Selling Out the Rural Folks

I grew up watching Hee Haw and I know folks have written shit-tons of material about Hee Haw and I’m not going to say anything that other folks haven’t already said. But I liked it. I thought it was subversive. It took the truth and stereotypes and artistry and comedy and mixed them all up until the lines between them were all blurred.

And there was for sure an element of “we’re going to make fun our ourselves before you can make fun of us” to it.

And, sure, yes, in the early days of the Opry, folks who had come to town wearing their Sunday best were encouraged to dress like “hillbillies” and so the line between when are we showing you something everyone knows to be an act? and when are we showing you a stylized version of how things are? has indeed always already been blurred.

But CMT making a reality show where “stars” run an inn in east Tennessee and the conceit of the show is city slicker is out of water among all these hicks?

I don’t know. Yes, Green Acres. Yes, Newhart. I know. Shoot, even Northern Exposure.

But I don’t like it on CMT.

The thing I don’t like about it most is exactly what R. Neal gets at in his post. The inn they’re “running” is a world-class bed and breakfast well-known for being GLBT friendly that is only an hour outside of Knoxville. So, it is exactly not the kind of spot where you are trapped back in the woods with “scary” hillbillies who don’t know any better than to keep their farm animals out of nice places (if such places and people even exist).

So, here’s what I want to know? Is CMT a television station–even if it doesn’t play a whole lot of country music any more–where fans of country music go to watch other stuff that reflects our lives and things that might interest us? Or is something else going on here?

Now, we all know that country radio is geared towards women–that’s the audience stations are trying to deliver to advertisers and, as such, the audience mainstream artists are mostly trying to appeal to–and that these women mostly live in town or at least the suburbs and have all their lives. Country music radio’s main audience is no longer people who live in the country, at least, that’s not the audience they give a shit about. They want the ears and the dollars of suburban women.

My question is “Is that what’s going on at CMT as well?”

I think the evidence points to “Yes.” Look at the popular videos, the shows (like the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader one and the Coyote Ugly one or the repeats of ABC shows about nannies and wife-swapping, even the redneck wedding show), the ditching of the Opry, everything.

So, if we can agree that CMT’s goal is to attract more suburban women, even at the expense of its traditional audience, how then do we understand “Pigeon Inn”?

And this, to me, gets at the heart of why this bothers me. It seems to me that we’re supposed to find amusement, not in our own silliness (which was, to me, one of the basic premises of Hee Haw) but in the silliness of those folks who are not like us, both the stars and the folks from Appalachia.

This, to me, then, says that the “us” of country music is not expanding to also appeal to more urban people but is shifting in ways that could exclude the very people whose music it was in the first place.

I don’t like it.

31 thoughts on “Selling Out the Rural Folks

  1. CMT is run by MTV. MTV is all that is materialistic, tawdry, celebrity obsessed, sexually shallow, and vain in society. So this is not really that big a surprise.

    Disappointing, nonetheless.

    (Yes, the MTV hate is strong in this one.)

  2. CMT (and, to a lesser extent, GAC) are set up to appeal to 30-something guys, not to women. They are slightly counter-programmed with reference to country radio in this sense. This can be seen in the cheerleader and dirty-dancing-on-the-bar shows (going after the Hooters demographic). It also shows up in the videos they program, which lean towards hard country and alt-country (genres whose audiences are presumed to skew youngish and male) far more than radio does. And it shows up in CMT dropping the Opry, which is held to be for old farts only.

    I’m not sure how this show fits in,* but please tell me that it’s the one that issued a casting call for inbreds a while back. Because I’d hate to think that there were two shows like that out there at the same time.

    *Possibly the idea is that youngish men are belligerent and more willing to watch shows that make them feel superior to the characters than to watch shows with characters they identify with?

  3. nm is spot on with the assessment that CMT and like-channels are set up to appeal to 30 something males.

