Book Review: Michael Streissguth “Highways & Heartaches”

Hachette Books, 2023

Two for the road.

What an excellent read this is. The full title of the book is ‘Highways & Heartaches: How Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, and Children of the New South Saved the Soul of Country Music’ and, while that’s a bit of a mouthful, as a title, it sums up this book perfectly well.

This book reads like a novel, always enjoyable in a non fiction book, but is actually a combination of biography and musical history. It relates the lives of Marty Stuart and Ricky Skaggs, as musical prodigies, as they both started out in the bands of much older and well-established musicians, and the changes they witnessed, and helped to drive, as their careers developed. It’s simply a really enjoyable book and is particularly fascinating as both protagonists came along, at a point in the history of country music, when changes really needed to be made to keep it relevant to modern audiences. Perhaps the most significant thing about this book is that, while many of us knew that Stuart and Skaggs started out in the music business at a young age, it’s only when you see the timeline laid out as it is in this book, that you realise just how important they were and the contribution both have made to keeping the country and bluegrass traditions going while helping to shape the future of americana music.

Marty Stuart, who started out in gospel group, The Sullivans, at the age of 12, would then go on to join Lester Flatt’s band just two years later and stay with them until Lester Flatt retired in 1978, by which time Stuart was still only just 20 years old. He would spend the next two years playing with Doc Watson and Vassar Clements before joining Johnny Cash’s band as a guitarist and mandolin player.

Ricky Skaggs was even more precocious. First singing and playing with the great Bill Monroe when Skaggs was only 6 years old, having started playing the mandolin just one year earlier. At the age of 7, he appeared on the Martha White TV show and played with Flatt & Scruggs. In his teens, he formed his own band with Keith Whitley and then joined Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys before going on to join The Country Gentlemen and then J.D Crowes’ New South. He formed his own progressive bluegrass band, Boone Creek, which included the young Vince Gill and Jerry Douglas, before signing on as the fiddle and mandolin player in Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band. Not a bad CV to have by the time you’re in your mid 20s! At 28, Skaggs became a member of the Grand Ole Opry, the youngest musician to have achieved that honour at the time, and none other than Chet Atkins credited him with “single-handedly saving country music”.

The book cleverly weaves the strands of Skaggs and Stuart’s lives together, using the points where they intersect to set off on another jaunt into the history of country and bluegrass and the progress both genres made in the latter part of the twentieth century. It’s Skaggs who, ultimately, emerges as the main character in this book. ‘Highways and Heartaches‘ is, of course, the title of Skaggs’ 1982 Double Platinum album, as well as the title of this book, and he slightly edges Stuart for the lion’s share of the coverage, possibly because he has the higher public profile for much of his career, though it’s Stuart who seems to shine that little bit brighter in more recent times, being perhaps more experimental and open to new ideas than the more traditionally based Skaggs. It’s noteworthy that, as both careers progressed, Skaggs has, largely, returned to his bluegrass roots whereas Stuart has opted for country music and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, turn out increasingly edgy and contemporary americana, at odds with his more traditional start in the music business. It’s also interesting to see how the author has dealt with what would seem to be conflicting personalities between these two characters. Skaggs emerging as an all-American boy, strong on family values and religious belief, whereas Stuart’s history hints at something all together less wholesome. Skaggs is credited with creating ‘new traditionalism’ in his music. In a 1981 interview quoted in this book Skaggs said that, “I want to give these old songs new blood, new life. People just don’t write that way anymore”. The book’s author, Streissguth, goes on to link Skaggs fascination with traditional music to a growing religious awareness, “Skaggs, his public professions of religious faith increasing with his fame (he was baptised in 1980), spoke of his mission in biblical terms, lifting up overlooked songs, what the world considers weak, “in order to shame the powerful”, paraphrasing from 1 Corinthians. Somehow, the contrast exposed the genius of the plainspoken songs that had fallen from the lips of Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe”. Contrast this with the fact that it was Marty Stuart who unearthed the song ‘Highwayman’ for Cash, initially, before it became the launch pad for country supergroup The Highwaymen. Written by then up and coming Jimmy Webb, it was as far from traditional country as could be imagined at the time. Stuart was heavily involved with some of the arrangements of Cash’s recordings with Rick Rubin, revealing that Stuart has long had an interest in the experimental.

Throughout this book, there are sprinkled some fascinating side stories. Skaggs’ friendship with the edgy, brilliant but flawed Keith Whitley, and his desire to form a band with Whitley, once he became established, that never quite came to fruition. Stuart’s friendship and fascination with Clarence White that, ultimately, led to him becoming the guardian of White’s original B Bender Telecaster, a guitar he still uses to this day. There’s also the story of Sugar Hill Records contained in the events in this book and how important the label was to both artists and to the survival and growth of traditional roots music in America and beyond. It’s all these enticing strands of stories that weave themselves together as you progress through this book that are the real strength of ‘Highways and Heartaches’ and make it such a good read. All those characters that come into play as the history unfolds. The book also has its dark side, acknowledging the racism and narrow-mindedness that existed around the backgrounds of both these main characters and their formative years in the deep south of the U.S.A, how racism and a restricted view of the world was choking traditional music and how both these artists, and many of the friends and family around them, fought to stay outside of those restrictions on their creativity but, ultimately, this is the simple story of two musical prodigies who had a profound effect on traditional American music.

This is, apparently, Michael Streissguth’s tenth book, following critically acclaimed books on Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson along with other music related topics. He’s a regular contributor to a host of magazines, usually writing about music matters, and he served as a programme advisor on Ken Burns’ outstanding ‘Country Music’ documentary series. Clearly, a man who knows what he writes about.

‘Highways and Heartaches’ is a genuinely different approach to telling a biographical history of two fascinating and extremely talented musicians, and the many additional characters they come into contact with, as they built fascinating careers in the maelstrom of americana. It’s an outstanding piece of writing.

About Rick Bayles 354 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments