Jeff Sellars and Kevin C. Neece – Rags & Bones: An Exploration Of The Band | Book Review

Jeff Sellars and Kevin C. Neece Rags & Bones: An Exploration Of The Band

University Press Of Mississippi

186 Pages Softcover Edition

The Band seemingly came out of nowhere with their first album, Music From Big Pink, in 1968. That record may have been the start of what is now commonly referred to as Americana, a mixture of musical influences including blues, country, bluegrass, rock, and folk elements. Perhaps no group has ever done it better, as witnessed by their enduring classic songs like “The Weight, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “Up On Cripple Creek”.

The actual story began much earlier, when guitarist Robbie Robertson, drummer Levon Helm, and multi-instrumentalists Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel came together as the Hawks, the band backing Canadian singer Ronnie Hawkins for a lengthy stretch of touring dives and juke joints from Toronto down into the deep South. The collective ensemble was so good that Bob Dylan hired them as his touring band when he made his fateful decision to go electric. Moving on, they eventually settle in a house in Woodstock, NY, enjoying an escape from the whirlwind of a touring life while slowly coalescing a unique sound that would soon captivate the world.

In his Introduction, Editor Jeff Sellars provides a brief summation of The Band’s history, and makes his case for their significance in the history of music, hence this book that focuses on the group from a number of different perspectives, examined by a collection of authors, most of whom have been awarded degrees from various institutions of higher education.

The first piece, by Toby Thompson, delves into the impact their tenure with Hawkins had on the group, setting the stage for all that came later. The singer honed their sound to a razor-sharp edge, and taught them how to work a stage. But those long nights on tour also contributed to the members turning to alcohol and drugs as a way to combat the weariness of constant travel. The Day The Music Lived, by Christine Hand Jones, first explores Dylan’s influence on The Band, then extends her line of thinking to postulate that The Band’s records, along with Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album, were the foundation for what became Southern Rock.

In a unique twist, Charlotte Pence ponders her thoughts and reactions to the group’s music as she reads “Sonny’s Blues,” a short story by James Baldwin that addresses the effects of drugs and racism on the human condition. The longest piece comes from George Plasketes, who has authored a number of books including a biography of Warren Zevon. Over 25 pages, he revels in the impact the song “The Weight” has had over time, in addition to sharing his thoughts on some of the lyrical reference points in an attempt to bring the song into sharper focus.

Sellars returns to with a lively section on the Music From Big Pink album, with a sound unlike any other at the time. His investigation finds him comparing the that album to the work the Beatles were doing at the same time, offering some thoughts on how The Band was able to create such a rich musical tapestry. A couple pieces take a more scholarly approach to the music, while the other Editor, Kevin C. Neece, finishes the anthology with his ruminations on the movie, The Last Waltz, a classic concert film that was a tribute to the group’s storied legacy, and served as a final good-bye.

A stimulating collection, Rags & Bones is a must for anyone with an abiding love for the musical output of The Band. Readers will be left with a deeper appreciation for the group, gain a greater understanding as to the meaning of inherent in several songs, and join the writers in embracing the legacy of a truly remarkable band of musical savants.

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