Scanning the Countryside: Country History, Then and Now
Caring about country music enough to devote years of attention to the questions its continuing, always-evolving existence raises—what it is, where it’s come from, where it gets on and off, how it speaks to those it speaks to, how all of that (or any of that) matters—that sort of serious devotion, the sort where you do some really serious homework before you start talking about it, did not even exist before the mid-1960s.
If you’ve grown up with pop culture in general an acceptable subject taken to heart and taken seriously most everywhere, the atmospherics back then may be difficult to grasp. It was acceptable, just barely, to discuss the history of the blues at that point, the door having been opened by a few writers who mostly came from the already respectable study of Jazz, and who tended to view the subject from that tunnel-vision perspective. But you would (and in some places, 45 years later, you still can) get laughed out of virtually any discussion of music that matters, or faculty lounge, for bringing up commercial country music at all.
Those who started the country discussion needed some guts; they came from sociology, from anthropology, from folklore (and brought the assumptions of those fields with them, for the most part), because they had to come from somewhere existing and stable, just to be able to take the time and have the resources to focus. And we know exactly who they were.
The birth document of “Trying to Understand Country, Seriously” was a journal entry by the great Archie Green (who died just last year), “Hillbilly Music: Source & Symbol,” an article so seminal that it’s been given a permanent home online. Among the first generation of writer-researchers Green encouraged and inspired was the tireless, big-hearted, broad-minded Texan Bill C. Malone, an academic and hillbilly singer whose book Country Music, U.S.A., first published in 1968, is simply the original, territory-defining bible of country music history. A brand new edition (Third, Revised) of the 600-plus-page history is just out this month, updated to this day, and you need to read it. As its previous versions, with its smooth prose, massive research, and pointed ideas, it reads easily, provokes, stays in the mind, and quickly becomes an indispensable reference for future arguments.
It has been said that the true expert is someone who knows enough to be less sure and hidebound about the facts of the matter than other people. For all the grand sweep and detail in Country Music, U.S.A., one of Malone’s great strengths and contributions is what he suggests (in the book’s preface and elsewhere) are topics that need more exploration and light shed, which, in this edition, include how “Southern” country is or has to be, how “working class,” and in what way, and how “folk” or commercially derived it was in the first place.
It’s notable that while this book has always begun with a chapter entitled “The Folk Background Before Commercialism,” and still does, reflecting Malone’s starting point of view on the latter, he now encourages readers to look to newer books that suggest a different reading on the music’s origins, such as Patrick Huber’s recent, important Linthead Stomp, which in Malone’s new words, challenge “the myth of the music’s Appalachian origins,” revealing “country music to be not a reactionary phenomenon that reflected a tenacious clinging to rural ways, but a willing product of the force of modernization.”
And with that re-thinking, now reflected to a degree in this core history itself, lines can be drawn from the Carter Family—not the last folks from the porch but among the first forward-reaching down home professionals—to Little Big Town and Joey + Rory, and the Zac Brown Band, the Avett Brothers, and even the existence of this very blog, all taken up, now, in the last pages of the story.
Malone is typically frank about having faced challenges in bringing the book into this new century, having personal musical preferences and coming from a generation not much attuned to contemporary mainstream country chart sounds. (“I feel that today’s country music is over-packaged, and lacks the spontaneity, warmth and honesty that I heard in the older styles.”) But he doesn’t let the story stop there, turning now to younger scholar and writer Jocelyn Neal (who’s written comfortably and expertly about both The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers and Faith Hill) to carry the story forward, in this edition, and into the future. With her contributions in the latter stages of the story, those who find some shattering break between country then and country now will have a new sense of continuity to contend with —and learn from. Those who start from today’s country and don’t see the connections backwards—same for you.
Bill first met Jocelyn (as, truth in packaging, I first met them both, beyond the page) at the annual International Country Music Conference, held here in Nashville at Belmont U. every May. Virtually everyone who speaks to this subject seriously turns up at ICMC sooner or later; it’s where matters like those ongoing questions Malone raises are spoken to and sometimes debated with good-natured, knowledgeable heat. In 2008, that conference saw fit to mark the 40th anniversary of Country Music, U.S.A., with a panel on its lasting, broad impact—and that was before this latest, potent update.
(It is startling and sure, also gratifying to me, knowing that with the integrity of these authors it has nothing at all to do with their being acquainted with me, to find that my own May 2007 No Depression magazine cover story on Miranda Lambert is treated in this new edition, at some length, as a milestone marker in the relations between some contemporary wings of country music.)
Sure,country’s not what it once was. And that’s always, always been true. If you want to see how the dots still connect, now, which they do, and maybe, as George Clooney’s Soggy Bottom Boy might have put it, get yourself bona fide on the country music story while you’re at it, for the bulk of the known answers, and more of the questions, it’s Malone again—naturally.
- Paul W Dennis: Tom T & Dixie Hall are good people and I wish them all the best through this difficult time
- Paul W Dennis: Actually , it is not. We have so thoroughly debased our language that it is no longer possible to praise …
- Leeann Ward: Sheesh, Paul, that's a random/strange dig!
- Jack Williams: After reading that New Yorker article, I canceled my pre-order of the Basement Tapes box set. I love Bob …
- Leeann Ward: Wow! How terrible for Dixie Hall and Tom.
- Ken Morton, Jr.: Another twisted collection of songs to put into the Friday Five Hall of Fame, Juli.
- Arlene: I'd have included "Omie Wise." Doc Watson's is the version I'm familiar with but I think it's been recorded by …
- luckyoldsun: I think the number one country murder ballad is "Frankie and Johnny"--by Jimmie. Also, how about "Delia's Gone" from Harry Belafonte …
- Juli Thanki: Colloquial use of "fantastic" as a synonym for "excellent" dates back to the 1930s. And if it's good enough for …
- Paul W Dennis: I think "Banks of The Ohio", "Miller's Cave" and "It's Nothing to Me" are far creepier than several of the …