    I find it interesting that this bothers you in the sense that you’re a mid-westerner and not a Southerner (as am I)– and I find that comforting in that you get the general reason why I get my nose out of joint over these types of “oh look at the silly Southerners and how they do things down there…”

    I had a relative make an observation a few years back — something along the line of “The only person who can’t feel proud of their heritage is a white southerner — it’s the only demographic in which it is ok to point and scoff.”

    As Lee pointed out, CMT is owned by MTV – and that network was long ago ruined by Judy McGrath. Seems the drivel is now flowing southward from NYC where the taste-makers are now out to (or attempting to) show us what it means to be Southern. I don’t dig that either.

    On the other hand, regarding your statement:

    This, to me, then, says that the “us” of country music is not expanding to also appeal to more urban people but is shifting in ways that could exclude the very people whose music it was in the first place.

    Perhaps that’s how the black folks felt when Elvis felt free to lift some inspiration from what they had done prior to him.

    Either way, it’s not nice to stand and point, and that’s what is at the heart of this program as far as I can tell.

  4. Perhaps that’s how the black folks felt when Elvis felt free to lift some inspiration from what they had done prior to him.

    Ahem. That’s putting it rather mildly. Chuck D. expresses my sentiment rather succinctly:

    Elvis was a hero to most
    But he never meant shit to me you see
    Straight up racist that sucker was
    Simple and plain
    Mother fuck him and John Wayne

    (link mine, not Chuck D.’s)

    Decades of hyper-commodified popular U.S. culture ripped off African-American culture and sold it to white people (around the world), all while selling accompanying images of negroes being backward, violent homunculi. The saddest part about this process is that the feedback loop has shoved these images back into the African-American community, often replacing or at least poisoning more constructive cultural and historical knowledge.

    It’s fucking disgusting. I wonder how many more people (of all ethnicities and hues) know about “Flavor of Love” than are aware of this.

  5. CMT is definitely about packaging ‘country’ music for folks in the city. They make fun of rural life whenever they can. See for example “My Big Redneck Wedding” and the show where they remake people’s trailers. The next big show they’re planning is celebrity wrestling.

    As for the comments about how they’re set to appeal to 30something men……. I disagree. They’ve set the bar much lower than that. Most men in their 30s are too sophisticated for the blatant stuff they throw up there.

  6. Chuck D is wrong about Elvis.

    Well, I take that back. Was Elvis racist? He’s a white guy in America who did repackage black music and black stylings and sell them to white Americans and got rich. So, to that extent, that he was a willing cog in a racist system, yes. Elvis was racist. As is every white person in America. Write us all off. There is no hope.

    But, to ask the question again, was Elvis racist?

    I remain unconvinced.

    First, I don’t believe the comment attributed to him. To my satisfaction, I believe it’s been shown that he never said it and that that comment had been attributed to other white people before then. I think it’s just an urban legend that hangs on because it tells both blacks and whites something they want to hear–which, for both sides, was the same thing–that Elvis didn’t really like black people or black music or black culture. He didn’t really see anything of value to him as a person. He only saw value in terms of how he could exploit it.

    And why is that such a compelling story for both black and white people?

    Because the other alternative–that Elvis saw things that black people were doing that he thought were awesome and wished he could do, too, not in some Vanilla Ice type “I’m just as down as them” way but in that Beastie Boys “Oh, god I love this so much I want to put it inside me and feel it in my chest and up my throat and back out my mouth” kind of way, is a revolutionary want.

    It is not permitted. It is still not permitted for white people, and for a white man especially, to see something black people have and to want to emulate it.

    Appropriate it? Yes. Steal it? Yes. Twist it around into something you claim to have owned in the first place? Yes. Sure. Any action that comes from a white man being in a position over, sure.

    But to stand in awe, to open yourself up to that art, and to see those artists as having something you aspire to? To love openly and without self-consciousness? To recognize something in yourself sharing a common experience with people you should believe have nothing in common with you?

