Let’s Just Call It “White Music” and Drop the Pretense

Back when the new Hall of Fame was just a twinkling in a girl’s eye and there was no round-about and no naked dancing people, I was in the basement of the old Hall of Fame looking at rows upon rows of records, some ancient, and I asked “How do you, when you’re looking at, say, two recordings of ‘In the Pines,’ and one is recorded by a black string band and one is recorded by a white string band, but otherwise, the style sounds the same, do you decide which one goes into the collection?”  And the person I was with said that they will try to collect them both, but if it comes down to it, they will go with the record the record label calls “hillbilly” or “country” or “old-timey” and not with the one called “race record” or “sepia sounds.”

My contention is and has always been that country music and urban music are the fun-house mirror reflections of each other–both share many of the same themes: deep pride in where one is from cut through with a strain of shame and anger about the circumstances one came from; a definition of manliness based in sexual prowess; a fascination with violence and guns; deep pride and anger about being outside of the mainstream; a definition of womanhood that is either based on very traditional notions of femininity or on being able to out-man the men; a love of vehicles; drinking; honoring tradition; and Mama.

And it’s no surprise to see them dancing around each other while very rarely crossing over.  You can count the successful, respected white rappers on one hand, and use the other hand to count the successful, black country singers.

I bring all this up because I want to make a point about what country music means in terms of its racial focus and make-up.  Country music is not usually “white” music.  It’s traditionally specifically for white people who are outside of the mainstream, but who believe themselves to be some kind of bearer of Truth, some authentic experience unavailable to most folks, who are not “regular” folks.

In other words, it’s music of “regular” white people, but white folks who, in claiming regularity are claiming that in opposition to what most white folks have.

So, you have two groups “white people in general” and then a subset of white people who feel disaffected for various reasons (most often because the world changes quickly and often in alarming ways).  Country music has most often found its audience in disaffected white people, or maybe I should say that various country musics have most often found their audiences in different groups of disaffected white people.

Which is why I believe Jim Malec is on to something very important in this post.  He recognizes a fundamental change in foundations of country music.

Somewhere between Kid Rock not-rocking and rapper Lil Wayne pretending to play the guitar, between the Wailers wailing and the Eagles (who have never been country, despite what Brad Paisley or anyone else says) performing in business suits, I had a moment of realization—this was not about celebrating country music at all; it was about moving past country music. It was about redefining “country music,” the term, as being not tied to a specific sound or even a specific artistic aesthetic, but rather to an ideology. Last night was not about showcasing country music’s center—it was about positioning country music at the center of American music, about presenting country music as an all-encompassing format which embraces what are supposedly “Main Street American” values and tastes.

But I would add that country music has always been loosely tied to an ideology–the disaffected white person.  And that most of us who love(d) country music had hoped that, if a change could be made, that it would be a change to be more broadly inclusive–music for disaffected people.  That is a move that would allow country to change with the times and retain some core sense of what the music is.

But I think that Malec is completely right that, instead, the change is towards country music just being music for white people–a little something for white people everywhere, for the white people who like Kid Rock, for the white people who liked Hootie and the Blowfish, for the white people who like 70s rock, etc.  It becomes not about aesthetics or even an aesthetic, but about broadening the audience.

And, yes, it’s true that this argument over what’s “real” country has been raging for decades (see Pete’s book, if you can bring yourself to do it, for example), as Noah Berlatsky notes:

The fun thing about country authenticity, of course, is that everybody’s a poseur. I mean, Carter’s not a rural worker anymore, yes? He’s editing some wonky online website and all enmeshed in a virtual community. It’s all over, Joe. Embrace your rootless cosmopolitanism.

And perhaps he’s getting at the same thing Malec is from a different perspective:

This message was both powerful and commercial; it appealed strongly to the rural transplants who were Kitty Wells’ audience. But it also appealed to other people; people like…well, like me, for one. When you package your values for mass consumption, you never can tell who is going to consume them. That is, after all, pretty much what capitalism does; it takes values and beliefs, repurposes them, and sells them to the highest bidder; which in this case was emphatically not the original audience. Take the semi-mythic rural past of purer morals and greater pride, decouple it from a particular community and a particular set of beliefs, and you have, not a militant manifesto, but a harmless affectation. The beauty and longing in an Emmylous Harris or Alison Krauss song is at once a kind of nostalgic pining for a lost backbone and a celebration of the pursuit of pleasures detached from specific moral values.

