American Culture

Lost Highway: Peter Guralnick’s search for the roots of roots music – part 1, fame and its discontents

Being an artist is hard; being a successful artist is even harder.

Lost Highways by Peter Guralnick (image courtesy Goodreads)

Lost Highways by Peter Guralnick (image courtesy Goodreads)

“You see, from the honky tonks you got such a mixture of all different types of music, and I think what happened is that when Elvis busted through, it enabled all these other groups that had been going along more or less the same avenue—I’m sure there were hundreds of them—to tighten up and focus on what was going to be popular.” – Peter Guralnick

Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians is one of those books that can be both maddening and rewarding. His work consists of explorations of roots musicians famous, known mainly to cognoscenti, and obscure. At times one wonders why Guralnick took the time to pursue, interview and write about characters like Charlie Feathers or Sleepy LaBeef; at other times one appreciates his brilliant, incisive treatments of Charlie Rich, Hank Williams, Jr., and Elvis Presley.

It’s a great book, in other words.

Guralnick’s skill, if this book is any indication, is to strip away the possible and leave the probable. That may sound like double talk, but understanding artists is part inference, part voodoo.

He’s really good at it, by the way.

The easiest way to show what I mean is to begin with a look at a couple of examples. We can start with two who achieved great fame, one early and one late in his career. Here’s Guralnick talking about Charlie Rich’s experience becoming wildly successful in middle age after years of minor hits and session work:

It’s a little hard to believe, but success has hemmed him in in a way that almost twenty years of of relative obscurity never did. For twenty years he played his own music, wrote and performed the songs that gained him initial attention, suffered his private miseries, but at least was engaged in his own creative struggle…. He watched his kids grow up, was supported in his bouts with self-doubt, guilt, and alcohol by family, friends, and a sense of place. Today he oversees a world that he always dreamt of, in which his importance is recognized, his music is celebrated, and he has at last achieved a measure of that success which everyone from Sam Phillips to Bob Dylan had always predicted for him. It’s the dream of almost every aspiring artist, musician, or otherwise, and yet somehow it’s all gone sour.

This kind of insight pervades Lost Highway: Guralnick’s profile of Charlie Rich subtly illuminates the old adage be careful what you wish for by showing how Rich, a wide ranging musical talent who was more comfortable (and likely more gifted) in jazz and blues than in country music finally achieved great fame and  monetary rewards in the music genre he found most constrictive to his talent. Guralnick gives us a Charlie Rich, whom most would dismiss as a phenomenon of country music’s “country-politan”phase of the 1970’s, as a clearly talented and wide ranging artist slowly being destroyed by what all artists seek: popular success.

A similar elegiac tone pervades Guralnick’s profiles of other famous figures such as Ernest Tubb (one of country music’s earliest stars), Merle Haggard, and the greatest star in the history of roots music, Elvis Presley.  Guralnick is particularly eloquent in depicting the effect of Elvis’s fame and the  heavy burden the generation who came to rock and roll through him placed on him:

Elvis’s success, flying as it did in the face not only of reason but of good taste as well, seemed in a way final judgment on the world that had scorned him and which by the sheer magnitude of his talent he had transformed. We took it as a cosmic joke…. Most of all we labored happily in the wilderness , self-mocking but earnest, possessors of a secret knowledge shared only by fellow fans: Elvis Presley was to be taken seriously.

By the end, though, as Guralnick writes in “Faded Love,” his brief essay written in the wake of Presley’s death, the “glory and the dream,” as Wordsworth might have described Elvis’s reign over the latter half of the 1950’s, had long been over. In assessing the death of rock’s first icon, Guralnick reassesses Presley’s meaning powerfully and slightly bitterly:

For Elvis there was no escape in art; his original triumph was his very artlessness. He didn’t write songs, nor did he aspire to anything more than success. Even his films were no more than a magnification of his image, a further reinforcement of the impossible perfection that we demand of all our public figures, and that Elvis alone fulfilled – a perfection that transformed him into an all-purpose, economy-rate icon.

In a way, then, Peter Guralnick posits Elvis Presley as an early example of the triumph of image over substance (a triumph that Elvis, had he lived a little longer, might have seen in the Oval Office in the person of Ronald Reagan). The sneer that seemed a hallmark of youth’s rebellion is reduced to a fashion accessory in a Vegas act.

In another way, Guralnick’s examples of the price of fame – the imprisonment of Charlie Rich’s artistic freedom by his success and the reduction of Elvis Presley’s cultural impact to, as Guralnick terms it, “the money and the arenas got bigger and bigger,” i.e., cultural rebellion as big business – gets at one of the chief themes of Lost Highway: being an artist is hard; being a successful artist is even harder.

7 replies »

  1. I strongly disagree with Guralnick. Elvis was the all round singer/performer and remained so to the end. He was more than just an image but an extremely talented singer, actor (when he got a decent script) and performer. Elvis was the template for rock ‘n’ roll singer/performers and remains so to this day.

    • I totally agree, for who but Elvis could have “made” , say, Andy Warhol, the so called bellwether of the art world, as per the Economist. Six of his Warhol’s Elvis silkscreens have been sold at auctions or privately for a quarter of a billion dollars in this century alone. Economy-rate icon? Mr. Guralnick should tell it to Christie’s, Sotheby’s or more precisely to the Royal family of Qatar, which is thought to have been the secret buyer of Warhol’s “Eight Elvises”, sold in 2008 for US$100 million…

    • I’d offer two thoughts in response, Brian: 1) I think Guralnick privileges musical artists who write their own material ( view I agree with) – I think it’s a position he reached long after he was initially smitten with Elvis in the 1950’s; subsequently, he changed his view of Elvis – a reasonable thing to do, as it’s reasonable to disagree with him; 2) you’re absolutely right about Elvis as a template for how to be a rock performer.

      • I have never been able to understand this “they are better than Elvis because they write their own songs and Elvis does not” mentality.I say this purely from my own perspective as a person who just loves music Elvis in particular.When he was at his zenith in the fifties changing the musical landscape did any of the kids then give a hoot who wrote what he was singing.I know I did not and 50 years later still dont.Lennon was a grat songwriter as is Dylan but they were not in Elvis’s class as a singers.Few people are or were. Guralnicks overblown analysis takes all the fun out of appreciating good music.

  2. I read this a few years ago. I looked up some Sleepy LaBeef after reading it, but he didn’t grab me enough to listen to him an more than that once. Guralnick is great writer.

    Robert Palmer (the author) also wrote enthusiastically about Charlie Rich in Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta, which I found confusing. There must be something in his music I’m missing.

    • A couple of thoughts, RetroHound: 1) Look for Sleepy LaBeef in part 3 of this series of essays on “Lost Highway” – he’s in the essay on delusions of grandeur; 2) Love both Robert Palmers, though maybe the writer more than the musician – and as for Charlie Rich, I find his story more interesting than his music…maybe you do, too.