    That just is not acceptable. Still.

    Elvis is not, I believe, the first in a long line of contemporary white artists who stole black music and passed it off to white consumers as their own.

    I believe Elvis is one of the last white country artists who understood he was drawing from the same well as the black artists also from Mississippi and other Southern places.

    Second, Elvis was a white man in the South during Jim Crow, first in Mississippi and then in Memphis. He wouldn’t have even had to been blatently racist to live his whole young life separated from black people; he would have just had to be a man of his times.

    But there he was, sneaking into shows, watching performers, singing those songs. Not when he was famous, when he would have gotten some dispensation to behave like a weirdo, but when he was young and unknown and living in a society set up to prevent that very thing from happening. He willingly and willfully went places he was forbidden to go.

    Third, James Brown loved him. I’m not saying that having one black friend automatically removes you from charges of racism. But James Brown wasn’t just his friend. James Brown loved him.

    “I wasn’t just a fan, I was his brother,” Mr. Brown was quoted as saying. “He said I was good and I said he was good. We never argued about that. … The last time I saw him was at Graceland. We sang Old Blind Barnabus together, a gospel song. I love him and hope to see him in heaven. There’ll never be another like that soul brother.” (source)

    That carries weight with me. It would have been easy enough, especially considering how the media was always trying to frame them as rivals, put them in competition with each other, for Brown to have dismissed Presley as a racist thief. But Brown saw him as a contemporary. That, to me, is worth considering.

  7. W, they don’t need most men in their 30s to watch; just enough to please the advertisers.

    One wrinkle on the Elvis/African-American music and CMT/rural people’s music, though. Elvis both appropriated and changed some African-American musical genres, but you could always tell who/what he had stolen from. In contrast, much (not all) of the music CMT promotes today is connected to the music of its suburban audience’s rural grandparents and rural-southerners-moved-to-the-city parents only by virtue of the fact that CMT markets it as “country.” Musically speaking, the connection isn’t so clear. What has been ripped off are the signifiers (rural life, goodcleanblond Americanness, the claim to sole possession of old-fashioned virtures), but the music itself tells you that these signifiers are now being marketed to the kids of middle-class CSN&Y fans. It’s a different kind of appropriation.

  8. I was watching television last night and noted that CMT has some show called “Mobile Home Disaster.” Apparently it’s like “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” but for, you know, mobile homes. I didn’t watch it, but I can’t imagine it does anything but play to stereotypes. Seems like it would be better for the “deserving” families if they helped them get into safer, sturdier houses rather than fixin’ up the trailer.

  9. Yeah, nm, I think you’re really getting at something crucial here. This is my working theory (it’s just a working theory, though, so it may have some holes): I think that what “country” music now is selling is a specific kind of traditional whiteness–what you recognize as “rural life, goodcleanblond Americanness, the claim to sole possession of old-fashioned virtures”–to people who would be uncomfortable with openly saying “I like white music that reminds me or reinforces in me some notion of how great it is to be white.”

    So, the constant references to ruralness serve, I believe, as a way for urban white people to listen to music about a type of white experience in America that appeals to them while at the same time, when the fact that this is white music about white America, bubbles too close to the surface, allows them to displace that racialism onto rural white Americans, who are supposedly the cultural producers of this music. Like some kind of racialized Duck, Duck, Goose, I think it lets citified whites say “Us, Us, Us, Not Us” while listening to the music, even though it is clearly “Us, Us, Us, Us.”

  10. A critic once called The West Coast Turnaround, my country band, “Hipster Hee Haw.” I’ve never known for sure if that was supposed to be a good thing or not. But I think it’s about the nicest thing anybody has ever said about one of my projects in print.

  11. I believe Elvis is one of the last white country artists who understood he was drawing from the same well as the black artists also from Mississippi and other Southern places.

    Second, Elvis was a white man in the South during Jim Crow, first in Mississippi and then in Memphis. He wouldn’t have even had to been blatently racist to live his whole young life separated from black people; he would have just had to be a man of his times.