“When you package your values for mass consumption, you never can tell who’s going to consume them. That is, after all, pretty much  what capitalism does; it takes values and beliefs, repurposes them, and sells them to the highest bidder.”

If there’s a more succinct summation of the problems with country music, I’ve not heard it.

Although, I feel compelled to also point out that Berlatsky so thoroughly misunderstands bluegrass that it may call into doubt his discernment on any matter pertaining to music at all.  If you read this whole post, you’ll see him doing this funky thing where he seems to be conflating “bluegrass” and “old-timey country” into the same thing.

But no, to think of bluegrass as the older, more authentic form of country is akin to thinking of the Amish as the elder root from which the Mennonites grew.  Instead, like Tom Piazza says, bluegrass is country’s jazz, where the virtuosos go to show off to each other.

Let’s just listen to Tom talking about Jimmy Martin, rest his soul, back when he was around still calling me a motherfucker… anyway, yes, Tom talks about Jimmy, saying

Like many of the things Martin does, it seemed to involve a test.  The implicit question, here, seemed to be: How willing are you to get your hands dirty?

In some ways Martin poses that same question to Nashville.  Martin, I think, represents a reality that the New Nashville has tried to sanitize out of the picture.  And yet he refuses to go away, in any sense.  He is himself, unapologetically.  In an era when so much of everything seems to consist of spin control, and public relations, and hidden agendas, Martin hides nothing, and he doesn’t particularly care how you feel about it.  Nashville may change, but he will not.  Martin has survived, like the occasional old building you see in a downtown somewhere, whre the owner has refused to sell, and which stubbornly continues its own life amid the glossy skyscrapers.  He has created room for himself.  (Maybe that’s overly romantic.  It’s entirely conceivable to me that Martin would sell, if he knew how.  But he doesn’t know how, and that fact has not broken him.)

God, that’s some nice writing, there.  That last part really gets me.  And it seems to go back to what Malec is talking about, too.  Something about country music has become so sanitized that it makes it almost unrecognizable to me.

And to me, it’s that link with cleanliness (moral cleanliness anyway) that links it with the bland-spreading power of mainstream whiteness.  White people, we tell ourselves, are good people, we mean well, we do the right thing, we deserve the good things we have, and if everyone would just try to be more like us, their problems would be solved to.

The thing about country music, at its best, is that it–like rap when it’s at its best–reminds you that people are not so great; hearts get broken; people go crazy; there’s not room for everyone; things are ugly out here; that we are fucked up people doing fucked up things that often hurt us and the people we love so dearly; but that we are not always broken.

It’s that hint of defiance, aimed upwards at people and forces more powerful than us, that says our experiences and our talents and the things we love and that bring us joy are too of value, so fuck you, that is what’s compelling about all American music.

And if what Malec is saying is that he senses that country music is being scrubbed clean of that rebellious nature, then, yeah, I mourn that, too.

30 thoughts on “Let’s Just Call It “White Music” and Drop the Pretense

  1. I didn’t see much of the awards last night, but I did catch the Eagles performance and thought “They look more like they’re going to a board meeting rather than performing” — something struck me as very wrong and hypocritical considering
    they were always so anti-establishment. Now they’re turned into the establishment.

    I have a hard time listening to most mainstream country music. I can take Alison Krauss, Emmylou and Lucinda, but that’s about it. I just fail to find any validity or authenticity when someone is singing a country song with a “woe is me” theme (which many of them are) and the singer is wearing borrowed jewels and a Cavalli gown.

    As well, where we once had singers of drinking songs, today’s country artists go to rehab… and discuss it in public. I’m all for a person bettering him/herself, but don’t think Hank would have done it that way (had he not ODed…)

    Another thing I noted, in regards to fashion, was almost everyone really dressed this year; even the men. One guy who always looks in need of a shower was unrecognizable to me and if there had been no caption to identify the person, I wouldn’t have known who it was. It was very Old Hollywood glamour. I dug it, but something about it seemed “getting too big for ones britches” to me as well. How do people in middle America relate to these people? Gretchen Wilson even said herself that “Redneck Woman” was a response to seeing the country diva people on CMT or GAC and not finding any common ground with them. Now Wilson has kind of turned into another version of it.

    Did you notice your favorite person of all time, Mr John Rich, wasn’t in attendance?

  2. Oh, yeah, Short Man was there as a presenter (towards the end of the show).

    Funny, though…husband (poor rich Yankee boy that he is) and I were watching it and he said “are there always this many black people on stage at the CMAs?” And I thought about it and thought not. Even leaving aside Kid Rock’s deliberately sexually and racially integrated band and the Wailers, did anyone else notice that there was actually a few more black, Asian, and Latino sidemen and women?

