Anything Goes is second-tier Madison Smartt Bell. It's out-of-print with no paperback release to its credit, and the first two professional reviewers at Amazon make it blatantly obvious that they did nothing but skim it, else they'd have known that Melungeon isn't the main character's last name as they attest, but the term used in the Appalachians to describe his mixed-race appearance. Another professional reviewer asserts that Kurt Cobain is alive at the time the book takes place—yet the main character thinks about Cobain's suicide several times during the course of the book, including the first chapter.
Twenty-year-old Jesse is the bass player in a covers band—Anything Goes-- that plays roadside bars up and down the eastern seaboard. When the band isn't touring, he lives outside Nashville with the snakehandling dope-smoking band leader Perry, whose lectures he attempts to ignore, but eventually comes to realize he's internalized. His father, an alcoholic who abused him throughout his childhood, is attempting to stay sober these days and repair his relationship with Jesse. It is through his efforts that Jesse meets the big-with-child, big–with-voice Estelle, who Perry later agrees to hire as the band's lead singer.
While I wasn't that interested in reading about Jesse's bandmembers' adventures with the type of young women that frequent roadhouses, I did enjoy the book's sense of place—Asheville, Myrtle Beach, Charleston, then on down into Florida—and the musical discussions and musings. I was still on the fence yesterday as to whether I'd continue reading this one when I reached a pages-long section in the second chapter devoted to contrasting Emmylou Harris's vocal performance on Julie Miller's "All My Tears" to her decades earlier take on "Wayfaring Stranger:"
"Break your heart," Perry said, nodding a little with the beat. "If she could get the voice she had then together with what she knows now. . ."
That got me almost annoyed enough to say what I thought—that Wrecking Ball was a great album, that Emmylou was singing truer now than she ever had and never mind if she'd lost a little something off her range, and that nothing anybody said could take any of that away from her. Almost but not quite. One great advantage of living with Perry was that I never had to bother polishing my own opinions. It was just as easy to use his.
He turned from the stereo and looked right at me. "Ain't that life for you, now? When you once gain the knowledge, come to find out you lost the wherewithal."
What a great lead-in to the cd that's waiting for me at the public library: Mark Knopfler and Emmylou's All the Roadrunning.