"Tell me why must you live all those songs that you wrote," sang country and western bad boy Hank Williams Jr., in "Family Tradition." And not withouta certain measure of gravitas. He had royally messed up his life as had his father, who died of alcohol and pills at 29 in the back seat of a Cadillac on the way to a gig. It's a familiar pattern among some creative people, from Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison and Sylvia Plath and Jackson Pollack back to the Romantic ur-type, Shelley: Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.
Nicholas Dawidoff explores the lives of such angst-ridden poets in country music by visiting the places they came from and the people who knew them, from Jimmie Rodgers's Meridian, Miss., to Merle Haggard's Bakersfield, Calif.
The pattern repeats and repeats: Harlan Howard (author of "I Fall to Pieces" and many other classics) is divorced multiple times; Patsy Cline leads a wild, promiscuous life and dies at 30; Bill Monroe is obsessed with vengeance; Johnny Cash swings wildly from religion to pill-popping; George Jones is drunk in the gutter. And all of them all the while are creating the most down-to-earth, touch-your-heart, beautiful, sincere music imaginable.
But at what a cost! Therein lies the implicit moral of the tale. Mr. Dawidoff does not bring this out directly, but as you absorb the stories of these tormented souls, it dawns on you that artists sometimes appear, in some perverse way, like unredemptive Christs, taking all of our suffering into themselves and translating it into cathartic music. When you listen, the pain goes away for a while. The suffering becomes comprehensible.
Admittedly, there are decent people here like Doc Watson and Kitty Wells, who saw their talent as a God-given ability but no more than a knack for fixing cars, and led relatively normal lives. For most of the artists described here, though, it's not a pretty picture, and the Christian reader should take caution not to bring this material into Sunday school. But if you listen to country music-and many people do, even those who won't admit it-you will be interested in the tragedies behind the songs.