Right or wrong, 500 great records

sammi smithWould you believe that the greatest country music single of all time is “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” as recorded by Sammi Smith?

Before reading “Heartaches by the Numbers,” by David Cantwell and Bill Friskies-Warren, I would have reacted violently to the suggestion, but now, I’m not so cocksure. I need to hear the Smith version again (which I haven’t listened to in years). Cantwell and Friskies-Warren lay out a compelling premise in the introduction for why such a crossover bit of pop pap should be considered and then layout an intelligent argument in the book’s first entry for the song itself.

After reading “Heartaches,” I’m ready to reconsider my entire country music purism and elitist sneering at crossover commercialism. The authors “don’t fence me in” policy toward great records encourages a whole new way of listening to country music.

Besides, “don’t fence me in” is the only policy that would allow “Train Kept A-rollin'” and “Dixie Fried” and “One Hand Loose” to make such a list, and any list that includes great but obscure rockabilly is going to get my respect.

I only got this book because Billie gave it to me for Christmas, and I’m glad she did.

Cantwell and Friskies-Warren have impressive writing credits (No Depression, Journal of Country Music, Oxford American), but even without the bio on the back of the book, a quick skim through its contents tells you all you need to know about the authors – here are two men who have immersed themselves over a lifetime in country music. They have read about it, thought about it, argued about it and taken seriously every country record they have ever heard (and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve heard them all).

In most of these “greatest all-time” lists, there is ample room to argue with the list makers conclusions, and Cantwell and Friskies-Warren want you to pick apart their choices, but there is so much love put into this book, it’s hard to spit and cuss even as you disagree.

Before reading “Heartaches,” my list of greatest country singles probably would have lead off with “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” or maybe “Crazy,” or “I Walk the Line,” or “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” now I’m thinking – does the actual order really matter? All that matters are that those songs are acknowledged for their greatness, and from there, what other songs should be admitted to that pantheon?

Having been through the whole book once (not reading every entry, as tempting as that is – and something I will eventually do), I’m hard pressed to think of a song that should be included and isn’t. Last night Billie and I bounced song titles off of each other … “There Stands the Glass,” yup, it’s in there. “Lovesick Blues,” of course (interestingly, by Tony Bennett, not Hank). “Walking After Midnight,” sure ‘nough. “Make the World Go Away,” yes, but by Ray Price, not Eddy Arnold (my preference).

I have yet been able to trip up the authors (Though, under the terms of the book, I think I could make an argument for The Blasters “Marie, Marie” or X‘s “Fourth of July,” but that may have more to do with my own predilections and prejudices … but then, if Lone Justice and Los Lobos can make it, why not The Blasters? “Marie, Marie” is one of the greatest songs of any genre, and it is rockabilly and it was a single.)

“Heartaches” is also deep into country music, including songs by such lesser known pioneers of hillbilly tunes as Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Charlie Poole, DeFord Bailey, and the Coon Creek Girls.

Nor does the book concentrate on monster hits. It’s the quality of the record that matters, not the chart success, which is why you’ll find James Talley here along with Billy Joe Shaver and Lucinda Williams‘ original “Passionate Kisses,” not the wooden and ultimately unsatisfying hit version by Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Only authors who have spent a lifetime preparing to write such a book could produce something that gets beyond mere parlor room bickering and goes deep into why a record is good and worth thoughtful consideration. Each song is accompanied by an essay that skips empty rhetoric and includes history, production notes and context. Such research makes any disagreement with a choice more of a quibble than a red-faced rejection of some idiot’s two-cent opinion.

For readers who love country music, and don’t just merely listen to it, “Heartaches” will provide intellectual fodder as well as a desire to dig deeper into the music.

My only regret now is that I don’t know all of these songs. Now I have a new project – start acquiring and cataloging them. I think this will require an iPod!

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