Summer 2018

Another Country

The unpredictable politics of an American genre

Jesse Barron


Country Music USA:

50th Anniversary Edition

by Bill C. Malone and Tracey Laird

University of Texas Press

$27.95 List Price

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Country fans no longer resemble the characters in country songs; they are salaried accountants chewing Nicorette in Chevy Tahoes, not railroad linemen spitting Copenhagen through the shot-out windows of a Ford F-150. Their assimilation worries them, and they sometimes overcompensate. “If any of you tuned in to ABC tonight expecting to see the new show Black-ish,” said host Brad Paisley at the 2014 Country Music Association Awards, referring to the sitcom about assimilation anxiety in the suburbs, “this ain’t it. In the meantime, I hope y’all are enjoying white-ish.” The joke had another meaning, too, which Paisley probably didn’t intend: Despite the perception that country is white America’s music, it’s only ever been white-ish. “Country” descended from British and Celtic ballads that crossed the ocean into Appalachia and the South, where singers Americanized the names of the women and the rivers. It was stirred with Baptist hymns, black American folk songs, New Orleans jazz, and—crucially—the twelve-bar blues. Was the sound white? Was it native? The banjo derived from the African gourd-based banjar.

Before radio stations started calling it “country” after World War II, a man at an Ozark fiddle contest or a church gathering was listening to “hillbilly” or “old familiar.” His music spoke to a life lived not in opposition to the city but on its own plain terms. In the late 1800s, folk songs lamented the “vacant chair” at the supper table left by the Civil War. In the 1930s, the proto-country of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys dunked the Victorian music-hall love song into the swing-time sweat of the Friday evening barnhouse stomp—the soundtrack to unwinding after work. Hank Williams—the genre’s great, self-immolating hero, a star at twenty-three, dead in a Cadillac at twenty-nine—articulated the pain of failed love in a yodel influenced by blackface singers. What united the music was a catholicity of origin and an unerring obsession with life inside the home. Not a protest song but the reality of that vacant chair. Not social commentary but the brutality of love, the rhythm of work and leisure, the steady roll of the seasons, the passage from birth to marriage to death.

For his still-peerless Country Music USA, which was first published fifty years ago and is being reissued this summer, the historian Bill C. Malone, a country fan from boyhood, took many years to distill the story from a totally overwhelming crop of decaying physical material—records, interviews, photographs—then poured it out for us generously in a wise and easy-drinking prose. He keeps an eye on commerce. He notes, for instance, how record companies segmented white music from black in the early twentieth century. While radio had a history of tacit integration, record sales demanded photographs of artists and categories to put them in, and by the late ’20s most major labels had a “hillbilly” and a “race” subsidiary. After World War II, those terms changed to “country” and “rhythm and blues.” On one of the first major country stations, WSM—the call sign standing for the slogan of its insurance-company sponsor, “We Shield Millions”—whites listened to black artists without knowing it, every Saturday on a program called the Grand Ole Opry. One of the great songs of 1930, for example, Jimmie Rodgers’s “Blue Yodel No. 9,” featured Louis Armstrong on trumpet and his then-wife, Lil Hardin, on piano. But Armstrong wasn’t credited on the record. As late as the 1960s, labels released black country artists like Charley Pride without photos on the record sleeves, a reversal of the white enthusiasm for blackface and minstrel skits.

The history of the term hillbilly provides a shorthand for the whole situation. It hadn’t always been a pejorative—“A Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama,” the New York Journal reported in 1900—but it became one later and returned in the 1960s as a badge of honor akin to the reclaimed racial slur. Malone writes about country singers who “privately described themselves as hillbillies but responded bitterly if someone else called them that.”

The wide road to country’s commercialization opened in 1941, when WSM started broadcasting the Opry live from the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The Ryman was known as the “mother church of country music,” and the nickname was literal. The Ryman had been built as a church in the late nineteenth century by a riverboat captain as a gift to the evangelist who reformed him. When it was converted into a music hall, listeners still sat on pews. It was during this decade that a young boy growing up in Florida, the child of a single mother, would tune in to the Opry broadcast every Saturday and be inspired by the songwriting and the harmonies, which he loved as much as he loved the church singers he heard on Sunday mornings. In 1962, Ray Charles recorded his album of blues-inflected country, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, paying tribute to the hybrid music of his youth. He added horns and swung the tempo. Charles’s album went to number one on the pop charts that year but never cracked the country charts at all. Charles didn’t play the Opry that year.

