An acquaintance I like a great deal is working on a country music book, has been for years and this person thought they’d found a publisher for it, but it turns out the publisher decided not to do it, even though it had two good reviews (and one negative one). This person is concerned that there might be a small but significant faction of folks who’ve decided the project is stupid not because the project is stupid, but for political reasons.
This makes me sad because, right now, there are maybe four university presses who publish country music scholarship consistantly–Illinois, Oxford (kind of), North Carolina, and Mississippi (kind of). That’s right. The word on the street is that Kentucky is out of the music book publishing business. And I’ll politely decline to comment on the local situation.
I know publishers have been asking themselves where the young country music scholars are, who’s doing good scholarship, and whether it behooves presses to continue to publish country music books now that Charles Wolfe is dead and his contemporaries are all retiring.
What a bad time for in-fighting! If ever there was a time when you wanted to project to presses that good work is being done, now’s it.
That’s one thing about the Hispanists. They write thoughtful readers’ reports and even when they can’t recommend publication, they tend to give good and meaningful advice about how a project might be redeemed through revision. Even though the field is relatively small, the impression they give outsiders is that vibrant, vital work is being done in the field.
Not so with the country music scholars. I imagine that, if the country music scholars are splitting into camps, it’s out of some sense of loyalty to somebody or other and, at one level, I respect that. On the other level, though, I feel like I’m watching a slow suicide.
Country music has so much to tell us about ourselves, especially as rural folks, and white folks, and the kinds of folks who feel the Coasts are aligning against them. You would think this would be a fertile field to harvest from, year after year, even if the group of folks willing to farm it is small.
I don’t know what it is. I was talking to NM’s husband the other week and he was talking about the split in country music journalists, how some folks understand country music journalism as being just an extention of the labels’ PR machines, and how that makes it hard for journalists who really want to write stories about artists and music, because you can set up an interview thinking that you’re doing a story story and when the story comes out, you’ve got all kinds of angry folks from the label because they thought you were doing old-fashioned Nashville journalism.
I can’t help but wonder if that split is there in country music scholarship as well. Maybe not that same split, but a similar kind of split. Are you going to tell the story you find or are you going to tell back to folks the story they’re used to hearing? And isn’t that Pete Peterson’s whole thing? Authenticity and commercialism–the driving forces behind country music, twined and entwined until you can’t tell one from the other.
It’s hard to talk about country music, I think. On the one hand, we like to pretend like it’s so easy we don’t need to bother with it, so we can focus on the performers instead. On the other hand, the folks who really get it, who sit down wiht the music and know it inside and out and who can then turn around and talk about the song itself, those folks are very rare. As far as I know, Heartaches by the Number, Bill and David’s book, is the only book-length attempt at such an endevour. And they’re not scholars.
We lost something greater than Charles when Charles died, I think. It’s like we lost the idea that country music scholarship was worth doing and worth supporting, even when people we don’t personally like are doing it.
It’ll come back, that notion. I believe that.
But until it does, I guess we’re relying on journalists to keep things going.
Which is a shame, because journalism and scholarship are not the same tasks.