    Country music (as defined by what will get played on major market radio) is increasingly about a viewpoint expressed in the lyrics, instrumentation, and the cultural referents in the songs. Anything Jennifer Nettles sings could be just as easily sung on the AMAs by Melissa Etheridge. Sheryl Crow simply cuts two versions of the same song. I don’t know how successful a strategy that’s going to be for the genre as a whole, but it sort of had to happen. The way that my parents grew up (seeing nothing of the world except the tailend of the mule, barefoot until they got to the schoolhouse door, walking over Hell’s half-acre looking for cows to milk) is a disappeared social experience.

    So, what I think is also happening is a kind of gathering in of us kids of the various hillbilly diasporas. Like everyone else in Cleveland, we were getting stoned to Led Zeppelin and slow dancing to Foreigner, but our dirty little secret was that on the weekend, our parents loaded us up in the car and dumped us in the middle of a cow pasture where we had to listen to Ralph Stanley, Jimmy Martin, and Flatt and Scruggs. They made us watch Hee Haw and we even thought it was funny sometimes. We had Randy Rhodes posters on the wall, but we also thought that Don Rich could play the hell out of a guitar. People of my age are cultural hybrids and so I see a conscious decision to pull in this second- and third-generation of people who’ve left Appalachia or the county seat town in the Midwest and who have ties to that life, but who have no plans to come back.

  3. Hey Aunt B. Thanks for the link and the kind words. A couple of caveats; first, I do in fact know the difference between bluegrass and old-timey, and I’m well aware the bluegrass was originally a commercial music based at least in part in jazz . I think the confusion comes because I’m talking about Kitty Wells’ album in particular. Her singing harks back to old timey predecessors (there weren’t many (any) female bluegrass singers at the time), but the music on “Dust on the Bible” is slicked up, countrified bluegrass (not slicked up countrified old timey.) Space constraints and the fact that I was primarily frying other fish meant that I didn’t make the distinction between old timey and bluegrass as clear as I should have…but, again, that’s a failure of communication skills rather than knowledge (at least in this case.)

    Second, I think you are far too quick to tar hip hop with the same segregationist brush as country. There have been numerous successful white rappers: Eminem, the Beastie Boys, and Aesop Rock all spring to mind instantly, and there are lots more (here’s a convenient list: http://www.jimdavies.org/personal/white-rappers.html). When you add in white producers and songwriters, the hip hop world starts to look quite integrated — certainly in comparison to rock, it doesn’t come off badly at all.

    Country in the modern era, on the other hand, has two or three black stars, if that. Basically, if you want to be a white rapper, you can. If you want to be a black country singer, you’re going to get labeled as blues or R&B, and that’s pretty much that.

    Actually, since R&B and hip hop have kind of fused over the past ten years or so, I think they’ve become arguably the most integrated popular music ever (with the possible exception of jazz, depending on how you look at it.) In general, black musical forms are historically far more open to whites than vice versa.

  4. Well, it’s also entirely possible I misunderstood you. I am, after all, not getting paid and you are, so we must assume market forces are at work in the way they are for a reason.

    But, in the spirit of clearing up misunderstandings, I wasn’t attempting to implicate rap as being… shall we say?… malignantly segregationist, the way that country music can be. I was more trying to draw in a broad stroke an argument I’ve been mulling over for a long time–back to that funhouse mirror.

    Because, yes, you can certainly see rap as being open to (talented) white artists and full of white producers and songwriters and most certainly country music does not have those same explicit roles for blacks. But how could you have country music without the core contributions of blacks?

    For starters, you’d have no banjo (not that there’s a whole lot of banjo at the moment). You’d have no Elvis. You can’t listen to the Jordanaires and the Fairfield 4 and not hear in them a common root. Shoot, you can’t have Alan Jackson’s “Mercury Blues” without Robert Johnson’s “Come to My Kitchen.” (Or, shoot, without the black guys who wrote it originally). And so on.

    In other words, I think that, as thorough as the influence of white people is on rap (both as participants in the making of it and as paying audiences who shape what’s getting made), the influence of black people on country is just as thorough, if more hidden. And I’d argue that it is more hidden because country music is “borrowing” the contributions of blacks instead of openly acknowledging and in many cases, paying for them.

