Friday, November 23, 2012

A Few Honest Words

New in late October from University Press of Kentucky comes Jason Howard's A Few Honest Words:  The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music.  Howard, who co-authored Something's Rising:  Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal with Kentucky's literary favorite son, Silas House, is currently a James Still Fellow at the University of Kentucky.  His features, essays, and reviews have appeared in such publications as The Nation, Sojourners, Paste, No Depression, and The Louisville Review, and his commentary has been featured on NPR.

A Few Honest Words contains a foreword by none other than the great Rodney Crowell who has this to say about the book, "Jason Howard has crafted a thoughtful and loving homage to his beloved state of Kentucky, giving us pitch-perfect journalistic prose from the heart of the country."

I am most impressed by the creative nonfiction treatment Howard gives to his interview subjects. This could be yet another interview-type book about famous musicians if it weren't for the author's almost cinematic bent for immersing his reader into the world, the room, the mannerisms, the memories, and the stories of his subjects in every chapter. I have roared up the side of a mountain in the back of a pickup truck with Matraca Berg, experienced a lesson in jazz improvisation from Morehead State professor, Jay Flippin  with jazz pianist Kevin Harris, felt proud at having "Nappy Roots Day" declared by the Governor of Kentucky, and shared a glimpse into the inspiration for Joan Osborne's hit song "One of Us." All of these intimate experiences come to the reader through Howard's conscious structuring of each chapter where an important theme is revealed early on through a focused image, then the interview subject gradually unfolds relevant life events to Howard that function like improvised variations on that theme, and finally each chapter concludes with coming home to the theme.  There is an almost A-B-A musical construction inherent in this treatment that I find both familiar and pleasing, as both a musician and a reader.

If a reader picks up A Few Honest Words expecting a who's-who of famous Kentucky musicians over the generations, she might be disappointed.  While important influences like Bill Monroe, Lionel Hampton, Loretta Lynn, Jean Ritchie, The Everly Brothers and many others are acknowledged, most of the subjects for this work are current, working musicians in roots music who feel the profound influence of place at work in their craft.  Therefore, the roots genres discussed in this book range from the popular country songs of the Judds to the hip-hop of Nappy Roots, from the Bakersfield sound of Dwight Yoakum to Louisville jam band, and from the delicate folk renderings of Daniel Martin Moore to the plucky bluegrass stylings of Dale Ann Bradley.

The book opens with a chapter on Naomi Judd who joined Howard for his reading at the Southern Book Festival in Nashville recently.  The title--A Few Honest Words--comes from a Ben Sollee tune.  Sollee is also featured in the book along with other Kentucky musicians who have been active in the struggle against mountaintop removal like Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Kate Larken.  Nashville songwriters, Matraca Berg and Chris Knight, singer song writer and trad musician Carla Gover, gospel singer and theatre producer, Cathy Rawlings and indie rockers, the Watson Twins are among those also presented.

Perhaps my favorite passage in A Few Honest Words comes in a sidebar of the Kevin Harris chapter called "The Magic of Jazz" where the pianist traces his musical philosophy back to where he first heard his junior high band director play "Georgia on My Mind" on the piano. Says, Harris, "He played the tune, started to improvise a bit, and then came back to it. And that transition, being able to transform something like that, and then come back--it's like being a magician."  Harris goes on to say that years of playing have given him new insight into that process. He learned that whatever he was doing to the music, that transformation was also happening to him and the audience by making everything connect.

The structure of A Few Honest Words by Jason Howard winks a knowing eye at that kind of musical magic by transforming the reader with words that make everything connect. Howard skillfully brings each chapter back home to each musician's Kentucky roots, making much musical and literary sense.

This review aired on WVXU's Around Cincinnati on November 18, 2012.

You can listen to the review at this link:  Click here to listen to the review.

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