One of the loveliest musical purchases I made last year was the Joan Baez 75th Anniversay Tribute Concert CD. All Joan’s mates/admirers came together to pay homage to the great lady by placing their own imprint on her impressive back catalogue. I remember buying her very early recordings on Vanguard when the winds of change were blowing across the US and around the world during the sixties. Soon after, I also picked up on Judy Collins. Between them they put the folk back into Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio, as did Cass Wheeler, the folkster/musician at the core of Laura Barnett’s ‘Greatest Hits’.
Kathy Guest, in her review of this tome for the Guardian, reflects, ‘When it comes to listening to music, there are two types of people: those who pay attention to the lyrics and those who don’t notice them. The former are drawn to artists such as Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. The latter end up choosing a song about breaking up as the first dance at their wedding.’ I’d like to think, with my love of Cohen, Dylan, Australia’s Paul Kelly and that Idaho troubadour Josh Ritter, that I’m in the former category. I was certainly in the category of those who thought the Barnett book was a pretty cool read.
Cass Wheeler’s a UK singer/songwriter in the mold of all the aforementioned with her life span roughly paralleling my own. She had great musical success; beloved by millions back in the day when she was in her pomp. Since then, though, her life had not been so shiny as a result of a dysfunctional marriage. This was a causal factor for the battles with life of her only offspring, all resulting in Cass’ own mental issues. As the novel opens we discover Ms Wheeler leading a semi-reclusive life, in an isolated farmhouse, struggling valiantly, with a small circle of friends/employees, to give her existence back some meaning. As a goal she wants to recapture some of her glory years – to mount a comeback to savour even a small portion of that earlier success. From that point we receive a tour of her backstory, from her fractured upbringing, then paying her dues until she is spotted by talent scouts and given a recording contract. The rest, as they say is history, in this case, fictional. On her coattails rides her to-be-hubby, an excellent muso himself, but one who saw a much better future for himself than playing second fiddle to his superstar missus. Later he goes solo, has some success too and he feels a whole lot better about himself – enough for him to break away and indulge even more heavily in sex, drugs and alcohol. The wheels eventually fall off for both parties with a devastating effect on their only child, a sensitive daughter.
An interesting feature of the book is that each section opens with lyrics from a Cass Wheeler classic, composed by the author herself. Another of my favourites in the folk tradition, Kathryn Williams, has put out a CD album of these tracks as a companion piece.
The novel name-checks many famous identities from these times, but it only takes liberties with the imaginary ones. ‘Greatest Hits’ is a worthy read, maintaining interest throughout. I know fellow music lovers will greatly enjoy it. It mirrors what befell many who were on top and who managed to avoid Club27. In short, good stuff.
The author’s website = http://www.laura-barnett.co.uk/