Highway of Legends: On the Road with the Kings and Queens of Country Music
The road is a place, both real and metaphorical, central to the life of any professional musician. It is where the player earns his or her crust. It is rare that any musician can make a living without leaving home, and it is the cumulation of gigs of different sizes in different towns that makes up the troubadour’s livelihood.
Of course the actual road is merely the means of getting from job to job, but it takes little calculating to realise that musicians will inevitably spend far more time travelling between shows than they will ever spend on stage performing. The Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts memorably summed up his career as “five years playing, 25 years waiting around”.
So the road becomes a symbol for the musician’s life. It’s not a career path with conventional promotions and pay rises; rather it’s a treacherous highway, full of hairpin bends, and you can rarely see what is around the next corner or tell whether the light at the end of the tunnel is really just another vehicle hurtling towards you.
Every musician understands this kind of symbolism, so it’s not surprising that when Kiwi guitar veteran and musical entrepreneur Gray Bartlett put together a package of some of New Zealand’s highest-mileage country musicians, he titled it the Highway Of Legends Tour. Nor is it surprising that author Dianne Haworth was drawn to the idea of documenting the tour in a book of the same name, with the subtitle On the Road with the Kings and Queens of Country Music.
There are plenty of precedents for a book of this kind, though few in this country. Perhaps the closest is Colin Hogg’s Angel Gear, a chronicle of a road trip with bard Sam Hunt. Internationally, the benchmark was set by Peter Guralnick in his Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians (1979), in which the American author profiled 20 or so journeymen performers, mostly from the country music world: Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and others. These he interviewed and observed in transit – in hotel rooms, on tour buses, on stage. The subjects and their stories are complicated and seldom happy. Lester Bangs called it “a book about a bunch of defeated men, commercial success or failure seeming to make very little difference”.
Guralnick’s book is mesmerising, and while the lives it details have been almost uniformly tough, some of the road’s terrible lure inevitably rubs off on you as you turn its pages. Reading Lost Highway in the early 80s inspired a three-month road trip of my own around the US, visiting the kinds of honky-tonks and bars depicted in its tales. I had to see and hear for myself and, like Guralnick, wound up concluding that, much as I loved the music, “I don’t want to be a rock’n’roll star any more.”
On the surface, Haworth’s book appears to follow a similar format, albeit on a local and far less ambitious scale. It consists of seven profiles, one of each of the principal acts in Bartlett’s Highway Of Legends Tour: Gray Bartlett, Brendan Dugan, Patsy Riggir, Jodi Vaughan, Kimball Brisco Johnson, The Hamilton County Bluegrass Band and Martin Crump.
Like Guralnick’s honky-tonk heroes, we quickly learn that New Zealand’s kings and queens of country have led troubled lives. Patsy Riggir battled years of depression, Colleen Trenwith, fiddle-playing star of the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band, turns out to be the aunt of convicted mass-murderer David Bain, Jodi Vaughan grew up as a state ward in Australia, and Martin Crump, the MC of the show, was a son of Barry Crump, a complex legacy to say the least.
Here’s where Haworth’s and Guralnick’s books really diverge. Haworth’s profiles all follow more or less the same format, chronicling the events in the life of each star in a prose that rarely catches alight. And it is not as though the lives haven’t been dramatic or exciting; Haworth simply lacks a gift for recounting them. She uses the same stock phrases over and over, with the result that stories that should be distinct and individual blur into one. Brendan Dugan meets “an attractive blonde” on the set of the television programme That’s Country. She later becomes his wife. A few pages later, Gray Bartlett meets “an attractive blonde” on the set of That’s Country. What do you know? She later becomes his wife.
