We live in a culture that rewards success and hides failure. However, from the cradle to the grave failure remains the most potent teacher anyone will ever know. Tattooed On their Tongues is Colin Escott’s new book collecting together the tales of a couple dozen rockabilly and country singers, pluckers and songwriters. It is subtitled “A Journey Through the Backrooms of American Music” and true to that banner, it is rife with characters who’ve lived and breathed the music that others may have taken to greater heights of fame and fortune. But for every household name that’s leapt out of speakers into someone’s home and heart, there’s a thousand more who never stop believing that they can be the next word on the tip of your tongue. They are the thousand workers who do the heavy lifting required to carry the culture forward. Without them it’s a dead culture, and dead cultures are in museums. These are people oozing blood onto their guitar stings.
Not everyone in this book is obscure or a failure by any measure, but they’ve all at least stumbled, or been wide awake in the middle of the night with chest pounding, sweat-soaked fear. Don and Phil Everly helplessly watched some of their finest work go largely unheard, swept out of the way by an onslaught from the UK. Though blame gets directed at any handy target when the going gets tough, Escott points out "When the Everly’s career faltered, it wasn’t because of squabbles over management and publishing or even drug problems but because their day had passed. When that happens, it doesn't matter how good the records are." History sometimes evens the tally sheets, but that’s often after the marketplace has been reentered through a different career portal, which can sometimes also enshroud a life of frustration, alcohol, drugs, or even the end of a life.
The book is rife with legendary lies and swindles, contracts signed in ignorance, shotguns, fevers, broken promises, lost money, one-way bus tickets, and even someone biting the leg of Elvis Presley. They’re visionaries with guitars and smalltime hustlers with tiny record companies (as well as hustlers with guitars and visionaries with record companies). By and large they’re characters not to be trifled with. Even a chapter on the currently successful Dwight Yoakam reads as another cautionary tale because of the great pains he’s taken to learn from the legendary mistakes that preceded him, while steadfastly maintaining his own integrity . Bad deals, or the shadows they cast, lurk in every corner of the book.
Escott has captured that elemental bit of our humanity that empowers a will to create, to be heard, to be remembered. Drive and determination, sometimes in the face of staggering and unrelentingly predictable odds, are at the heart of this book. Read it and understand why people create and play music. They may be shooting for the stars and all its’ alleged glamor, but more often than not they end up with a tattered amplifier in the backseat of a hubcap-less car, waiting for a jump start in the 2 a.m. parking lot of tinderbox roadhouse. You can almost smell the cigarette butt floating in the half inch of beer at the bottom of the bottle.