Colin Escott is one of the go-to roots guys; his books include a history of
Sun Records, a biography of Hank Williams, as well as dozens and dozens of
liner notes for reissues releases of people like Howling Wolf. His new book
is a collection of 14 portraits of "the untalked about forgotten ones.mad
and neglected"-the minor league, career musicians who brushed the edges of
fame, working hard at their art but never quite getting all the way through
Originally Escott planned to do a book on outrageous superstar behavior, to
be called "Tales From Mount Hubris", but instead was drawn to the outsiders.
He points out that Bill Haley was all but written out of the recent
"designer" versions of rock and roll history "because he didn't look cool".
And the majority of the book covers people who just didn't look cool.
There are a few well-known names, some of whom seem out of context here;
Perry Como (the singing barber), Patti Page (she was one of the first to
crossover to pop with country styled numbers). Then there are others; Roy
Orbison (Escott points out there were long dryspells between "Ooby Dooby"
and his later mini-operatic hits), and Jim Reeves, (an ill tempered
perfectionist who had to fight with recording engineers to get his intimate,
close-miked vocal sound), and rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson (she had to
cover up her bare shouldered dress with a jacket before they'd let her on
the Grand Ole Opry stage).
But the majority of the book has tales of people like Skeets MacDonald, one
of the original Bakersfield hard-country performers, predating Buck Owens
and Merle Haggard. And Wynn Stewart, who had Eddie Cochran as sideman on an
early recording, cut sides for Gene Autry's Challenge label, and gave
Haggard his first break, hiring him as bass player (and occasional singer)
for his band. Stewart's biggest hit was "Its Such A Pretty World Today",
and he cut an album for Playboy Records before dying of a heart attack at
age 51. The Collin Kids were a brother-sister act who made it big on TV,
with the syndicated county show "Ranch Party". They had some success ,
Larry Collins was a hyper kid with a double necked guitar, Lorrie a good
looker who strummed rhythm and sang lead. After dating Rick Nelson, and
getting engaged to him, she eloped with Johnny Cash's road manger, which
pretty much ended their career.
And so on, ending with the saddest tale of all, Vernon Oxford, a
hard-scrabble Arkansan who came to Nashville around the time when Elvis and
R&R were hitting big. Oxford was committed to the hill music, and though he
made several recordings in that vein he never got the notice he should've-at
one point he was told he was "too country" to appear on the Opry. "Country
music wasn't a career option for Vernon Oxford," Escott writes. "It was all
he knew. Its bleak pathos was his life...Now he's past sixty and his life
is a glimpse of a lost world."
Escott's book is one that aspiring musicians should probably read-it'd be a
heavy antidote to any "stars-in-the-eyes" points of view. For every big
name there are hundreds of lower level acts working the dives and bowling
alley gigs. These are some of their stories.
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