This is by no means the only irritating instance of repetition. The eventual collapse of That’s Country, amidst whistle-blowing and government enquiries, is, we are told, “the most frightening period in Brendan’s life”. A few paragraphs later we are reminded it is “the roughest period in Brendan’s life”. We also learn that Dugan has an aversion to three songs: “Ten Guitars”, “Achy Breaky Heart” and “Put Another Log On the Fire”. When we are told this fact again, a few pages later, one begins to suspect that either the book is being consciously padded, or that the prose is so lifeless it put the editors to sleep.
The storytelling livens up when Haworth hands over to Kimball Brisco Johnson, a latecomer to professional music who had spent time in bars, brawls, prisons and the property business before releasing his first album in 2002. He’s a self-confessed scallywag, and one gets little sense of repentance or regret as he recalls the numerous benders, violent episodes, rip-offs and wreckages he has been responsible for. Yet, if we are to believe him, these indiscretions are offset by instances of loyalty, generosity and honesty that add up to an intriguing and somehow classically conflicted Kiwi character. I‘d love to have known what fellow highway-goer Martin Crump made of him; Johnson’s story frequently resembles that of Crump’s legendary father. Sadly, Haworth never thought to ask. Johnson’s story is told in his own words, and it goes on for 12 pages, filled with unnecessary quotation marks. While it comes as a welcome relief from Haworth’s plodding prose, its presentation as a monologue is another example of journalistic laziness.
Not that Haworth hasn’t been a witness to some truly revealing moments; it is just that she doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. Patsy Riggir, speaking about her struggle with depression, shockingly describes the inability of her husband, Lorne, to give her a simple hug when she was at her lowest ebb. “I wanted to do it but I couldn’t,” Lorne interjects, “because I’d also had a lifelong problem with depression and had been on medication for some years.” What might an exchange like this tell us about the emotion that Riggir pours into her performances? Haworth doesn’t ask, nor even speculate.
In fact, for a book about musicians, surprisingly little space is afforded to the act of making music. When Haworth does attempt to describe the music, she resorts to clichés. “What a spine-tingling, stunning voice,” she writes of Riggir – a phrase so broad and bland she could be describing any of the singers in the book. We learn that Gray Bartlett is a virtuoso because he “has been listed as one of the twelve best guitarists in the world”, yet the plaudit is meaningless, as Haworth never tells us where or who it came from.
If the book sometimes feels like little more than a piece of promotional merchandise designed to be sold at Highway Of Legends concerts, it does offer the odd insight as to where these local legends fit into the wider musical world. We discover that Jodi Vaughan sought her fortune overseas, only to find “there are a million-and-one Jodi Vaughans in the US, all in their twenties, all good looking and all good country singers” – and, crucially, all registered to work, which Vaughan was not. Meanwhile it appears that the self-made, business-savvy Bartlett – whom Rob Muldoon once tried to talk into taking his place as the National candidate for Tamaki – was sufficiently well-regarded to score gigs backing Rolf Harris, opening for Tom Jones (“one hell of a nice guy”) and Boney M (“wonderful company”). And there are chronicles of Colleen and Paul Trenwith’s tours in Australia with Slim Dusty and travels in the US, culminating in a gig at Nashville’s country music shrine, the Grand Ole Opry.
As for the particular road trip this book purports to document, we get only a few pages of backstage banter in brief opening and closing chapters. As usual, Haworth’s ear seems deaf to tone and nuance. “It’s been wonderful”; “You’ve been a real star. Thanks for everything”; and so on.
Yet in its clunky way, Highway Of Legends succeeds in mapping the journeys that have led this group of musicians to a point in their lives where, after decades of fast lanes and dead ends their paths converge on the one stage. It tells how, in some cases, fate had to twist a few arms to get them there. Patsy Riggir and Colleen Trenwith tried to give up the road, yet it dragged them back.
Like Guralnick’s subjects, some of these characters seem like prisoners as much as kings of the road. Yet Haworth gives them all conveniently happy endings, which might suit the Highway Of Legends marketing machine but leaves the reader wondering where the real story might end.
Nick Bollinger is a rock music critic and long-time member of The Windy City Strugglers.