    I don’t think Elvis was racist & here’s why: Elvis was born in East Tupelo — at the time of the Presley’s living situation there, it wasn’t the “right” part of town. It was actually the “wrong side of the tracks” — it’s not exactly the right side of the tracks now, but it’s slightly improved.*

    In Southern social situations back then, as remains now in certain areas, the poor co-mingle with the poor – and back in that day even, it was blacks & whites co-mingling in that area of town. And as much as Hollywood wants to paint MS as a hotbed of racial tension — that isn’t always the case — growing up together breeds understanding — and I think Elvis understood the soul and the plight of the poor Southerners of both colors.

    Also, my Mom tells a story about her cousin in the ’50s — he would go to the black section of town and learn the dances that were popular there and bring them back to the white people’s sock hops. This was somewhat scandalous at the time, but even he knew that there was a lot more fun being had on the other side of town. So it’s not just Elvis stealing inspiration here — it was done by at least one kid in each town.

    *the reason I know of what I speak is I grew up 20 miles south of the birthplace.

  12. See for example “My Big Redneck Wedding” and the show where they remake people’s trailers.

    I don’t watch hardly any TV and when I do it’s not CMT, but is this type of thing really that insulting to rural dwellers? I’m not quite as far south as most of you, but the “rednecks” we have here revel in that view of themselves. Trailer dwelling, beer guzzling, mullet wearing, nascar watching, confederate flag waving and even openly acknowledged lack of education is all part of a culture that they actively embrace and celebrate.

    I understand that there’s a difference between making fun of oneself and making fun of another, but I guess I’m wondering if these shows don’t actually draw as many “redneck” fans as they do “city slickers.”

  13. The “queers” we have here revel in that view of themselves. Condo dwelling, esctacy taking, fashion wearing, Bravo watching, rainbow flag waving and even openly acknowledged lack of masculinity is all part of a culture that they actively embrace and celebrate.

    Careful… two sides of that coin.

  14. Although, on second thought, you may have a very good point Dolphin.

    In every sort of identifable group, there are the ignorant who intentionally live up (or down) to the stereotype in an attempt to be authentic. Rural whites do have the proud ignorant redneck. Blacks do have those who embrace the ghetto lifestyle. There are gays who believe that means acting the stereotypical narcissist.

    And there are marketers who are more than willing to play on those tendencies to make a buck. Like CMT.

  15. I don’t watch hardly any TV and when I do it’s not CMT, but is this type of thing really that insulting to rural dwellers?
    You’re right, the people that those programs profile do revel in it. But the issue here is that you seem to be conflating ‘rural dwellers’ with Trailer dwelling, beer guzzling, mullet wearing, nascar watching, confederate flag waving and even openly acknowledged lack of education. That’s exactly my problem with those shows. They encourage the belief that everyone outside an urban or suburban area is like that.

    There’s as much variety in rural America as there is anywhere else. I’ve been in Nashville too long to use myself as an example, but my dad holds more graduate level degrees than anyone I know. And he grew up in a town of 300 and currently lives a 20 minute drive from the nearest grocery store (distance, not traffic cause the long drive). If you need a more familiar example, Newscoma is a pretty good one. She’s a self-acknowledged rural dweller but she has a pretty impressive background and mad writer skills.

    Thanks for supplying the show name Rachel. Mobile Home Disaster was the one I couldn’t remember earlier.

  16. I do think there’s a difference between “jokes we tell ourselves about each other” and “jokes we tell about other people we figure we are superior to.” One is just the insideness/possessiveness of it: for example, I can make cracks about my family, and my husband can make cracks about my family members he loves but not the ones he doesn’t, but he can’t make cracks about even the ones he loves in front of other people, and no one else gets to make cracks about us at all.

