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  • Crooked River City: The Musical Life of Nashville's William Pursell by Terry Wait Klefsted
  • Christopher M. Reali
Crooked River City: The Musical Life of Nashville's William Pursell. By Terry Wait Klefsted. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2018. [xx, 248 p. ISBN 9781496818638 (hardcover), $90; ISBN 9781496818645 (paperback), $25; also available as e-book, ISBN and price varies.] Music examples, illustrations, composition list, discography, notes, bibliography, index.

Unless you're a dedicated fan of the "Nashville sound" albums Columbia Records issued in the 1960s, you probably have never heard of Bill Pursell. Pursell (b. 1926), who has worn many musical hats during his long career, made his way to Nashville in the 1960s and began work as a session pianist. Indeed, author Terry Wait Klefsted notes that "the story of Pursell's life is the story of a musical life lived in America during the rise of popular music in both radio and recordings. It is the story of many choices made, and the crooked, winding path that a musical life can take, given the skills and musicianship that Pursell had worked so hard to develop" (p. xv). Forming part of frequent references to a winding river as a metaphor for Pursell's life, the title of the biography comes from Pursell's 2016 opera based on the life of Andrew Jackson. Sources for construction of the narrative are heavily indebted to Pursell's personal archive, housed at Belmont University in Nashville, as well as interviews with the subject. While this book has several shortcomings, Klefsted shines a light onto a [End Page 138] figure who has made a living since the 1940s as a working musician.

Pursell grew up in Tulare, California, about sixty miles north of Bakersfield. Chapter 1 describes Pursell's childhood adventures camping and hiking in the Sierra Nevada foothills with his adoptive parents, listening to recordings of the "Russian orchestral greats" (p. 4), and developing an interest in piano playing at an early age. After receiving an ovation for playing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Rondo alla turca at a talent show during a family vacation, Pursell was hooked. Pursell's parents did not discourage his musical interests. The family moved to Berkeley for a summer so that Pursell could pursue more serious musical study with Elizabeth Simpson (p. 13). At the age of sixteen, Pursell moved by himself to Berkeley in order to continue his piano studies as well as lessons in composition and harmony. The young pianist also began to concertize. Although the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore did not accept him as a performance major, Pursell earned a scholarship as a composition student there in 1944. Chapter 2 provides details of Pursell's relationship with his adoptive and biological fathers, two very different individuals whose personalities left a mark on the pianist's future. "Everywhere [Pursell] went, he both belonged and didn't belong, and was always aware that he had been relinquished at birth, but embraced wholeheartedly by a family who loved and wanted him" (p. 38).

Pursell's studies at Peabody included piano lessons with Alexander Sklarevski and composition lessons with Nicolas Nabokov. "Eighteen-year-old Pursell finally knew he was in the right place and had the right teachers and was finding success, not only as a composer, but as a pianist" (p. 41). Pursell enlisted in the military (1946–49), where he wrote musical arrangements for the Air Force Orchestra's Radio Hour broadcasts. After meeting in 1949 with Howard Hanson at the Eastman School of Music, Pursell was accepted as a composition student, with a minor in piano.

Pursell studied with numerous teachers while at Eastman, including piano with Cecile Genhart and Orazio Frugoni and composition with Herbert Elwell, Wayne Barlow, and Hanson, ultimately earning both a BM and an MM. "Pursell composed some of his most important classical works ["Felis Domesticus" (1950) for piano and Three Biblical Scenes for Orchestra (1953)] while a student at Eastman" (p. 63). While pursuing a DMA, Pursell married, and his wife gave birth to a son. Now faced with "adult responsibilities" (p. 66), the pianist joined a rhythm-and-blues trio because he needed the money. "Not...


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