Book Review: Phases and Stages

Sheet Music

Where Dead Voices Gather

by Nick Tosches

Little, Brown & Co., 330 pp., $24.95

Journalist, novelist, and critic Nick Tosches, that Bardic bad-ass who can skewer high culture and use words like "expiation" in a single sentence, has been thinking about minstrel and jazz man Emmett Miller for 20 years -- at least several years before his landmark book Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock & Roll was published in 1985. "The alchemy of Emmett Miller's music is as startling today as it was when he wrought it" in the Twenties, Tosches writes. "Definable neither as country nor as blues, as jazz nor as pop, as black nor as white, but as both culmination and transcendence of these bloodlines and more, that alchemy, that music, stands as one of the most wondrous emanations, a birth-cry really, of the many-faced and one-souled chimera of all that has come to be called American music." Though Tosches pins down facts about Miller that had previously been in dispute or unknown, he acknowledges that his quest doesn't end in a tidy package of biographical revelations. That's all for the good, as it turns out: His asides -- the meditations on American culture and why certain artists are embraced by it and not others -- are as much the story here as Miller's mysterious life. After all, "true history seeks, it does not answer," declares Tosches in one of his typically astute and confident declarations.

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