabled him to create the astonishing body of work that represents the ‘career’ of Merle Haggard. There is no one in contemporary popular music who has created a more impressive legacy, or one that spans a wider variety of styles. In a genre that has always relied upon filler to round out the album coming off a country hit, Merle has written the vast preponderance of his material (“Without writing, you have nothing,” says Merle, meaning both the royalties and the satisfaction) and has used each album as a vehicle for personal expression, sometimes not even leaving the room to include the hit. He has written blues and folk songs, social commentary and classic love songs, protest and anti-protest, gospels and ballads, prison and train songs, drinking songs, and updates of Jimmie Rodgers’ blue yodels. He has written just about every kind of song there is, in fact, except a convincing rock number, and while such prolificness is not without its price (some of the rhymes are less than fresh, some of the metaphors could have been worked out a little more fully, and sometimes you wish an idea had been left to simmer rather than having been incorporated immediately into a song), taken as a whole the body of work that he has created is absolutely staggering.
Guralnick’s profiles are occasionally too hagiographic and they don’t always connect each musician to one another, or to the broader musical culture. But they are nonetheless full of fascinating insights on each individual musician, especially their songwriting and production processes. Highly recommended.
(In 2014, Lost Highway was republished as an enhanced e-book, with audio recordings of interviews and music recordings included in the text. Unfortunately, very few audio files have been added and the ones that have are poorly placed throughout the text. It’s a shame. A work of music criticism like Lost Highway is an ideal candidate for an intelligent multi-media presentation, but in this case they add little if anything to Guralnick’s original text. Here is a four-part web series that is a better accompaniment to the book.)