Click to enlarge

Reba McEntire in Ron Underwood’s Tremors, 1990. Stampede Entertainment.

In the 1968 primaries, George Wallace, a segregationist for the masses, won the endorsements of country singers like Hank Snow, the Wilburn Brothers, and Autry Inman, singer of the pro–Vietnam War single “Ballad of Two Brothers.” The popular guitarist Billy Grammer played his hit “Dixie” at Wallace rallies. That the singers liked Wallace gave rise to the idea that every last one of their fans was a Wallace voter, too. “They are white lower-middle-class people,” wrote the Birmingham-born, Harvard-educated journalist Paul Hemphill of the Opry audiences he observed, “who drive trucks and keep house and work in factories . . . . Their politics is simple and conservative, and in ’68 they were voting Wallace.” The image of sweaty white hicks going whole hog for a racist idiot was compelling. But Hemphill’s numbers may have been wrong; Davidson County split its vote in thirds in the ’68 general election among Wallace, Humphrey, and Nixon. Malone believes that country’s obsession with white Southernness was partly a result of northern journalists writing about how country was obsessed with the white South. Feeling maligned, they doubled down on what outsiders hated about them.

Northern white record executives, in fact, likely contributed more to the segregation of southern music than southerners did. In Hidden in the Mix (2013), an anthology of essays about African Americans in country music, the scholar Patrick Huber exposes how A&R men in the Yankee states hastened the race/hillbilly division because they believed that consumers bought records based on race and that race was inextricable from musical style. If they actually listened to the music, they’d have known this was absurd. The Mississippi Sheiks played old-time fiddle music as well as anyone in the South in the 1920s and ’30s, and they were all black. Why were they, and bands like them, written out of country history? What happened, Hidden in the Mix suggests, was that country’s history retroactively “became” white in response to outside threats to white dominance. Malone agrees. “The struggles waged by African Americans to attain economic dignity and racial justice,” he writes, “provoked one of the ugliest chapters in country music’s history.”

In the late 1960s, in Crowley, Louisiana, an overweight driving instructor who called himself Johnny Rebel conspired with Reb Rebel Records to put out songs like “Coon Town” and “Lookin’ for a Handout.” When I found the songs on YouTube, the poster had appended instructions to “download this video and repost it after Jewtube takes it down.” Though Rebel never achieved anything close to mainstream fame, the premise of “Lookin’ for a Handout” resurfaced at multiple points. Guy Drake’s 1970 song “Welfare Cadilac”—that was how he spelled it—made the argument clearly, and of course Merle Haggard sang in “Workin’ Man Blues,” “I ain’t never been on welfare, that’s one place I won’t be.” Haggard also wrote Nixon’s favorite country song, the silent-majority anthem “Okie From Muskogee.” Key line: “We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street.” Nixon, for his part, visited the Opry in 1974 to inflict on the silent majority his piano rendition of “God Bless America.” (Reagan was a Haggard fan, too; as governor of California, he pardoned the singer from San Quentin.)

An exception to the prevailing conservatism of the period was also one of its greatest successes. Chet Atkins, head of RCA Victor, preferred his politicians liberal and his country music kind of like pop. While some singers were churning out anti-campus-protest drivel, Atkins was busy in the studio crafting a new country sound, known sometimes as “country-politan” and today as “pop—country.” The pedal steel and fiddle came down in the mix, the time signature strayed from straight-4/4 to loose rock ’n’ roll or swing. Waylon Jennings was a Chet Atkins artist; so was Dolly Parton. A former Beach Boy collaborator, Glen Campbell, was not a Chet Atkins artist but became one of the best-selling country singers of the decade by emulating his looseness with tradition: Campbell’s hits feature string sections and pop melodies sung in an untwanged tenor. One producer joked to Hemphill that the difference between country and pop-country wasn’t sonic at all; it was “the difference between selling 70,000 singles and selling 500,000 singles.”

Atkins’s innovations became known collectively as the “Chet Atkins compromise,” as though standing on the same rung of historical importance, just about, as Missouri being admitted as a slave state. For the “music from the true vine,” as more nativist artists used to call it, the turn toward countrypolitan—and to an audience outside the South—disturbed. Country could be a regional music for people with shared values, or a suburban and urban music that evoked rurality for an audience that had no idea how to define “Bocephus” or “thirty-aught-six.” Top 40 country from the 1990s to now sounds more like arena pop than Hank Williams and is marketed to the upper-middle class. As the music became less regional, something interesting happened: The artists compensated by making the lyrics more regional. The guys who ascended in the ’90s and 2000s were skilled at projecting Southernness without confing themselves to a rural Southern sound. They understood the art of branding. Garth Brooks, who once sang that the “dream they call rodeo” will “drive a cowboy crazy,” majored in advertising at Oklahoma State.