  5. No, no — no fight, I don’t think. Alas….

    First of all…I’m totally a lefty socialist. I have no faith in market forces. Getting paid has some sort of relationship to quality, but it’s as likely to be negatively correlated as positively. Just because somebody felt like publishing my stuff doesn’t necessarily mean I have any idea what I’m talking about. (I mean, I’d like to think that I do, but I’d have to prove it some other way, I fear.)

    Now that that’s settled….

    I absolutely agree that the influence of black people on country is enormously important, from the banjo to Maybelle’s playing to the influence of jazz on Western Swing and bluegrass to the influence of R&B on rockabilly to quartet singing…yes, it’s pervasive.

    Country is fairly willing to acknowledge these contributions in some sense. I mean, Western Swing performers acknowledged jazz openly enough; I doubt Alan Jackson has any illusions about where blues comes from. What it’s unwilling to do is have actual black performers as stars. And I think that is because, as you say, country has more or less defined itself as white music for white people, and if it’s not that, then it’s nothing. Which is really unfortunate. Not to mention racist.

    I love country. But it *is* malignantly segregationist, which is morally…um, bad, and also has had really disastrous aesthetic consequences, I think. Race records and hillbilly music *were* equivalent mirror reflections of one another at one time. But a lot of history has happened since then. Race records opened up, blew out, swallowed a lot of white performers, and became virtually all of popular music as we know it, from rock to R&B to rap. Hillbilly music looked at moments like it might do something similar — with western swing, with bluegrass, especially with rockabilly, with the outlaw country movement — but it kind of always chose instead, for some good reasons and some very bad ones, to just stay hillbilly music. And that’s where we are now; with what is to me an enormously exciting, innovative world of pop music on the radio, and country over in the corner muttering about those darn kids and as blindingly segregated as if the 60s never happened.

    Or to look at it another way; race records and hillbilly records were arbitrary labels based on skin color and rural/urban distinctions that had nothing to do with how the music actually sounded. But those labels over time effectively created markets and genres which started to have their own internal logic. Where race and hillbilly records started out was very similar; where they’ve ended up is quite different. Rap and country both may have begun with string bands playing indistinguishable versions of “in the pines”, but in most ways that matter, they no longer have very much to do with each other.

  6. There’s some sort of interaction between race and age going on, too. There are a lot of reasons for/results of the CMAs swapping the Eagles in and the Hall of Fame inductees out, to be sure. But part of the results is that the awards show presented as a musical antecedent an older act with pretty much no connection to the music made by black artists in their heyday, and shut out the genuinely country antecedents who did have those musical connections. I’m pretty sure this was accidental, but it sure is weird.

  7. No, no fight. I’m just keeping him distracted until Alison Krauss can hunt him down and beat him up.

    Ha, just kidding.

    Anyway, Noah, do you read Jim Malec? Maybe it’s just me who’s sitting here grateful to have stumbled on you two both talking about stuff that has sparked for me some deep considerations, but dang, for me, reading the two of you side by side had been really challenging in that enjoyable way.

    Because I do want to come back to one of Malec’s smaller points–which is that, all of a sudden, the CMAs are full of non-white people presenting and performing and just generally being around.

    And this interests me because to me it seems like throwing a rug over the bloodstain and pretending like the murder never happened. Oh, we’re just going to put Lil Wayne on stage and we can all just ignore the fact that Lil Wayne isn’t actually ever going to sing his stirring songs about his Mama on the country radio.

    But does having one night a year where there is a visibly black presence really change anything?

    In other words, I completely agree with your point–putting Lil Wayne on stage does not improve the music. It doesn’t actually do anything to challenge anyone aesthetically.

    But what’s most shocking to me about it is that it seems to illustrate the exact problem country music still has. Country music behaves the way it does because the Industry believes (albeit mostly unspokenly) that it is music for white people and, as such, must be made by white people, and then listened to by white people who only listen to it.

    But like Bridgett pointed out, that’s just not the case anymore (if it ever was really the case at all). For the CMAs to act like they’re exposing their audience to Lil Wayne or Kid Rock or the Wailers is to completely misunderstand how music purchasing works. (and will continue to work, in greater and greater numbers, especially as the old folks get used to their iPods) Much of their audience already knows those acts, already listens to them along side country music.

    To get a little off tangent here, the one thing that constantly surprises me is how country music does look to pop for inspiration. I mean, look at how everyone is falling all over themselves to sound like 70s pop and rock.

    But where’s the looking back and valuing country music’s own past? Why are folks looking to the Eagles and not Don Williams? Why hasn’t Gretchen Wilson covered “I’m Going to Hire a Wino?”

