Ken Tucker
April 03, 1998 AT 05:00 AM EST

I confess I would have given a reasonably high grade to this book just to have learned that Wynonna owns a rat terrier named Loretta Lynn, but Bruce Feiler’s Dreaming Out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes, and the Changing Face of Nashville is a valuable book above and beyond such nuggets of fine reportorial detail. As its long title suggests, Feiler aims to explain the current state of country music by following the careers of three performers, which he did over a three-year period in the mid-’90s.

By shadowing Brooks (country’s biggest contemporary star and its grandest ego), Wynonna (one of the music’s most talented yet neurotically erratic performers), and Hayes (a flailing newcomer whose earnest ambition is matched only by his breathtaking cluelessness), Feiler has chosen a trio at various stages of professional accomplishment, which allows him to show how the entire country-music industry operates. If his organizing principle has been used before, most notably in the late Geoffrey Stokes’ seminal 1976 book Star-Making Machinery: The Odyssey of an Album, Feiler still brings a fresh, sympathetic, but shrewdly skeptical eye to Nashville’s primary industry.

Feiler’s operating thesis is that country music is being torn apart in a ”struggle between art and commerce, between the desire to express yourself (to create genuine, heartfelt music) and the desire to be successful (to create a product and an image that Americans will buy)” — but fortunately he keeps this banal observation to himself until almost the end of the book. And his legwork definitely pays off. For example, granted exceptional access, Feiler takes us through the entire recording process and subsequent marketing of Hayes’ album On a Good Night, and in so doing captures that push and pull of art and commerce in action. The author also serves as confessor to Wynonna, who speaks as freely about her feelings of powerlessness over the decisions that are made about her career as she does of her addiction to peanut-butter-and-butter sandwiches (”How many grams of fat is that?” she asks Feiler).

Feiler is generous and skillful enough to convey the full force of Brooks’ boyish charm and energetic ambition, but he also interviews executives and musicians who feel they’ve been shafted in the course of the singer’s obsessive desire to sell more records than anyone in history. The most damning charge against Brooks is also the simplest, and it’s leveled by no one less than gnarled country vet Waylon Jennings, who calls Brooks the one thing that would hurt him the most: ”insincere.”

Dreaming Out Loud finds country music at a crossroads, as the first generation raised on rock & roll has produced both its core performers and its core audience. Feiler points to the small metal ring that pierces the belly button of young country singer Mindy McCready — a decoration as cherished among her fans as any of her hit singles — and finds in it a symbol of how crass the biz has become. The rest of us, reading this admirably kaleidoscopic book, may ponder McCready’s navel and marvel that the same industry that gives us the opportunity to enjoy the richness of Wynonna’s voice also finds room for McCready’s lint catcher, and cheer the fact that the rock & roll sensibility has forced Nashville to become a diverse and surprising place. A-

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