Try Harder. Great story, mediocre music. That’s how I’d sum up Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard, the 3-CD compilation of American county music released in 2012 by Tompkins Square.
Let’s start with the great story. In 2010 in Louisville, Kentucky, Nathan Salsburg, noted guitarist and curator at the Association for Cultural Equity, the Alan Lomax archive, stumbled across news of a local man, recently deceased, with 78s in his house, destined for the dumpster. Salsburg rushed over to discover a large stash of early country records hoarded by little known collector, Don Wahle. The collection included many rare and un-reissued sides. Salsburg stayed the dumpster hands and rescued everything not already succumbed to mold and disintegration.
Salsburg, entranced with Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, had long been mulling an aggregation in the same vein, and saw in Wahle’s hoard the opportunity. Of course, the difficulty for Salsburg is that Harry Smith’s Anthology stimulated modern interest in early recordings of country, blues and gospel music in America, whereas Work Hard follows decades of exhaustive reissues and examination. Smith had the field to himself, with the choicest cuts still unknown to the wider world. Today, there’s a reason why some sides remain unissued- they’re not very good. Contrary to booster rhetoric, by definition not every old country record can be a classic. Inevitably, many old sides are thoroughly derivative and second-rate. Yet to my ears, that’s primarily what is offered by Work Hard.
To the uninitiated, and that may be the primary audience for Work Hard, the collection may appear fresh and unexpected. The old photographs, quaint imagery and raucous delivery may be compelling to many a casual listener. The tale of the old record collector who’s precious finds were nearly lost to the crusher is a great lead that garnered much more mainstream press interest than is typical for this kind of release. If nothing else, the “work, play, pray” themes grasp at a little more coherence than Smith’s “ballads, social music, songs”.
The couple of stronger tracks come from familiar sources. Buell Kazee’s Poor Boy a Long Way from Home is another slice of that performer’s insistent banjo and dark notes, in stark contrast to the also-rans crowding the rest of the set. Elder Golden P. Harris, who made two custom recordings for the Consolidated Recording Corporation in New York in 1931, and made two more, date unknown, on his own label, also gets a spot. I had heard only the stunning I Want to Lead a Christian Life, so was excited to experience one of the remaining three. I was not disappointed- same fervent voice and ancient violin propel My Christian Friends in Bonds of Love. No surprise that both the Kazee and Harris tracks have been reissued previously, but so far as I know, there is no in-print CD collecting the works of Kazee or Harris. Now those would be fine additions to the 78 reissue canon.
Guest essays, particularly that by Amanda Petrusich on the “Work” theme, are a welcome complement to the standard discographical ephemera and biographical scraps. Petrusich asks the intriguing question as to when we stopped writing songs about work. The main reason a fair number of old country records are about work is because the performers were typically no more than semi-professional. There was also a deep association between this country music and a certain way of life. But I take issue with Petrusich’s cheap swipe at the “bloodlessness of the modern-day desk job,” which she contrasts with the supposed nobility of more physical labor worth setting to music. Lazy boredom in the present, dependent on yet dismissive of the fruits of technology, obscures the weaknesses and romanticizes the strengths of the past. I find it easier to romanticize pre-modern rural life from a laptop in an air-conditioned office. Modern work is a rich source of material, and it’s lack of imagination that dictates relationships and partying as the only things to sing about.
I feel a curious sense of guilt criticizing so many of the reissues reviewed on these pages. The passion and care of the compilers, the exquisite packaging and the voiceless dead seem to deserve more. But as I will continue to argue, without sharper perspective and more debate, without pushing beyond reverence, without trying harder, reissues also risk neglect, dumpsters and ketchup.
Verdict: Both Work Hard and Pray Hard averaged 1.75 (c.59th percentile), with Play Hard, weighed down with one too many cheesy sketches and workaday breakdowns, bringing up with rear at 1.64 (82nd percentile). The 3-CD set is available from Tompkins Square.