Lost Highway

Lost Highway

Journeys & Arrivals of American Musicians

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Publisher: D.Godine, 1979
ISBN: 9780879232931
Branch Call Number: 927.8GUR
Characteristics: x, 362 p., [1] leaf of plates : ill. ; 24 cm.


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Mar 26, 2015

I recently read a collection of essays by the rock critic Lester Bangs (1948 – 1982) in which he praised Guralnik's book. Thirty-five years after Bangs wrote, I'm less impressed with Lost Highway than he was, but certainly found the book to be good, informative, and interesting. And, to be fair, I've been able to read many books covering similar turf that weren't available to Bangs during his short life.

Lost Highway contains a series of articles about American musicians in the overlapping genres of country, rockabilly, and blues, all of whom Guralnick regards as showing extraordinary talent -- at times anyway. Many were connected to Sam Phillips's Sun Records, where Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison first recorded. The book ends with a rare Sam Phillips interview. Some of the book's musicians made it to fortune and fame, one quit playing professionally after being fired from Grand Ol' Opry, while most became hard-working, aging professionals, continually travelling to gigs but never or only briefly achieving fame. In most cases, Guralnik has spent hours or days with the musicians discussed in his articles.

A major oversight in Lost Highway is that neither Guralnick nor his reviewer, Bangs, seems aware that the word "musician" is gender neutral and may refer to either women or men. The book, first published in 1979, covers twenty-one male musicians, with women relegated to such roles as fans, wives, girlfriends, daughters or, rarely, members of a man's band, but not "musicians" worthy of being discussed for their own sake. Both Guralnik and Bangs were born in the 1940s, so there's no excuse for their not being aware of this neglect of women during an era of new-wave feminism. The reader also gets weary of the young author's judgemental descriptions of the physical effects of aging on older men.

If you can get past the problem of sexism (there's a good chance that you are male, like me), then you'll find Lost Highway a good read about a group of often impassioned and eccentric people. Whenever I started to get bored, I soon found myself reading about another interesting "character." Some of these people were driven by their music, while others seemed stuck in a lifestyle from which they couldn't escape. With our present awareness of mental health problems, we can see that a number of these musicians had serious problems with depression (often an issue with creative people, although the relationship between depression and creativity is not understood).

Lost Highway provides an antidote for our fantasies regarding the lives of professional musicians. As Guralnik explained, "The walls in all the motels are stained or have holes punched in them. It's impossible to imagine how stifling a life it really is; the only diversions are getting high or getting laid, and after a while sleep -- or the lulling comfort of the bus -- is the best escape. Even in description it sounds more romantic than it is, because there's nothing romantic about it (p. 229)." Only the most impassioned young musician reading Lost Highways could ignore that comment.

Musicians discussed in this book, both the famous and obscure, can be heard on YouTube. The diverse sampling in the book includes Howlin' Wolf, Big Joe Turner, Bobby Bland, Elvis, Kenny Rogers, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Jr., Waylon Jennings, and Canadian-born Hank Snow.


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