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Wild And Blue: The Politics Of Country

By Sandy Carter

 

Some of the fondest memories of my west Texas childhood are linked to the lonesome moan of the pedal steel guitar and the soulful honky tonk voices of Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and Ernest Tubb. In the 1950s, as I was entering grade school and gaining some awareness of the world around me, these sounds served up essential clues to my sense of time and place.

A few years later, however, I perceived that some considered country music inferior to other forms of popular music. Southern accents, nasal voices, and bad grammar, I learned, were the most visible signs of this inferiority. So I became self conscious about my drawl and with some vigilance and discipline began modifying my twang according to standards I took to be more enlightened.

But the full arsenal of Southern stereotypes was not so easy to escape. In my 20s, as I began living and working in other parts of the country, I came to realize that people outside the South, particularly politically progressive people outside the South, judged white Southerners and nearly all aspects of their cultural heritage as backward. And this snobbery often found its most candid expression in mocking and ridiculing country music.

The elitist views that define popular prejudices about the country tradition greeted the music at its commercial birth. In the 1920s, when country music first felt the pressures of commercialization, rural traditions of all kinds were experiencing tensions and challenges brought on by industrialization. Country sounds suggesting older and more settled ways seemed inherently at odds with rapid social and technological change. The music expressed a longing for stability and order and deep-seated fears of the temptations of the modern world. At the same time, the music could not help but reflect hopes of escaping the hardships associated with traditional rural life.

Conflicted feelings also derived from the Southerness of the music. While the music of Stephen Foster and the writings of Mark Twain fueled romantic notions of the South as an exotic land of enchantment, the region also evoked images of slavery and the Civil War, the Scopes monkey trial, and the Klan. Thus for many, country music, regardless of its subject matter, was nothing more than the sound of ignorance and racism. Retaining a stubborn self-consciousness of its white, rural, Southern, working class origins, country music today continues to attract and repulse listeners by stirring the same opposing images. Nonetheless, in a span of 70 years, country music has grown from regional to national and international popularity. And presently, the music is cresting at a commercial high-water mark justifying marketing claims that country is now "America's pop music."

With mass popularity, however, some of the most distinctive qualities of country music have been diluted. Listening to the musical styles dominating country radio, one hears a generic McDonald's styled product so stripped of "hayseed" connotations that it virtually erases the line between country and various forms of easy listening white pop and bland 1970s styled corporate rock. While harder and more traditional country sounds have not disappeared, the market driven industry bias toward an urban-suburban contemporary sound has certainly muddled the definition and origins of the musical idioms known as country.

Like other music forms of our culture, country music is an amalgam of influences. Its sound, song structure, and lyrical text reveal a heavy debt to African American musical styles, particularly blues and gospel. Rhythmically, country draws most on the dance meters of English and European country dance tunes. As to lyrics and narrative style, country storytelling has roots in Southern Protestant sermonizing, barroom banter, front porch story swapping, and the general character of regional oral traditions. Other distinctive characteristics relate to the way the music is performed. Unlike many pop performers, country singers write much of their material bringing a subjective, direct voice to their performance. Like blues singers, they aim for intimacy more than technical sophistication. In the singer's voice and story lay the central appeal of country music.

Though country music is a vocal music above all else, its instrumental sound is unique and immediately identifiable. It begins with the guitar and is filled out with fiddle, banjo, mandolin, dobro, bass, pedal steel guitar, and harmonica. The distinctive country sound comes from the way the musicians play these instruments with flat picks, finger picks, bottlenecks, and bow. In contrast to the smooth, melodic approach of pop and classical music, country players, again showing an African American influence, favor a rough-edged attack with strings popped, scraped, hammered, and frailed. Mirroring the unadorned vocal sound, instrumental solos and fills are deliberately "unrefined." The emphasis is on sounds that counterpoint the social and emotional realism conveyed by the singer and the song. Accordingly, country sounds are harsh, rowdy, romantic, humorous, and rousing. Most of all, they are mournful.

Did you ever see a robin weep When leaves begin to die

That means he's lost the will to live I'm so lonesome I could cry

--Hank Williams

Historically the most dominant and unmistakable quality of the country sound is sadness. One of the great stereotypes plaguing country music is the cry-in-the-beer loser drowning the pain of romantic loss in some dark tavern. But the heartbreak in country music runs deeper than cheating, drinking, and divorce. The sad tale country music has to tell goes back to the devastation the region suffered during the Civil War, the loss of rural identity, and the great migration of Southerners to urban centers in the Midwest and West during the 1940s and 1950s. Understandably, country music is homesick music, permanently colored by feelings of longing and lost innocence.

