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The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing

Edited by Marc Smirnoff, Foreword by Van Dyke Parks
The University of Arkansas Press
October 2008, $34.95

Reviewed by Stephen Weil

Marc Smirnoff started The Oxford American in the early 90’s. The magazine is devoted to good writing of the South, and a regular feature has been an annual music issue devoted to the South’s music. The music issue, with its sampler CD, is something of an event for music fans. This new volume—which the University of Arkansas Press is publishing to coincide with the tenth OA music issue—collects some of the best pieces from Oxford American music issues past.

The book is divided loosely by musical genre. These pieces focus on music that runs the spectrum, from Country and Blues to Heavy Metal and Avant-Garde. The ways in which the authors relate to the music they write about runs the spectrum as well. There are enough artist profiles, interviews, and historical pieces to keep devoted readers of music criticism happy, but many of the articles here have a more personal approach. A lot of the writers included are novelists, poets, humorists—which is to say, not your typical music critics—and consequently the book is often unabashedly emotional, and very finely written. The book does an admirable job of mapping the important space that songs, records, and singers can occupy in our lives.

In this vein, the novelist Kevin Brockmeier contributes a piece about Iris DeMent’s record My Life. It tells the story of an uncomfortable weekend the author spent camping and rafting with friends of friends. It’s subtle what happens: a feeling of awkwardness sitting around a campfire, a few strange miscommunications with a beautiful girl, a bad sunburn after a day on the water; but it all leads to a perfect listening experience, alone and introspective, of My Life. Brockmeier shows how it can take just the right situation to fully appreciate a record, and also how this moment of understanding becomes ingrained in the music, brought back with each future listen.

Other pieces in the collection cover similar ground. William Bowers tells the exuberant story of his relationship with the My Morning Jacket record At Dawn, and with the woman he was seeing at the time. Another highlight is Don Asher’s autobiographical piece “The Song of a Sad Café,” a beautiful story about the author’s days playing piano in a dive bar.

For fans of more traditional music writing, Tom Piazza’s profile of Jimmy Martin (1927–2005) is a terrific read. Martin was a Bluegrass star in the 50’s and 60’s as a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, and later as the leader of the Sunny Mountain Boys. Despite being known as the King of Bluegrass, Martin was never invited to join the Grand Ole Opry in his old age. On a Friday night in the mid 90s, Piazza and Martin went to the Opry, arriving in Martin’s old, run-down stretch limousine. Martin dutifully picks a fight backstage with Grammy winner Ricky Skaggs, and is coaxed out by Piazza to avoid another confrontation. Piazza’s story is hilarious, Jimmy Martin loveable despite his flaws.

These are just a few high points among many. John Ryan Seawright tells the amazing story of Blind Tom Wiggins, a virtuosic piano player—most likely autistic—who lived through the Civil War and emancipation but never gained his freedom from the whites who prospered off of his talent. There are also graphic strips by Robert Crumb and Joe Sacco, poems by Billy Collins and Donald Justice, and 46 other pieces—not including a preface and introduction—that I haven’t mentioned. Despite some slow points, the individual pieces collected here are all worth their reader’s time, and a remarkable number of them are very good or great. The best books about music inspire a list of records and musicians to hunt down and digest, the hope being that they will become as special to you as they are to the writer. This is absolutely true of the present volume. The index of contributing authors at the back of the book is an added bonus; it provides a grocery list of new writers to explore, who could eventually fill the space occupied by old, comfortable favorites.

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