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By Tory Haiss
As a freshman at Colby, Kurt Wolff '84 started working at the College's alternative music station, WMHB, and went on to spend two years as the station's music director, exploring new artists and genres. It was in his senior year that Wolff first turned to country music. He never turned back.
Wolff slowly discovered classic artists like George Jones, Merle Haggard and Lee Hazlewood. Now a country music buff and freelance writer in San Francisco, he has compiled almost 600 pages of history, trivia and anecdotes into the definitive--and mammoth--Country Music: The Rough Guide.
Wolff says country music retains its own distinct quality even when it's dressed up with slick techno-rock and sexy music videos. "It's still country," he said, in a telephone interview. "Someone like Faith Hill is very popular, and it can be hard to tell the difference, but there is something in their voice and in what they're singing about that ties them to country music."
Emerging in the 1920s, "hillbilly" music rapidly transformed itself with many a passing influence: urban jazz, Western cowboy and big band swing. Texas fiddler Eck Robertson and Civil War veteran Henry Gilliland were the first country musicians to be recorded, in June 1923. Commercial radio broadcasting became available to a mass audience after World War I, and "it brought people of varying locales and economic classes together in a way that no product of the increasingly industrialized American society had previously managed," Wolff writes. Later country music reacted against other musical genres, like big bad rock 'n roll and country's own pop hybridism. Even now there is room for a wide range of artists, from the revered Willie Nelson to the Dixie Chicks.
Wolff sets up the volume chronologically, and each chapter has an overview essay followed by biographical entries of individual artists. He gives credit for help to a squad of researchers, friends and industry members, including record labels and the Country Music Foundation in Nashville. "An important focus of this book," writes Wolff, "is to help reinvigorate the music's historical thread--to show connections from one era to the next." About Dock Boggs, an Appalachian bluesman from the 1920s, Wolff writes, "This is a man who first saw the blackness of a coal mine as a child, who had to dodge bullets on the streets of his hometown, and for whom a ten-day drunken binge was a spiritual retreat. It's the twentieth century, but it's also a time and place far, far away."
Gene Autry was a well-known "singing cowboy," but Bing Crosby also followed the fad and recorded an album, Don't Fence Me In. When rockabilly and the Nashville Sound parted ways in the 1950s, Bob Dylan moved right in with Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. More commonly associated with Newport and Greenwich Village, Dylan went to Nashville in 1966, where he worked with well-known session musicians and recorded a duet with Johnny Cash. Like Dylan, Cash was a counter-cultural hero, with his black wardrobe and sympathy toward Native Americans. After the Beatles broke up, Ringo Starr experimented with country music with his 1970 Beaucoups of Blues album.
Wolff's companion volume, Country: 100 Essential CDs, the Rough Guide, is an alphabetical who's who of country music, from Roy Acuff to Dwight Yoakam. The last few titles are anthologies, including an album from the historic Bristol, Tenn., recording sessions in 1927. Few musical genres have as precise an origin as bluegrass, dating to Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys' debut at the Grand Ole Opry in 1939, or rockabilly, when Elvis showed up in the summer of 1954. All of the titles in Country: 100 Essential CDs are currently available. A nice feature is the "We almost chose" item at the end of each entry.
Country music is as market-driven as anything else in the new economy: "The Nashville way of selling music is through hits," says recording artist Kieran Kane in the last chapter. "Whoever sticks to the wall, that's who they go after." As a result, healthy alternative country music scenes are recognized in San Francisco, Chicago and Austin, Texas. In other words, country music is all over the country. "Alternative country stuff is going to continue to flourish," Wolff says. "Most of the people who buy Garth Brooks and Shania Twain buy stuff that they hear on the radio. Nashville got really used to high record sales, but they don't have that any more."
A good example of where country music may be headed is Rodney Crowell. He was "a big Nashville star for awhile," Wolff says, "with a couple of really hot records." After his albums stopped selling, he went to an independent label, and 10 years later "he's in the alternative country world." And, coming full circle, Wolff says that alternative country music is less likely to air on commercial stations and more likely to be heard on college radio.
Diversity Call Renewed: Students, President Bro Adams, faculty and others join in effort to appreciate and accentuate differences.
Making Waves: An inside look at the news you love to hear--from Colbians.
A Simple Feast: Wylie Dufresne '92 is one of the hottest chefs in New York City.
President's Page: President Bro Adams on the court and affirmative action.
Alumni Reunion 2001
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