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Heartaches by the Number: Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles

By David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren

Vanderbilt University Press/Country Music Foundation Press, 286 pages, 2003, $59.95 hardcover, $27.95 softcover

Reviewed by Jon Johnson, January 2003

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Some books are argument-settlers, and others are argument-starters. The former - books like "The Guinness Book of World Records" - are definitive; deeds and events are authoritatively recorded without prejudice or duplicity. They are books that have probably settled as many potential bar fights as the timely display of a Louisville Slugger.

And then there's the latter category. A critic's list of the best movies ever made or a restaurant guide, which offhandedly dismisses most of a reader's favorite eateries. These are books that are written to poke, prod, rankle and inflame. The intent is to stimulate discussion and encourage debate.

"Heartaches By the Number" falls into this last category. Written by music journalists David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren - regular contributors to No Depression, The Journal of Country Music, and other publications - "Heartaches" (inspired by and modeled on Dave Marsh's "The Heart Of Rock And Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made") is an admittedly subjective catalogue of the authors' choices of the 500 most important country singles of the past 80 years.

Chart positions and sales have little to do with their choices. True, 6 of the book's 10 heaviest hitters were top 5 hits (and 3, in fact, crossed over to the pop charts), but a significant number of entries either date from country's pre-chart years or were influential far beyond their sales figures.

Many of the entries are unsurprising: Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Loretta Lynn all make the cut a number of times - as one would expect.

But a particularly interesting aspect of "Heartache" is the delight the authors seem to take in genre bending. The Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville," for instance, comes in at #326 on the basis of it being "(t)he greatest country-rock record ever available on the back of a cereal box." Likewise the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women" (#458), Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City (#68), Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On the) Dock of the Bay" (#136), and - no foolin' - Gladys Knight and the Pips' "Midnight Train to Georgia" (#271), to name a few.

That's because the authors argue that country music should be defined more broadly than it is by many casual observers - and fans - of the genre; that if one regards country music as a musical expression of the southern working class experience, then Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man" is no less valid than, say, Patsy Cline's "Crazy."

One might counter-argue that Cantwell and Friskics-Warren are revisionists bent on redefining practically anything as country, though perhaps a better way of viewing the book is as a few days spent hanging out with a couple of passionate record collectors who have some unusual opinions as to how music might be heard.

If one wants to quibble, one could point out that only 16 entries date from the 1990s (though traditionalists might well argue that that's about all the Garth decade actually deserved), but this state of affairs appears to be more a result of the decline of the single as a sales and airplay format than from the authors' disdain for the Clinton years. Also surprising are a few omissions; including George Jones' "The Race is On," a recording which was certainly influential.

Each entry is accompanied by insightful essays from Cantwell or Friskics-Warren regarding the songs' histories and context. These are particularly helpful in terms of helping readers to perhaps view any number of songs that have long been taken for granted in a new light.