Although its subtitle ("Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles") presents this book as a list of great recordings, it's only nominally a countdown. Grumbling that your favorite single didn't crack their Top 200, while always entertaining, is largely beside the point. These two authors even admit in their introduction that they have bigger fish to fry here. Heartaches By The Number wants to define, offer a history of, illustrate the influence of, and revel in the pure sonic joys of country music. The amazing thing is that David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren manage to do all of these simultaneously--and do them well.
There's lots to learn here. The two authors are obviously well-versed in country's history--equally comfortable discussing Dock Boggs' 1927 "Country Blues" or Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance"--and are able to share their knowledge, when appropriate, without slipping into a textbook-style lecture. And that's good because more than explaining history, this book slowly begins to reveal and argue for an aesthetic, a conception of what country music is and why it has a place in the lives of its listeners.
This aesthetic is going to trouble and confuse some listeners, downright anger others. Cantwell and Friskics-Warren conceive of a country music that includes The Stones and Dusty Springfield as well as Hank and Lefty. Why, in their Top 10, Elvis is flanked by Ray Price and The Carter Family. But it's this broad definition that provides much of the fun and the challenge here. How do these two have the gall to even call the Monkees country music, let alone include them among the creators of its greatest singles? Since when has Chuck Berry (or Otis Redding, or Lynyrd Skynyrd, or Fats Domino, or CCR--all here) been redesignated "Country"? It's exactly this default categorization that the authors want to challenge. Much of their discussion attempts to show how fluid the boundaries are between country and almost every other style of music.
And that's what it finally comes down to in this book: the music, what's actually down there in the grooves, or in the binary code. As much as anything, Cantwell and Friskics-Warren are great listeners, and they share a rare knack for translating the experience of listening into words. In a stunning discussion of Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors," Cantwell reveals himself as a guy who has listened to this song enough times to identify with the singer AND with the song's narrator (he distinguishes between the two) from the inside. Vulnerable but not maudlin (just as the song is), he refuses to slip into cheap emotionalism, but shares a clearly heartfelt love and appreciation for the entire experience of this single--singer and song, meaning and music. Likewise, Friskics-Warren, in a tour-de-force discussion of three singles--G.B. Grayson's "Ommie Wise (1927), The Blue Sky Boys' "Banks of the Ohio" (1936), and The Louvin Brothers' "Knoxville Girl" (1959)--sees thematic and musical traditions stretching from 18th Century English ballads right up to rapper Eminem. Not surprisingly, the entry appears amid a stretch of several, all addressing themes of murder and prison ("Pistol Packin' Mama," "Life To Go," "Green Green Grass of Home," "Sing Me Back Home"). Theirs is a world of connection, not dissection.
This impulse for connection is seen most vividly in the context the authors create for their discussions throughout. They encourage readers to listen to, and think about, this music here in the real world, a world that includes Betty Friedan and Horatio Alger, Harlan County USA and The Daily Worker, LBJ and V-E Day and POW's and TM, Dorothy Allison and Carson McCullers, Jim Crow and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., The Beatles and the Buddha and Bonanza, Times Square and Teamster Strikes, Designing Women and Smokey & the Bandit. For Cantwell and Friskics-Warren, music, like the rest of the world, affects our hearts AND our minds, our outer lives AND our inner lives. Great singles allow us a glimpse at what Friskics-Warren describes as "the point at which the personal and the political converge."
And lest this all sound a bit too heavy, let me assure you that Heartaches By The Number is a FUN read as well. The counting format offers bite-size portions that read well on their own (sort of intellectual bathroom reading) but are always part of the larger discussion. And these guys can be FUNNY (and cynical), too. Complimenting the musicians backing Tennessee Ernie Ford on "Shot Gun Boogie," Cantwell notes, "Then again, Henry Ford could swing with this group behind him!" And introducing Glen Campbell's signature single, Friskics-Warren asks, "'Gentle On My Mind' might have played well during the Summer of Love, but was its load of bull for real?" Like many of their musical heroes here, these two are straight-shooters.
About the best compliment I can pay this book is that it makes you want to go back and listen to the recordings. The authors encourage us to return to these singles--sometimes songs you didn't think you liked, songs you didn't even think were country--and listen again. They encourage us to really open our ears--and as a result, our hearts and minds.
My biggest problem with Heartaches By The Number: I don't own all of these records. Next step: the Time/Life Heartaches By The Number companion box set. Bear Family Records, are you listening?