If They Kept Finding it, It Must Be The Best

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.

2 thoughts on “If They Kept Finding it, It Must Be The Best

  1. 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!”

    No, that’s not why they recorded it. They recorded it because a man named Ralph Peer had a publishing company and he was tasked with finding talent for the just-developing recording industry. He knew that certain regions of the county had a ready audience for certain styles of music, so he recorded country songs for the South and he recorded blues and jazz for African Americans.

    And around this same time a thing called radio was just becoming huge, and a performing rights group called ASCAP representing the license holders of popular music had a monopoly basically controlling all of the licenses and charging whatever they wanted. And a group of radio broadcasters decided to form their own perforning rights group as competition so they could get out from under the tyranny of ASCAP and this group was called BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) and because all of the big pop artists and writers were already signed to ASCAP, the new company had to look outside that field for its talent. So they specialized in what was then called “hillbilly music” and “race music” — country, blues, and R&B. So now there was an industry to back the development and growth of these genres.

    I really don’t see how anyone can separate the history of the recording industry and music publishing industry from the history of country music. They are intertwined; they developed together.

  2. B, Malone was tasked with responding to the papers because it’s his thesis they were disagreeing with. The titles of some of his books can give you an idea: Southern Music/American Music, Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers: Southern Culture and the Roots of Country Music, Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’: Country Music and the Southern Working Class. I wasn’t there, but I understand he was pretty gracious about all the young punks (metaphorically speaking) coming in and picking at his arguments, but he still is an essentialist about it himself. It’s not that his role at the conference required him to take that position for the sake of argument, that’s the position that he spent his career staking out. And now other folks are pointing out that it may need some nuance if not outright revision. Which is how the study of this stuff goes.

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