Who can doubt that the world is too much with us these days? And so in abreaction people turn back to the past, to what seem like simpler times: listening to box-issue CDs of 1960s folk music, seeking out vintage instruments, maybe even taking up ukulele or Hawaiian guitar -- sales of both of which are booming. Meanwhile, repelled by the ever-increasing commercialization that has turned country music into just another barely distinguishable branch of pop, thousands of listeners have found an alternative in bluegrass, swelling the ranks at festivals and concerts.
''Discovering Bluegrass" is the subtitle of Stephanie P. Ledgin's recent ''Homegrown Music" (Praeger, $39.95), and her book is indeed a lively, readable introduction to this distinctly American form. Chapters cover in a basically conversational mode the crossbreeding of Appalachian and African-American strains that formed bluegrass, its history, bluegrass festivals, instruments, and major performers. The book includes a fine centerpiece of photos (Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Alison Krauss, and others) and concludes with ''Twenty-Five Recordings to Jump-Start Your Collection." If you've ever wondered what bluegrass was all about, here's a great place to begin.
Many early major influences on bluegrass and country music are dealt with marvelously in an older book to which I find myself often returning, ''The Devil's Box" (Country Music Foundation/Vanderbilt University, paperback, $18.95), by Charles Wolfe. Subtitled ''Masters of Southern Fiddling," the book has fine pieces on a number of master fiddlers, among them Eck Robertson, the first old-time fiddler to record (in 1922), Bob Wills, Clark Kessinger, and Nashville session man Tommy Jackson -- fiddlers from the golden age ''whose access to mass media at a crucial time in the development of Southern music gave them unparalleled power and influence on later generations." Of particular interest and value is the essay ''Clayton McMichen: The Reluctant Hillbilly," a musician whose career spanned tours with Jimmie Rodgers; a stretch as journeyman fiddler for the legendary string band the Skillet Lickers; bandleader for his own country swing group, the Georgia Wildcats, and a later Dixieland ensemble; and jams with the great jazz guitarist George Barnes.
Many of McMichen's innovative notions would come to full bloom in the Western swing of Milton Brown and Wills, and in the country swing of such musicians as Hank Thompson, Jimmy Wyble, and ''Flaming Guitars" Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant. Rich Kienzle's ''Southwest Shuffle: Pioneers of Honky-Tonk, Western Swing, and Country Jazz" (Routledge, paperback, $21.95) documents this lamentably underexamined tributary of American music. There are rich chapters on Hank Penny, Spade Cooley, Thompson, Ray Price, the team of West and Bryant, and others, including record producers Lee Gillette and Ken Nelson. ''If country music's deepest roots lie in the rural South," the author writes, ''much of its color, vitality, and style originated in a vast arc from Texas and Oklahoma to California -- the Southwest." Marred only by poor editing that has left a trail of grammatical errors, Kienzle's book stands as a cornerstone upon which one hopes much more will be built. A good look at Barnes's influence on country music, say, or a major essay on mandolinist Tiny Moore.
Last, for the geekish among us: ''Guitar Stories, Volume Two: The Histories of Cool Guitars" (Vintage Guitar Books, paperback, $19.95), by Michael Wright. Just as fringe musics like country swing go largely undocumented, so does -- or so did, until recently -- the history of commonplace American instruments. The hegemony of Martin, Gibson et al. has eclipsed any close consideration of the vast array of second- and third-tier makers, and of the guitars most of us actually played when young, all those Harmonys, Kays, Silvertones, and Airlines. Wright, a columnist with Vintage Guitar magazine, is one of many out to rectify this. ''Volume One" has long been unavailable. This volume, though technically out of print, can be tracked down (try
James Sallis's most recent books are the novel ''Cypress Grove" and the collection ''A City Equal to My Desire."