    But also, the jokes people tell about themselves to others like them are based on a shared knowledge not just of the laughable behavior but also of the history it comes from, the reasons for it, results it has had in the past, and all that. They are told, maybe not with love, but at least with a lot of understanding. And if some group chooses to put that kind of humor on display for all the world to see (and I think Hee Haw is a great example of doing that), fine. But is Mobile Home Disasters presented with love, or with disdain? Does it cement that in-group feeling of “yeah, we all know what we’re laughing at about ourselves”? Not unless its intended audience mostly live in double-wides.

  17. So much of reality TV, though, seems to be about revelling the mockery of others. Even when it’s not a broad stereotype-based mockery.

    CMT seems to just be following the current trend set up with everything from the lowbrow (Farmer Wants A Wife) to mid brow (What Not To Wear) to ostensibly highbrow (30 Days).

  18. Not unless its intended audience mostly live in double-wides.

    That’s kind of my point though. I suspect they ARE trying to draw in the crowd of which I spoke, and are probably successful at it. (Following Lee’s example) I think Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is one of the most offensive shows on TV. It’s totally all about exploiting and exaggerating gay stereotypes all while cementing the idea into straight america’s head that gay people are fun to watch do little tricks like trained seals for entertainment, but that doesn’t mean you need to give them equal rights or otherwise treat them like human beings. It’s the gay version of the old minstrel shows, in my opinion. Did I mention that I can’t stand that show?

    BUT, it was created (at least in large part) for a gay audience and indeed many, many, many gay people watch it religiously. So how offensive can it be if the folks who watch it are the very ones being portrayed and they indeed see themselves as the way they are being portrayed on the show?

  19. It’s the gay version of the old minstrel shows, in my opinion.

    I feel like I’ve said this a thousand times lately. So much of the gay programming–including gay people on reality shows–has that flavour of minstrel about it.

    So how offensive can it be if the folks who watch it are the very ones being portrayed and they indeed see themselves as the way they are being portrayed on the show?

    Well, the gay people I know seem to watch a lot of the gay-themed and gay-featuring shows (like Work Out, Flipping Out, Queer Eye) simply because they are starved to see any portrayal of gay people on TV. It’s the same way a lot of devoutely religious people watched dreck like Touched By An Angel. Even though what’s up there is a skewed version of your reality, interpreted largely by people who don’t fully understand your reality, it’s in some way better than feeling invisible. Or so we are programmed to think.

    The older I get I’d rather be invisible than be someone’s dog or pony.

  20. Wait, it’s gay to watch Bravo?

    Actually Ivy, I have to admit that I have enjoyed watching Project: Runway, though I haven’t watched it lately because I decided against getting cable for a while. (Ain’t I the Spartan.) Watching talented people compete to come up with creations out of nothing but fabric and thread is interesting, despite knowing absolutely nothing about fashion.

    But per what Coble and Dolphin are talking about, it seems from what I have seen of it recently is that the show has gone the route of The Real World. Meaning a show that once had interesting but fairly normal people with a tinge of eccentricity here or there, has decided to now cast the most outlandish characters it can find, becoming a caricature of what it once was.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong. Hope I am.

  21. Watch “Entourage,” or some other “make fun of Los Angeles” type of shows. Plenty of misguided stereotypes there as well. I think its ridiculous to worry about perpetuating stereotypes that are broad-based, if nowhere near how the majority behaves. Is it cruel somehow to suggest that a Norhterner in Georgia is going to be a “fish out of water”? How about a Good Ol Boy making his way to the West Coast? There is funny material there to work with, well, because, people are funny creatures, and do silly stuff, especially when they are a tad off balance.

    I think I sense too much hand-wringing.

  22. Also, one day, when I’m mellow enough to try and really grasp the argument…I’d like NM and B to try and convince me that just because an artist mimics something that moves him, he is ripping it off or appropriating it? Every baby I have ever been around, upon hearing a thudding beat, flexes his knees and moves his butt up and down. If an entertainer decided to do this in his act…is he ripping off the babies of the world?

