Country music is a harsh mistress. For every truth she illuminates, every tear she causes you to shed in your beer, there are also plenty of times she reveals her nasty streak, her sheer and utter manipulativeness. If you're an even halfway discriminating country-music lover, sometimes it seems as if there's deception around every corner. So much of today's country music is genuinely heartfelt. So much of it is bullshit.
Journalist Bruce Feiler loves country music, but he's also willing to face up to its unsavoriness, and that's what makes "Dreaming Out Loud" so riveting. Feiler singles out three main subjects, fleshing them out with both compassion and incisiveness. There's Garth Brooks, who spent the first few years of his career building an elaborate one-man mini-empire as the consummate country entertainer -- and is only just now facing up to the fact that his popularity can't continue to expand exponentially; Wynonna Judd, almost cripplingly insecure but possessed of a killer voice, who's still struggling to push her way out of the shadow of her possessive and ambitious mother, Naomi; and young newcomer Wade Hayes, who sure can sing but who, even in his relatively short career, has already been bowed by the weight of Nashville's tyrannical star-making machine.
In between, Feiler spends time with the fans who buy the records, dishes the dirt with the gossip columnists and journalists who feed the public's endless hunger for news of the stars and hangs out in recording sessions, piecing together a mosaic of modern Nashville that captures both its vitality and its sickening glitz. In one of the best chapters he explains, succinctly and without a trace of jargon, the digital-recording process that's used almost universally in Nashville today, in which an engineer can splice together a "perfect" rendering of a song from several different sessions: "These days if a lyric simply reads 'I love you,' it's not only possible, but also likely that a singer will sing 'I' on one day, 'love' on the next, and then even go on vacation to Mexico, have throat surgery, get married, get divorced, fall in love again, lose a parent, have a child, and in the process completely change his conception of what love means, before returning to the studio to sing the final 'you.'"
Feiler knows that part of loving country music is facing up to its total weirdness: He never looks down on his subjects, but he knows it's his duty to explain how they really are different from you and me. For instance, we learn of Brooks' strange habit of referring to himself in the third person and of the way he calls his stage persona "GB." And Feiler's deadpan humor can be wicked. In telling the story of how Naomi Judd pulled herself up by her own sandal straps -- from unwed pregnant teenager to powerful singing star -- he quotes her on why she changed her name from Diana to Naomi: "I had never forgotten the little retarded girl named Naomi who stared at me in grade school." Feiler's a born storyteller, a craftsman and a cut-up -- in short, he's the genuine article. Wonder if he can sing.