    That always strikes me as funny.

    I was at a CD release party for Raul Malo’s cover album he did a couple of years ago and the self-congratulating the music industry folks did–“this just goes to show you that there are still people in this town who recognize good music”–about made me laugh out loud. They are the industry folks. If they know the music is good, who’s to blame for the shit on the radio?

  8. Country music behaves the way it does because the Industry believes (albeit mostly unspokenly) that it is music for white people and, as such, must be made by white people, and then listened to by white people who only listen to it.


    They are the industry folks. If they know the music is good, who’s to blame for the shit on the radio?

    A huge part of the problem is that the country music industry (and other music industries as well, but we are just talking country music right now) has turned over much of the business of marketing and promoting its music to radio. And radio these days is dedicated to selling advertising to the particular niche audience it has identified for the format of each station. So it doesn’t want an expanded playlist that might expand the audience’s demographics; it only wants to expand the audience within the defined demographic.

    Now, I have from time to time (not in the past 3 or 4 years, though) been shown the raw data from surveys of country radio listeners, and I can see that the problem is complicated by misinterpretations of the data based on certain preconceptions about the audience, mostly due to station owners’ politics. But mostly, the idea is just to narrow down an audience that can be pitched to a group of advertisers; if an owner has another station targeting another demographic there’s no point in getting the two groups to listen to each others’ music, and every reason to discourage it.

    The acts being left out of shows like the CMA Awards often predate that situation.* But, ironically they also include contemporary acts whose work is grounded in the country music of those days. I mean, when Josh Turner and Lee Ann Womack present an award but don’t perform, when Trisha Yearwood, who had the best album of her career last year, gets no mention, something is wrong.

    *Any white person my age who has any black friends of the same age knows that they know every country hit from our mutual childhood and teens, and also that their parents watched Hee Haw every week because it was the music they had grown up with.

  9. Damn, B, I thought WordPress did blockquotes. Anyway, those first two paragraphs are you, obviously, and the rest is me.

  10. Wow, I hadn’t realized Lil Wayne was on that show. That is kind of amazing…though also not entirely without precedent. There’s definitely a country music trope of long standing about appreciating black music while somehow never actually quite letting black performers into the music itself. Western Swing, rockabilly, hillbilly boogie — I mean, all of those performers were extremely familiar with black music, but they didn’t integrate (or hardly ever; there were a couple of exceptions like Wanda Jackson’s band.)

    When Jim Mercer says country is about an ideology not a style…when wasn’t that the case? Western Swing is jazz; hillbilly boogie is jump blues; rockabilly is R&B and on and on; what made them country was the ideology (that is, the racial and subcultural make-up) of the performers, not the style. That sort of worked okay as long as segregation remained at least moderately viable and black-based-pop-music hewed somewhere at least in the ballpark of the blues/jazz/string music that country was comfortable with. But hip hop has just made country look more and more ridiculous — I mean, 70s rock? They want to sound like 70s rock? That’s going on 40 years ago now. I mean, I love 70s rock, but does the world really need a sanitized, even whiter version of it two generations later?

    Thanks for starting this conversation by the way. I hardly ever get to burble about country music. My blog is mostly about comics, so it’s nice to talk about something else for a bit….

  11. Don’t ignore the Opry’s acquiescence in the Wallace/Nixon “southern strategy.” Until that time, I think, black people felt welcome at least as an audience in the country music big tent (to go back to Jim Malec’s phrase — and where is he, BTW? Does he know we’re talking about him?). Big Jim Folsom literally took a reworked “Y’all Come” as his theme song, and Alabama blacks understood that to mean something. Once the music became identified with anti-black politics, however, why should casual black listeners have continued to pay attention?

  12. That’s a good point, NM. I was on a plane once with a guy from Mississippi who said that, when he was in Korea for the war, all the white guys used to make fun of him for listening to the Opry, but a lot of the Southern black guys would join him, because the Opry on the radio sounded like home.

    Of course Charlie Pride and Ray Charles didn’t decide out of the blue one day to record country music; they had some feeling that that was their music, too, to love and perform (as, obviously, did Muddy Waters and Louis Armstrong).

    And here’s where my understanding of country music history as it overlaps with American history really breaks down. Because my sense is that, as racist as the society that produced it was, there was a belief that country music had a black audience (or knowledge of the fact that country music had a black audience).

    And now you have a situation where there’s little, if any, expectation that country music has any substantial black audience. I mean, they didn’t put Lil Wayne on that stage to give a thrill to black country fans. He’s a black performer performing for his white fans in that context.