    Just because it hails from the Delta, and black people do it, doesn’t mean when it influences an artist of another color it is theft.

  23. Watch enough comedy, you’ll see the influences of some giants, but unless it’s lifted word for word…its still premise/punchline premise/punchline.

  24. I’m confused. I know nm said that Elvis appropriated and stole, but I thought that B.’s point was that he did not appropriate/steal but was inspired.

    I generally get miffed when people complain about artists stealing vague things (like an “idea”) or vast things (like a theme.) Whenever I hear complaints like that it strikes me as a sort of sour grapes disgruntlement.

    It happens a lot in the publishing world, especially as the book-buying population dwindles. Two or five or a hundred authors will have similar ideas or themes, and one will happen to write upon the shared concept in a way which engages more book buyers. You then have some of the other authors grousing.

    I can understand if someone takes your exact words. That’s stealing. Otherwise it could just be a happy accident.

  25. Artists steal all the time. There are very, very few new ideas or techniques out there. In fact, there’s a truism that lousy artists copy and good ones steal. So it’s not a Bad Thing. The question is not whether Elvis (for example) stole songs, moves, styles; of course he did. the question is how he did. Or, in the case of Elvis, how the business that grew up out of his success talked about and defined his theft. When Elvis is presented as the inventor/creator of rock and roll, that appropriates to him all the creativity and innovation of a number of (ahem) black artists, which he knew, and loved, and took, and made his own, and added his own wrinkle to, but which wasn’t in fact his creation. When his success led to a buncha white (mostly) boys doing slightly altered versions of songs first recorded by black artists, getting credit for inventing this new kind of music, that’s not just ordinary old artistic theft, that’s out-and-out appropriation.

    Look, let’s take race out of it. How many country songs can you think of that share a tune with “Satisfied Mind”? Or the tune of “Would You Lay with Me”? Lots of them, I bet. People said, “cool, nice tune, I’m gonna use it” and a lot of them had hits. But each version is a little bit different, has a couple of new notes, different phrasing, its own added wrinkle. They stole the tune, made it their own, yadda, yadda. OTOH, when Miranda Lambert took a Steve Earle recording and not only used it note for note but even put in his “huh!”s and funny breathing noises in the same place, she wasn’t saying “wow, I love that tune, I’m gonna use it,” she was claiming it as her own just as he had written it. Which is why she had to start listing him as a co-writer.

    There’s a difference, and most of it has to do with acknowledging the influence and the theft.

  26. If Dylan doesn’t mind calling it theft, I don’t mind. And he should know, from both sides.

  27. Except that Dylan is kind of crazy. I mean, I love him and everything…but he is nuts.

    Then again, I’m just not able to grok the whole behind-the-scenes operation of music. The older I get the more I realise that for me music falls in the sausages-and-laws category.

    It makes living in this particular town a very singular experience.

  28. The “Elvis stole” crap gets me down. Yeah? Well then Big Mama Thornton stole “Hound dog” from the Jewish people. (Lieber & Stoller anybody?)

    The whole history of world music is one of cultures–friendly and not– colliding and sampling from one another.

    Lots of blues was influenced not only by traditional african music, but from fife & drum corps music, and English ballads. Then Hank Williams stole it back!

    If you want to sample some awesome guitar music research Indo Rock: Dutch music influenced by Indonesian folk, american rock, and in some cases South American pop. It’s reflected in the surf music of artists like Dick Dale & Link Wray.

    Now there is a long history of industry types stealing plenty from artists of every stripe. That’s where the music crimes happen.

  29. The history of cultures is indeed partly a history of theft. That doesn’t mean it isn’t theft. And, as has been pointed out, being a good enough artist to steal isn’t bad. But there’s a big, big problem with a culture that refuses to acknowledge where/who it’s been stealing from, or that it’s been stealing at all, and that denies its cultural roots.

Comments are closed.