Michael Corcoran, Ghost Notes: Pioneering Spirits of Texas Music

Michael Corcoran, Ghost Notes: Pioneering Spirits of Texas Music, Texas Christian University Press.

What a sumptuous feast of a book this is. Coffee table sized, lavishly illustrated, and utterly engaging, it oozes quality from the standard of the writing to the beautiful quality of paper. You’ll love it just to have around the place or to browse through the wonderful illustrations by Texas artist Tim Kerr, a musician-artist, whose work has been exhibited in Europe, Japan and around the United States.

But it’s Corcoran’s stories that are the wonder of this publication, twenty-one of them, highlighting the careers and contributions of a wide variety of pioneering Texas musicians, spanning genres from gospel to rap. Such is the engaging power of Corcoran’s story-telling that you’ll find yourself intrigued by types of music you think you have no interest in, and disappointed when you finish the last section of the book on “Moguls and Mentors,” five chapters on hugely influential producers, label owners and musical directors.

Michael Corcoran is an award-winning Austin, Texas-based journalist who has been a serious music critic since he was a teenager. He’s plied his trade in Hawaii and California, and since 1984 has written for the Austin Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Austin American Statesman, Texas Monthly and Rolling Stone. He’s won numerous awards, and has been nominated for two Grammys in the album nots and historical album categories. The Times of London dubbed him a “rock ’n’ roll detective.”

And so it proves in Ghost Notes. The breadth of Corcoran’s knowledge of his subject matter is quite breath-taking, but somehow it never comes across as arcane or irrelevant, and whether it’s debunking inaccuracies about the life of the Blind Willie Johnson, taking us into the roots of boogie-woogie and rock’n’roll piano, or introducing us to the man who had the nerve to sack half the artists that Frank Sinatra had signed, it’s never less than fascinating. The chapters cover the decades from the 1920s to the present, but the consistent focus on Texas and the arrangement of the book into the various musical genres gives it a nice shape.

You begin to realize how important and formative Texas is for American music. In an interview when he was writing the book, Corcoran told me, “That’s the beauty of Texas music – so many styles and genres, but with the same underlying purpose of coming up with some new stuff that’s going to blow people away.” [check out our interview with Michael here]

My own interest, initially, was the blues section at the beginning of the book, where we get chapters on Washington Philips, Arizona Dranes and Blind Willie Johnson. Willie Johnson is well known, I guess, but the other two not so much, so Corcoran does a great job in highlighting the importance of these two gospel pioneers, and the way in which gospel music is foundational to American music is something of a thread through the book.

Right from the start I found myself picking up my phone as I read to find music by this or that artist I’d never heard of, and usually mighty glad I did. It was a joy to discover the Famous Hokum Boys in the chapter on Milton Brown, the “Edison of western swing,” and Amos Milburn’s After Midnight.

There’s one Englishman slips into this Texan celebration – but he’s made his home near Austin, so he qualifies. He’s the amazing Rupert Neve, father of the recording console, an utterly remarkable genius of a man whose electronic wizardry transformed the recording industry and who has continued to invent and innovate into his old age. “Nobody taught me how to do what I do,” Corcoran reports him as saying. “I’ve never forgotten that I owe everything to God’s grace. There’s no other way to explain it.”

Corcoran concludes his book on the subject with which he begins it – gospel. A short chapter on Don Robey, a hugely influential figure in the development of gospel music, and, it seems, a somewhat unpleasant character. Notwithstanding that Robey had ripped him off, though, Gatemouth Brown still wanted to credit him with successfully promoting his career.

If you’re a Texan music fan, this is a must-have book; heck, if you’re any sort of music fan, you’ll love it. Drop a hint now that you want it for Christmas, or maybe just go ahead and get yourself a copy straightaway.