    I’m prepared to believe you, nm, that it does have to do with them becoming so closely identified with anti-black politics. I’m just saying that it’s a piece of the puzzle I don’t yet know enough about to say for sure how it fits.

    It is interesting to me, though, that if you ask people when the heyday of country music was, it seems to be back when country knew it had a black audience. And the performers who seem to be best loved by the folks I like are the performers who seem most aware of that history. I mean, no offense to Little Big Town, but they sound like a blander, less quirky Fleetwood Mac. At least Miranda Lambert had the good sense to rip off a guy who lived in Nashville and to rip off a song on an album all about Nashville.

    I like your take on it, that it has to do with what radio wants. Because I’m prepared to say that it is clear that the more popular country music has become, the smaller it’s gotten in some way I can’t quite put my finger on.

    Noah, I read your comics stuff all the time and think “Hmm, there’s a smart guy who’s talking about shit I know nothing about.” So, I’m also really glad and tickled to get to talk country music with you.

    I’m thinking, too, about all the country music videos that are shot around town which somehow almost always fail to ever feature any non-white people. (And I do say “almost” because I’m sure there are some examples otherwise.) Nashville is a very diverse city (though, too, oddly segregated in ways still) and it’s got to be pretty difficult to use Nashville as your background and not get non-white people in the background shots.

    So, that also makes me wonder just what kind of story country music is trying to tell about itself and why.

    I still think that there’s something important about the whole “O Brother” incident and I haven’t seen ANYBODY give that the kind of thoughtful cultural theorizing that it needs. Because I feel like the “O Brother” soundtrack’s popularity, even in the wake of it having almost no radio play, was a moment when… See, I don’t know. I don’t know how to talk about it. We’re at the limit of my abilities. But it’s like we have the myth about country music–of it being this slick white (and mostly male, which we’ve not even touched on) segregated art form–and for a second we had a collection of music that seemed to come from some alternate country music tradition, where a person who listened to John Hartford got chills from the Fairfield Four and wondered about using Lomax recordings and was glad to hear “I’ll Fly Away.”

    It was, for a second, like the country music tradition everyone wishes were the dominate tradition had won.

    And the longer I’m here, the more I’m convinced that the “O Brother” moment is still sending aftershocks around town. (At the least, it established one modern country music producer–T Bone Burnett–as a brand who can almost sell albums himself, just by his participation).

    I think you’re wrong about Allison Krauss. I mean, my god, if you’re going to hate on her, hate on her because she won’t fucking project! Could you imagine going to a concert of hers where the mic went out? Even her band would have to lean in to hear her. How do you even know what she’s singing about is bland?

    Ha, I tease. But that does annoy me.

    But, when I first heard “Down in the River to Pray,” holy shit! I mean, damn, that gave me chills. It gives me chills now, sometimes, just when I hear it in my head.

    I just don’t believe there’s been a more important (or more pleasing) country music album in the last twenty years.

  13. …it seems to me that “white music” (country) and “black music” (blues / r&b) are telling pretty much the same story – or at least they once did. i.e. somebody did someone else wrong, life during hard economic times, etc. I think there is more common ground than the gulf that separates the two. Proves the point that we have much more in common than the stuff that seems to divide.

  14. When Allison Krauss wants to venture out of newgrass, does she sing a country song the way Jimmy Martin would have done? Does she recreate a Jimmie Rodgers song the way Bill Monroe did? Does she even cover a pretty cool Clapton song in the manner of the Seldom Scene or take a Manfred Mann song the way the Country Gentlemen did and make it so much her own that everyone forgets that it isn’t something older than bluegrass? Noooooo. No, she does a Bad Company song. Need I say more?

    Plus she sings in a littlegirly voice and I hate that! I don’t care who does it, although I will kinda sorta forgive it in singers with fibromyaglia. Wait, am I the one hating on her? I mean, I do, but when did I say that?

  15. Also: I’m prepared to believe you, nm, that it does have to do with them becoming so closely identified with anti-black politics. I’m just saying that it’s a piece of the puzzle I don’t yet know enough about to say for sure how it fits.