The loss at the heart of the country song has been expressed through two divergent impulses. When the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers came to Bristol, Tennessee in August 1927 to perform before record scout Ralph Peer and a Victor Talking Machine, they brought with them distinct bodies of material representing seemingly contradictory themes and values. In the Carter Family's huge repertoire of traditional songs resided the morally decent old-time virtues of work, family, humility, and Christian fellowship. By contrast, Rodgers, an ex-railroad brakeman from Meridian, Mississippi, wrote tunes with roots in blues and jazz, folk and cowboy songs, work gang hollers and pop. Though Rodgers wrote his share of songs glorifying the home and family, his work also celebrated the lives of hell-raisers, hoboes, wayward lovers, criminals, rounders, and ramblers.

Both approaches proved immediately popular. By 1933, the year of his death from tuberculosis, Jimmie Rodgers had become country's first crossover success and in the South his status was near mythic. And by the time the Carter Family disbanded in 1943, their music was well-known throughout the United States, as well as parts of Canada, Mexico, England, Ireland, and Australia. Aside from establishing the commercial viability of country music, the breakthroughs of Rodgers and the Carter Family gave the shared musical culture of the white South coherence. Though commercialization accelerated the homogenization of sounds, by documenting the diversity of local and regional styles it also helped Southerners gain a fuller sense of their common cultural heritage. The music labeled "hillbilly" dramatized what they suffered, survived, and left behind. It offered solace and understanding, realism and escape. But most of all, it was music that responded to change with a reassertion of tradition. The Carter Family's religious tunes and sentimental ballads and Jimmie Rodgers' chronicles of the rambling man, in different ways, mapped the boundaries of tradition and the dire consequences of its breakdown.

Because of this emphasis on Southerness and tradition, country music has long been associated with all that is reactionary. However, while country music generally expresses a conservative outlook, the view of country as an exclusively white, male-dominated, right-wing tradition is unfair and one-dimensional. At no point in its history has country music expressed a consistent political ideology. Although performers such as W. Lee O'Daniel, Jimmie Davis, and Roy Acuff have run for political office and many country musicians have endorsed candidates and aired opinions in public, the music resists easy ideological labeling. Every hard-headed patriotic diatribe like "Okie From Muskogee" can be matched by songs like Waylon Jennings's multicultural, egalitarian anthem "America" and James Talley's ode to populist rebellion "Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again?":

Now there's always been a bottom

And there's always been a top

And someone took the orders

And someone called the shots

And someone took the beatin', Lord

And someone got the prize

Well, that may be the way its been

But that don't mean its right

More importantly, since country music has always been a voice for small farmers, factory hands, day laborers, the displaced and unemployed, its harsh portraits of work and everyday life carry an implicit critique of capitalism. Instead of overt political protest, country songs prefer to deliver social criticism through poignant descriptions of economic hardship and family sacrifice. Some of the best examples of this style of protest are Merle Haggard's "Mama's Hungry Eyes," Dolly Parton's "Coat Of Many Colors," and Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter."

As to the issue of race, country music's sentimental attachment to Dixie is often taken as an endorsement of white supremacy and slavery. Country music's glorification of the South, however, derives mostly from an idealized notion of working the land and the real life movement of millions off the land during the years of the Great Depression and World War II. Not surprisingly, hundreds of country tunes plead the case of the farmer and celebrate the beauty of Southern landscapes. By contrast, since the birth of the country music industry in the 1920s, very few country songs have offered direct commentary on race relations in the South, and certainly no popular song has advocated a return to the slave system. This doesn't mean, of course, that white Southerners or the country music industry are free of racism. Rather, it suggests that the homesickness in country music is based primarily on the erosion of rural identity.

Still, it is obvious that "whiteness" is dominant in country music. Despite the tradition's enormous debt to African American music and other ethnic music cultures, non-white performers are still exceedingly rare in country music. When voices of color have gained popularity in the country field, it has generally been through songs and styles evidencing only traces of their racial origins. Nonetheless, in recent decades Mexican-Americans such as Johnny Rodriguez, Freddy Fender, Tish Hinojosa, and Flaco Jiminez and African Americans such as Charlie Pride, Stoney Edwards, and Big Al Downing have won acceptance with country audiences. And occasionally, there are tunes like Bobby Braddock's "I Believe The South Is Gonna Rise Again" that break the mold:

The Jacksons down the road were black like we were

But our skins were white and theirs was black

I believe the South's gonna rise again

But not the way we thought it would back then

Some of the strongest stereotypes attached to country music revolve around the social and sexual roles of women. To many people Tammy Wynette's 1968 hit "Stand By Your Man" typifies the passive, long suffering mentality of the unliberated country woman. In truth, the female perspective in country music is much broader and far more assertive than this superficial stereotype can allow. The richest and most authoritative evidence of this reality can be found in Mary Bufwack and Robert Oermann's Finding Her Voice: The Saga Of Women In Country Music(Crown Publishers Inc., New York). This 541 page narrative tracing the lives and music of country women from the late 19th century up to the present, shows how country music has encouraged white working class women in their struggles to survive and resist "economic exploitation, sexual subjugation, and limited opportunities."

