What Scholars Owe Each Other

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.

7 thoughts on “What Scholars Owe Each Other

  1. “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 with 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.”

    This is also true in my literary bailiwick, children’s nonfiction. There are lots of thoughtful biographies — especially picture books — of jazz musicians, but when it comes to country music the most that children’s publishing has been able to muster (aside from quickie paperbacks of contemporary stars) is a pair of general histories: Honky-Tonk Heroes and Hillbilly Angels and The Long Gone Lonesome History of Country Music. These have both come out in the past two years, so that’s encouraging, but I don’t expect to see much more along these lines. (A particular bummer for me, as I’ve got a complete manuscript written about the life of a major country music figure, just waiting for the right editor.)

    In children’s publishing, I see two main issues:

    1) Almost every editor for a major children’s publisher lives in New York or Boston, those hotbeds of enthusiasm and intellectual respect for country music.

    2) Given a choice between issuing a jazz musician’s biography that helps correct the historic underrepresentation of African-Americans in children’s literature and issuing a biography of some white Southern hillbilly — regardless of whether the intended audience has ever heard of either person — well, it’s no choice at all.

    Children’s literature needs its own Charles Wolfe.

  2. Charles Wolfe was a cool dude. I took his folklore class at MTSU before I even knew who he was, and I’m so glad that I did. He was the best storyteller I’d ever heard–whether the stories were folklore or fact.

  3. B, do you mean politics at the press, politics among scholars in the field, or national politics?

    MTSU really ought to start a press with that field as one of its missions.

  4. Politics among scholars in the field.

    I should say, anonymous up there is Chris Barton. He emailed me explaining that he didn’t mean to be anonymous, he was just a little too quick on the “submit” button. I’ve done that myself many a time.

    I love the idea of children’s books devoted to country music (though I wonder how one deals with Bessie Lee Mauldin in such a case). I suspect that publishers aren’t more receptive to it because the suffering of black people is still considered kind of romantic and appropriately tragic whereas we kind of don’t know what to do with the knowledge that poor white people suffer.

    I think Charles Wolfe would have loved the idea of children’s books about country music, because, as Megan notes, he loved stories.

    Ha, someone could write a whole “Who’s going to fill his shoes?” song about Charles.

    If MTSU would publish country music scholarship and be open to ideas like children’s books about country music and worked some kind of relationship with the center for popular music to get some old music released? That would be something.

  5. What to do with Bessie Lee Mauldin in a children’s book about Bill Monroe? Well, whichever age group you write for, you don’t make the man out to be a saint. You’d never want a reader to move from a children’s book about him to, say, Richard Smith’s book and feel that Smith’s characterization is at odds with the person portrayed for younger readers. Imagine the sense of betrayal for a reader who felt they were lied to.

    In a picture book telling, Bessie Lee might be a bit much — though I think that readers would certainly find it interesting that two Blue Grass Boys weren’t boys at all. For older readers, though — say, 8 years old and up — Bill’s determination to have his personal life his way is of a piece with his determination to have his music his way. A responsible writer wouldn’t introduce Bessie Lee just to be salacious, but they also wouldn’t shy away from an uncomfortable topic that sheds light on the subject.

    On this count, children’s literature has come a long way.

  6. In a children’s book about Bill Monroe, it would have to be about him giving quarters to children. Or it could be about Mr. Smiff working on his farm as a kid of 14 and him and his brother making Bill’s false teeth sing Muleskinner Blues.

    The women in Bill’s life ….it’s a little tedious.

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