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Memphis Flyer The Nashville Scene

By Leonard Gill

APRIL 20, 1998: 

Dreaming Out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes, and the Changing Face of Nashville
By Bruce Feiler
Avon Books, 390 pp., $24

Bruce Feiler did not grow up on country music because what he knew of it, which wasn’t much, he didn’t like. “Far from anchoring me to a timeless past,” he confesses early on in Dreaming Out Loud, “to me it symbolized the tyranny of place, a set of shackles that beautifully rendered a bygone region” – a region with values better left bygone. Musically, for this fifth-generation Georgian and child of the “Television Era South,” it was Billy Joel, Elton John, yes; Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, no.

By high school, he tells us, he “couldn’t wait to escape the South” and escape he did – to Yale, to England, to Tokyo, and on to journalism and three books based on his experiences. But as Feiler admits and as anyone could have told him:

“It didn’t work. No sooner had I left the South than I realized I was bringing more of it with me than I was prepared to admit. It wasn’t that I had a secret hunkerin’ to eat pork rinds and drink Jack Daniel’s. [And why not?] It wasn’t even that I had a deep-seated desire to re-embrace my childhood days of honeysuckle wine and BB guns. [Understandable.] That wasn’t my desire because that wasn’t my South and because that South doesn’t particularly exist anymore anyway. [True for honeysuckle? For BB guns and worse?] My desire was for something more complex and more contemporary. I was holding onto the thinnest of narrative threads in my life. The part of me that wants, despite the headlong advance of cynicism and despair, to hold onto a storyline that seems somehow bedrock. It’s that part of me that brought me home to the South. …”

It’s also that part of Feiler, winner of the 1997 ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Excellence in Music Journalism for his article “Gone Country” in The New Republic, that knows a good storyline, be it bedrock or not, when he sees one. That story, given fair and full treatment in Dreaming Out Loud, concerns what went right and what’s going wrong with country music in Music City, U.S.A.

For what went right, Feiler backtracks to a music that for decades answered to the evolving values and needs of a widening body of listeners, and it did so with greater or lesser degrees of authenticity.

For what went wrong, you can start with Garth Brooks and the seemingly impossible feat of a 190-pound man squeezing himself into a pair of size 29 Wranglers. The urban-cowboy image was one thing. The music and overblown stage act, another. But the money soon became something else entirely. “With ticket sales and merchandise,” Feiler notes, “Garth Brooks made more money in each of the early years of his career than the entire industry made in 1970.” Those profits gave Brooks unprecedented power to play hardball with his label, gave his label and the country-music industry in general unprecedented profits, and gave Nashville the clout to attract industry types from both coasts. The dreamers, the would-be stars, have been there all along.

Count Wynonna Judd as just one of them. Recent declining sales may have inspired in Garth Brooks the foolproof advantage of playing martyr to his fans, but Wynonna seems to have already won her wings by simply holding her own (in her version of one piece) against the “Queen of Everything” herself, mother Naomi. When Feiler shows Wynonna before showtime, forehead to the floor, arms outstretched, asking God in prayer for humility, it’s a hard heart that wouldn’t pull for her even in such a scene and an idiot who wouldn’t wish a voice such as hers something in the way of good material. For news on the “Princess of Quite A Lot” more late-breaking than what’s in Dreaming Out Loud, consult your favorite tabloid.

For the high stakes of sudden stardom, though, consider the case of Wade Hayes. In the course of this book, Feiler shows him variously acting the spoil-sport, the reluctant stud, the cry-baby, the unsure singer, the object of fans’ affection, and for one shining moment, the next big thing. That one of Hayes’ recording sessions is used here to highlight “the most frustrating issue in contemporary country music” is, however, no fault of his.

“Perfection is the coin of the realm these days, rather than authenticity,” writes Feiler. “A Hank Williams record is a performance of a song; a Wade Hayes record is more like multiple performances of a song, the Platonic ideal of that song, a perfect rendition that exists in digitas, if not in reality. ... The same technology that allows songs to be recorded perfectly now almost guarantees that no singer will ever be able to perform them that way again.”

Hayes is frustrated by it, the industry is banking on it, and I, for one, was relieved when Dreaming Out Loud got briefly off it. In a city that wrestled with the class issue for years and in a musical form that continues in ways to still do so, the award for class-A act in my book – and Bruce Feiler’s – went to a non-musician born Sarah Ophelia Colley and better known as Minnie Pearl.

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