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.
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.