    I lived through the time when that changed. When I was in junior high country music was for rural people (and those in my urban community who enjoyed it; but we saw it as a music made by mostly white southern rural folks); by the time I finished high school it was, conceptually, music for horrible racist people who beat up hippies in their spare time. The way it was used and presented just completely changed it around in our heads. That’s why Gram Parsons had to work so hard to convince rockers that the contemporary country music of just that time was worth listening to. I don’t have time to go into it much now, and I don’t really know of any serious studies that address the topic (though it wouldn’t shock me if Bridgett does.) But ask yourself why Richard Nixon appeared on the Opry and what message it sent.

  16. I’m from Kentucky have visted and lived in different states like CA, NY, CT, VA, and MS.. What I have noticed is that like myself people are aware of different music; however, relating to the people who perform it may cause misconception. I’ll explain.

    Say if someone from the inner city back in the 70’s were asked what they thought about country music, they might have said they didn’t enjoy the sound of banjo’s during their time of music enjoyment.

    During that same time period if asked about Charlie Pride one may have suggested he didn’t really like country music he only found a niche to make money. By not knowing the enviroment he grew up in is only a conception and not a reality of the true person.

    We all know Charlie loved country music because of the joy he expressed on his face while singing the vocal he produced, and of course his body language told it all.

    This is a new era of technology we’re living in now and the days when country music was mainly banjos and fiddles is gone. True they play an intricate part, but sound technology is so advanced I feel its crossed over in to other fields of music and the true heart of country music is playing a back role.

    An example was the country rap song “Over and Over” with Tim Mcgraw a couple years back which featured the rapper Nelly. Nelly’s niche in music is rapping, and I don’t feel older country music lovers failed to relate to the song because of that.

    Many could not fathom his heart being in the song not only being where he was from, but because he was black. Also, some may even have thought like Charlie Pride he was in it just for the money.

    The truth is Nelly grew up in the midwest and had always had strong liking to country music. Tim and Nelly enjoy each others company greatly and have a common bond. That bond is they both enjoy country music.

  17. Great post, sorry I am late to it. Will be linking in the coming week! My family was in the (old, old) country music business. Irony, irony–I was just listening to Del Reeves “Girl on the Billboard” when I started reading this, too!

    Something about country music has become so sanitized that it makes it almost unrecognizable to me.

    Del’s comic obsession with the girl on the billboard would never be the subject of a country song now. They are trying to be so cool, they’d deny something so simple could garner their undivided attention. I miss the old country, and I am therefore pretty addicted to classic country. (But when I put it on my blog, seems to silence the commentariat!)

  18. by the time I finished high school it was, conceptually, music for horrible racist people who beat up hippies in their spare time

    But as I wrote here, some of us WERE the hippies.

    I think that period of country music? Was also due to singers/songwriters dealing with their OWN CHILDREN becoming hippies. My grandfather used to sing “Okie from Muskogee” very loudly in my direction: WE DON’T SMOKE MARIJUANA IN MUSKOGEE. AND WE DON’T TAKE OUR TRIPS ON LSD.

    It was also his way of telling me he knew perfectly well what I was doing, although he never confronted me directly.

    Now, is that country or what? :)

  19. Daisy, sure. Being the kid the song was written about, being part of the group that made it, must have been complicated. And funny.

    But if one was black, or a white a hippie whose family’s musical roots weren’t in country music, then stopping listening to it was easy. “Fighting Side of Me” told me that I was a traitor who ought to leave the country. “Welfare Cadillac” told my black friends that some people in their families were lazy cheats. And the president of the US got up on the Opry stage and said that the people who sang those songs were the right folks and the rest of us were scum. So leaving that music behind was easy, and continuing to listen to it took a real effort. And it’s no wonder that in the heads of people who weren’t in the group understood as making country music — people who weren’t white southerners or their kids — listening to country made you complicit in what was going on. Most blacks and progressives turned current country music out, for sure. Which is why people can by now, more than thirty years later, start reconceptualizing and recontextualizing the music in the ways B is talking about.

  20. Stephen, I think you may be missing the point of the discussion. I don’t think we’d be having the same talk here if Nelly had been on the awards show performing with Tim McGraw. But exactly what has Li’l Wayne done that is connected by country music even in name? And if the music being performed on a country music awards show leaves out not only particular instruments that were once part of the music, but also leaves out the chord structures, tempos, thematic concerns, and lyrical concreteness that were also part of country music, in what way is the music being performed country? Just because it’s played on a radio station with that label? Then you’re back to letting radio (or Billboard, or whomever) define the music instead of letting it define itself.

  21. I’m late to this party, but I still wanted to say, first of all, thanks for citing my work, and second, that this has been a fantastic discussion.

    With respect to race in country music (which really was not at the core of the point I was making in the cited article), I think a big issue is ownership.