The pursuit of a white Southern aura has led some country stars to a dead end, where the music becomes self-parody. In the video for Blake Shelton’s “Boys ’Round Here,” a four-verse boast about Southern men’s beer-and-tobacco consumption abilities (they are also good at driving cars), we are at a house party, sitting on a porch while blonde women in denim jackets and cowboy boots hand out plastic cups. The video was shot at the Disney Ranch in Hollywood, where Shelton is a judge on The Voice.

In the past election, country stars like Shelton absented themselves from politics. Ever since the Dixie Chicks had their careers destroyed for speaking—more tepidly than people remember—against the Bush administration, Nashville has toed the line electorally. MAGA hats appear at their concerts: silence. Fifty fans are gunned down in Las Vegas: crickets. There is a sense of stars at fans’ mercy; Loretta Lynn told an interviewer that she went for Trump partly because her audience would have booed her if she had supported Clinton.

That the tough-as-nails singer of “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (with Lovin’ on Your Mind)” could be cowed so easily in the political arena reveals a paradox in country music. It doesn’t know how to address electoral politics because it’s always been the soundtrack to American domesticity. At the same time, it is perhaps the most effective music at describing the highest-stakes environments most of us experience on a daily basis: the bedroom, the kitchen table, and the living room. That’s where Lynn’s politics become more interesting.

Male singers have made hundreds of records about cheating and drinking and loyalty and child-raising, almost always coming to the conclusion that you need to put the bottle down and return to your house. (Or that you should have.) “I’m coming home, we’re gonna work this out,” sings George Strait in the chest-aching fourth-verse twist of “I Hate Everything” (go hear it, if you haven’t). To which you might respond, “Of course you want to go home. The whole domestic arrangement is designed to suit you.” By switching the point of view, then, a female country singer can cast a critical light on what, in a male singer’s voice, might be uncomplicated comfort.

For instance: Country is full of women with guns. The American murder ballad descends from an English ancestor, in which, usually, a young man sings about having killed his pregnant girlfriend or a woman sings about regretting killing her husband. Since the 1990s, singers like Reba McEntire, Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, and Martina McBride have juiced the subgenre with revenge and exuberant viciousness. On “Gunpowder & Lead,” Lambert sings, “I’m going home, gonna load my shotgun / Wait by the door and light a cigarette / If he wants a fight well now he’s got one / And he ain’t seen me crazy yet.” When President Obama made his summer playlist in 2016, he included precisely one country entry, a murder ballad sung by a woman, Gin Wigmore’s “Man Like That.” To me, the most country thing about Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons,” the New Orleans–style marching band number from Lemonade, is not the instrumentation but the subject: family, the home, and female power. “Daddy said shoot.”

There is a hidden lineage of country songs by women that defy the prevailing fantasies of a woman’s place in the happy small town. One of the underappreciated songs of 1968 is “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” a hit for Jeannie C. Riley. It tells the story of a widowed woman who gets a letter from the PTA about how badly she’s behaving. She wears her dress too high, she drinks, she hangs around with men. In she marches to confront the critics. Instead of capitulating, though, she points out all the small-town hypocrisy surrounding her: This one’s cheating with his secretary, that one’s a drunk. Kacey Musgraves, the young singer from Texas, is the inheritor of this tradition. Her songs have an easygoing tsk-tsk-tsk quality, urging everyone not to judge, not to cast the first stone. To speak truth to their neighbors.

I have no idea of Musgraves’s politics. I wonder what she thinks. In the months before the election, the ghost of Tammy Wynette returned to haunt Hillary Clinton, as her 1992 interview disparaging “standing by your man” resurfaced, and in November, 52 percent of white women voted for Trump. Two weeks after the inauguration I saw Miranda Lambert perform in Providence. She was silent on the result. Right at the end, she included her 2011 song “All Kinds of Kinds,” about how it’s fine that people are different. The lyrics indict ignorance and hypocrisy. Behind me, a man in a MAGA hat nodded along to the beat. I used to believe that country’s territory lay outside of politics, because country concerned the domestic. All politics is domestic.

Jesse Barron is a journalist based in Los Angeles and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.

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