The International Country Music Conference ended up with a really interesting discussion on whether country music is somehow an inherently Southern phenomenon or if something else accounts for all of the Southern-ness of country music.
So, there were a bunch of people who talked about rural music all over the nation–Maine, the Midwest, etc. And then Bill Malone was tasked with giving the response to all this. I don’t know Bill Malone at all, so I couldn’t tell how serious he was v. how much he’d just been tasked with taking the contrary position. He was in a difficult position, because he really seemed to genuinely like the papers and thought their work was interesting, but he was supposed to take the contrary position–that there is something inherently Southern about country music. Plus there’s the weird dynamic of him having pretty much invented the idea of the study of country music as a scholarly pursuit.
This is to say that there were a lot of interesting angles. Plus, Nolan Porterfield was already gone, which was too bad. I rely heavily on Porterfield to say things that are probably painfully obvious to most people, but I don’t know–like that songs were about three and a half minutes long because that’s about how much recording space you had on a record side back in the day. I seem to recall him talking one year about how we think of the South as the cradle of country music because that’s where people went to record and people went to record there because the trains went there. It was easier to get to the rural South than it was to get into the rural North or the rural Midwest. I would have liked to hear if he still felt that way.
And, friend of Tiny Cat Pants, Barry Mazor did, I thought, a nice job of pointing out that one thing the South had going for it was a large rural population who were proven to spend money on records recorded by other rural Southerners (or people adopting a rural Southern persona), so we should not confuse matters of literal folk-lore (in which we can safely say that all folks, everywhere, create lore) with matters of what record companies are willing to gamble on.
But the thing that sticks in my craw is how Malone’s argument kept circling back to “If there was such great stuff in other parts of the country, why did no one bother to record it? Obviously, they kept coming back to the South because the South is the best!”
And I hate that argument.
But, on the other hand, I thought he said some really astute things about how the South had some things going for it in terms of having public interest–the strong influence of African American tropes in all things, the strong Evangelical church presence, and the sense that there was always something weird and interesting and “unlike anything you might have heard” going on in the South. I think this is right, that there’s a level of exoticism, without being too foreign to Southern folkloric expressions, for non-Southerners, and a sense of solidarity and regional pride that was necessary for and attractive to the South in the early 1900s, that other regions didn’t need.
Okay, so that’s all well and good. So, it’s probably not fair to me to be still niggling over this idea that people’s continued forays into the South and the spread of a Southern-centric perspective means that, of course, there’s something intrinsically better about Southern music. And basically, it grates on me because, if you were to swap “Southern” with “male,” you get a very common explanation for why there aren’t more women everythings.
This is the way it is, therefore it is correct, just doesn’t cut it for me.