    It may be true that country music mirrors rap, but why would we possibly expect country music to become more inclusive of blacks or other minorities when those minorities don’t feel like they’ve had a hand in building the music? The specific messages conveyed through the music are, in this case, irrelevant. Brad Paisley could be singing directly to the disaffected African-American, but would that individual be any more likely to identify with Paisley than she is currently?

    Jimmie Rodgers drew heavily from black singers, and his style would be studied and replicated down one branch of country’s music’s family tree. I don’t think there’s any question that so-called black music had a major impact on country music and how it sounds today.

    But country music has always been “White Music” because of the context in which the music exists. How could it reach out to disaffected blacks when the context in which the music is born has consistently devalued them? There are, of course, African-Americans–perhaps many–who like country music, but I doubt that a substantial portion of even that population would say that country music is a community which they feel like they are a part of.

    Rap traditionally exists as a forum for the discussion of the same types of issues that country exists as a forum for, as you rightly note. Sara Carter was singing about death, famine, and life in Appalachia, and while I’m certainly not a Rap historian, doesn’t it exist in the same vein, only substituting the streets for the mountains?

    I’m not sure that the shift of the term “country music” which I describe in my article is actually directly related to any of this, and, in fact, a sterilization of country music could serve to broaden the music’s appeal within a middle class suburban black community that in some ways mirrors a middle class suburban white community. While disaffected white people and disaffected black people may deal with a number of similar issues, the manifestation of those issues often diverge. So why target a group that has shared problems when you can instead target a group that has shared values?

    To that end, Putting Lil’ Wayne on stage isn’t about ignoring the past, it’s about saying, “Hey, we see you. And we’re not the same racist hillbillies we used to be. We’re tearing that down and building up something new, transforming Country Music into American Music. And you can be a part of that.”

    I don’t think the powers that be in country music want it to be the music of any particular group of disaffected people–black or white. I think they want to be the music of a population that sees itself as mainstream, middle class, “regular Americans,” as you say.

    This is a way of building ownership, of taking it away from the roots and letting it become something else. And who is included in that really doesn’t matter as long as they want to buy the product.

  22. Hi, Jim. Nice to see you here (See, Barry, all the cool kids comment here, eventually. I will lure you in. Bwah ha ha ha ha. Um, yes, excuse me. I don’t mean to get distracted by my evil plots.).

    I guess what remains to be seen is how much of an audience there is among mainstream, middle class, “regular Americans” and whether an art with no roots can survive.

    It’s always been my secret wish that some reporter would, when some sweet new thing reports that her influences include Loretta Lynn, ask her to sing some Loretta. I am convinced that they are just repeating what their publicists have told them to say.

    And to me, that’s almost worse–not an actual living history, but a zombie history that looks alive, but isn’t.

  23. Jimmie Rodgers drew heavily from black singers, and his style would be studied and replicated down one branch of country’s music’s family tree.

    He influenced a bunch of black performers, too.


    sterilization of country music could serve to broaden the music’s appeal within a middle class suburban black community that in some ways mirrors a middle class suburban white community [snip] Putting Lil’ Wayne on stage isn’t about ignoring the past, it’s about saying, “Hey, we see you.”

    Do suburban girls of whatever race listen to Li’l Wayne? Because while the record companies may want the boys,* country radio certainly doesn’t care about them.

    *Or maybe not … where was Toby Keith at the CMAs?

  24. Oh, B, I forgot to tell you, we’re all wrong about country music anyway. It’s about death. That’s it. Even the pictures and songs about wells are about death. Even Marty Stuart. Dana Jennings says so.

  25. Wasn’t Keith boycotting? He’s always pitching a fit about something or other. I’m pretty sure this time it was the CMAs.

    Ha, I haven’t read Jennings’ book, but there’s nothing funnier to me than reading that whole review and seeing at the end that his book is “Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death, and Country Music.” Because nothing says “My book is important!” like a whole review that can be summed up as “See how Marty Stuart proves my point!”

  26. Actually, one of the points he makes in the book is relevant to this discussion. He’s from New Hampshire (? somewhere in New England; I can’t remember exactly) and posits (I’m really oversimplifying) that because country music can resonate emotionally and musically with someone from his background, it isn’t of the rural south. Not in the same way Jim is suggesting, because ownership of the music has spread, but because in some way it was only incidentally a product of those people.

    The death part, though; someone very dear to me notes that “liking country music because it’s dark is like liking cars because they’re green.”

Comments are closed.