It seems barely adequate to say that Tennessee has a deep and important music history. From the Bristol Sessions and W.C. Handy to the Grand Ole Opry and Stax Records, from Roy Acuff to Big Star to Three 6 Mafia, the state’s significance in the development of American music during the 20th century can’t be overstated. The history of country music, rock ’n’ roll, the blues, and soul would not be the same without the contributions of Tennesseans—some of those forms might not even exist, or at least not in the ways we know them.
So compiling a two-disc set to represent the range and depth of great and important music from the state is a challenge. You probably can’t make a 50-track anthology of Tennessee music that fully covers everything that has been written, performed, and recorded in the state over the last 100 years. But the new Oxford American Tennessee music anthology, a two-CD set released along with the magazine’s annual music issue in December, seems like an especially distorted collection.
There’s some great music here, to be sure, and it’s to OA music editor Rick Clark’s credit that his selections aren’t always the most obvious ones. Chattanooga native Bessie Smith’s 1931 recording of “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl” is rough and sexy, probably the best single track in the set. Chet Atkins, one of the architects of modern country’s sound, is represented with “Chinatown, My Chinatown,” a jazzy 1952 guitar workout that showcases Atkins as both player and producer. There’s a 1975 recording by pianist Phineas Newborn Jr. of Handy’s historic 1912 tune “Memphis Blues,” generally regarded as one of the earliest blues compositions.
Well-known tracks by Big Star (“September Gurls”), Bobby Hebb (“Sunny”), Big Maybelle (“One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show”), John Hartford (“Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie”), and Bob Dylan (“I Threw It All Away,” from Nashville Skyline) sit alongside obscurities like Connie Smith’s long-unreleased “Haunted Heart” and a pair of largely forgotten R&B singles from Sun Records, Rosco Gordon’s “Shoobie Oobie” and the Prisonaires’ “Just Walkin’ in the Rain.” A bunch of other big names are here, too—Kris Kristofferson, Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Isaac Hayes, Al Green, Emmylou Harris, Otis Redding, Ann Peebles, Charlie Rich, Dolly Parton, Buddy and Julie Miller, Johnny Cash—as well as less-famous notables Jim Dickinson, Sid Selvidge, Sleepy John Estes, O.V. Wright, and Billy Lee Riley.
Any compilation of this size and scope will invariably fall short of someone else’s standards. There are about a dozen tracks on the new OA collection that I feel don’t earn their place here, and another dozen I don’t really like but can’t easily dismiss. (Early ’90s Nashville alternative rock band Human Radio’s fake-funky “These Are the Days” and former Stax songwriter Mark Marchetti’s clichéd religious satire “Face of Jesus” are among the least essential songs.) But that’s an argument that comes with any project like this; it’s always a balancing act, and Clark’s sense of proportion pretty obviously isn’t the same as mine. My larger complaint is the set’s overwhelming, crippling blind spots about history and race. There are enough exclusions and oversights on this compilation that I can’t help questioning its basic credibility.
Mainstream Nashville country is represented by only Connie Smith, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Brandy Clark’s “Crazy Women,” from her excellent 2013 album, 12 Stories. (Johnny Cash’s “Monteagle Mountain” comes from his 1990 album Boom Chicka Boom, released at the commercial nadir of Cash’s career.) There’s nothing from the days before the Grand Ole Opry, no string bands, no honky-tonk, no outlaw country. Nothing from the 1990s, when country was the most popular radio format in America.
There’s no hip-hop, a recurring omission that has plagued the Oxford American’s Southern-music series since its inception. There’s nothing to represent Memphis’ nearly legendary punk scene—no Tav Falco, Jay Reatard, or the Oblvians. There’s nothing from JEFF the Brotherhood, Those Darlins, or Heavy Cream to acknowledge Nashville’s current garage-rock movement. There’s only one electric blues song, and not a single example of the Delta blues that was all over Memphis juke joints and street corners in the 1920s and ’30s.
There’s also the troubling fact that black artists, particularly living ones, are dreadfully underrepresented here. Only 15 out of 50 tracks feature a black lead artist. Considering the artistic legacy of Memphis alone—the state’s biggest city, the unofficial birthplace of the blues, home to Stax and Sun—this seems indefensible. Almost as bad, the youngest living black artist on the set (aside from the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, a group formed in 1871) is Peebles, who is 66. (Only two of the 27 contributors listed in the accompanying issue of the magazine are black.)
It’s too bad that this collection falls so short. There’s an hour or so of classic, essential music here—but what that gets you is only half of what you need, and what the music culture of Tennessee deserves.