I would have loved this book when I was a kid. Influenced early by my dad’s love for “pickin’ and grinnin,'” I became an obsessive weekly listener/stats-keeper of American Country Countdown. This entertaining, whimsically illustrated new collaboration by Holly George-Warren and Laura Levine (Houghton Mifflin, 5/06) would have fit perfectly with my pre-teen passion in the early 1980s.
Since then, of course, country music has become only a bigger business, which makes it all the more surprising that — near as I can tell — this is the first nonfiction picture book on the topic by a major American publisher. By contrast, you’ll probably run out of digits before you’re through tallying up the picture books about Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and other pioneers in jazz, a genre that peaked commercially more than half a century ago.
As material for children’s books, jazz musicians have at least a couple of things going for them. One, they’re predominantly African-American, which means that stories about them help make up for the historical shortfall in titles about black Americans. Two, jazz is typically seen as a greater intellectual accomplishment than country music — a great intellectual accomplishment, period. So, I understand the appeal of the topic to writers and editors and publishers alike.
But are the life stories of, say, the Carter Family or Bob Wills inherently any less interesting or inspiring than those of Ellington and Fitzgerald? Is the brief, brilliant, tragic path of Hank Williams any less suited to exploration in a children’s book than Parker’s? George-Warren hails Hank as “the greatest country artist of all time,” so you know she’d say “no.” I do, too.
There are many things I wish about Honky-Tonk Heroes and Hillbilly Angels. I wish there was a discography or bibliography for readers who want to know more about the 15 artists covered than these one- or two-page profiles allow. I wish there was more of a focus on what these musicians had in their hearts than on what they had on the charts (but, as suggested above, this is just the adult me talking).
More than anything, though, I wish for this book to succeed in opening the door for more titles — titles that delve more deeply into the lives of some of the artists included here, plus those who didn’t make the cut. Until those books join this one on bookstore and library shelves, Honky-Tonk Heroes and Hillbilly Angels will be so lonesome I could cry.