I'm an old guy, so most of the music I own takes up space on my basement shelves, not on clouds or hard drives. But I'm no Luddite, and over time I've managed to load plenty of CDs onto my computer, so I can then enjoy that music on a portable listening device while commuting, exercising, or tuning out my kids.
I'm also no stranger to assembling playlists, having wasted a lot of my high school and college years carefully piecing together countless mix tapes. But my mix tapes generally maxed out at 90 minutes, and most of my digital playlists these days run no longer than two or three hours.
Heartaches by the Number: Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles by David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren.
I bought the book about ten years ago, largely on the strength of the authors' previous work for the now-defunct No Depression magazine, and I return to it at least once a year, if only to resolve a pressing music trivia issue.
The authors plow through roughly 80 years of recorded music and make a case -- in the form of 500 mini-essays -- for ranking 500 country singles, while acknowledging at the outset the inherent subjectivity and arbitrariness involved in any such undertaking. (Spoiler alert: the authors give top billing to Sammi Smith's 1970 recording of Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night.") Their larger goal is to dig into and discuss 500 significant songs, their singers, and the musical backdrop against which those records were made.
Country "purists" may wonder why a list of great country singles includes recordings by Tony Bennett, Bruce Springsteen, Slim Harpo, and Gladys Knight & the Pips, but the authors aren't genre purists and they offer sound explanations for each choice.
I grabbed Heartaches off my bookshelf last week to look up some information about a classic Stanley Brothers record -- "Rank Stranger" (#9) -- and then, after finding my answer, I kept turning the pages. I started thinking that I probably owned most of the music discussed in the book and had likely already loaded a good chunk of it onto my computer.
As it turns out, I do own a lot the music discussed in the book, but I'd only loaded about one-third of it onto my computer. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that second key fact until I'd already decided to assemble a Heartaches playlist.
I've not yet finished the list, but I've made a reasonably thorough pass through my CD collection and cobbled together nearly 400 of the 500 songs. It took some effort, given the stacks and stacks of discs in my basement. I know I'll never get back the 15 minutes I spent sifting through piles of CDs for Moon Mullican's recording of "I'll Sail My Ship Alone," but I knew the disc was still in my house, and I'm nothing if not persistent.
A lot of the fun I had assembling this playlist came from digging out some superb records that I don't listen to often enough. A few that come to mind are "Begging to You" by Marty Robbins (#98), "Stratosphere Boogie" (#206) by Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant, and Swamp Dogg's version of Joe South's "These Are Not My People" (#410).
I have no plans to acquire the songs that aren't in my collection. Some of them aren't my cup of tea (Shania Twain's "Any Man of Mine"); others seem too obscure to hunt down (Blind Alfred Reed's "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live").
But the tunes I have assembled make for a country playlist on steroids. Clocking in at just over 18 hours, this compilation will keep me entertained for some time.
And I owe it all to a good book.