Exploring the folk origins of country music, Bufwack and Oermann argue that women were the primary folklorists for early rural music, memorizing the tunes and lyrics that provided the basic entertainment for the family and community. And in their own original ballads, women expressed sexual fantasies and discontents in songs loaded with images of romantic longing, promiscuity, violence, and death. Bufwack and Oermann also reveal more active and socially oriented resistance in the depression era songs of Sarah Gunning, the composer of "I Hate The Capitalist System," and Aunt Molly Jackson, who began making up class conscious songs and walking picket lines before she was ten.

It was not until the 1950s, however, that women in country music began to gain commercial equality with men. Following Kitty Well's surprising 1952 hit "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels"--a woman's retort to Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side Of Life--women singers such as Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Tammy Wynette started achieving record sales and stardom rivaling country men. The appeal of the modern country female star, Bufwack and Oermann note, in many ways mirrored general trends in country music. Country tunes of the 1950s and 1960s still focused on subjects of work, family, and religion. But reflecting an audience that was now struggling to come to grips with the realities of urban life and wage labor, the music increasingly dealt with alcoholism, infidelity, and divorce. Reacting to these problems from a distinctly female point of view, country women stepped forward with songs displaying tougher attitudes. Sad songs of betrayal prevailed, but women now would sing also of sexual freedom and nights on the town. And in love songs, women would voice a straightforward demand for relationships based on fair play and an end to double standards.

Some of the purest samples of this new toughness came in a string of popular tunes by Loretta Lynn. With a basic hard country sound and a writing style favoring down-to-earth blue collar bluntness, Lynn laid down the law to men in songs such as "Fist City" and "Don't Come Home A-Drinking (With Loving On Your Mind)." With her singles "The Pill" and "One's On The Way," Lynn also became the first popular country singer to publicly advocate for birth control. These attitudes and Lynn's reputation for gearing her shows to women, earned her a legion of devoted, fanatical fans, including a large lesbian following.

Although few country music women of the 1950s and 1960s made music as self-consciously for women as Lynn, the emergence of country women superstars put "the woman's perspective" on substantially more equal terms with that of the working man. By 1984 about one-fourth of the top country singles and albums were by women. And today's country and pop charts are overflowing with country women--Reba McEntire, Wynonna Judd, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Trisha Yearwood, Suzy Bogguss, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, and K.T. Oslin, to mention only a few. Most significantly, the commercial appeal of the current generation of country women seems directly linked to a feminist oriented lyric. Lorrie Morgan, for instance, takes clear control of her relationships in "What Part Of No," "Watch Me," and "5 Minutes." Michelle Wright shows off a similar attitude on "Take It Like A Man." And Martina McBride rebels against an abusive husband on "Independence Day." As these examples suggest (and many others could be given), the most progressive and defiant strains of contemporary country music are being created by women.

While the politics of country music eludes many popular prejudices and neat categories of left and right, the fundamental conservatism of the message cannot be denied. Country's conservatism, however, comes not from taking a particular stand on particular issues, but in the way it reads and resolves conflict. Country music may be one of the truest forms of popular music in giving voice to the bitter realities of class and the sorry state of male-female relations. But in offering few avenues of escape and rebellion, country music tends to settle struggle in favor of the powers that be. Change in country music comes mostly from individual hard work and sacrifice, luck, and God. The music's vision of community is insular and backward looking. And as a result, failure breeds feelings of self-blame and resignation.

Nonetheless, country's stoic acceptance of things as they are cannot be taken as an unqualified endorsement of the status quo. The great strength of country music has been its ability to capture white working class life as it really is and without the projection of false hope. Country music knows you can't always get what you want or what you need no matter how hard you try. In this realistic assessment of limits, the music contradicts capitalist ideals of progress, fairness, and happiness through consumption. Accordingly, throughout most of its commercial history, country music has been dismissed as something beneath and apart from mainstream culture.

Fully aware of country music's "negatives," the Nashville music establishment has periodically regroomed the sound and image of the tradition with hopes of winning respectability and crossover appeal. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was the smooth, urbane "Nashville Sound," in the 1970s it was the tasteless pop country of John Denver and Olivia Newton-John, and in the 1980s it was Urban Cowboy role playing. Although all of these trends gave country a temporary commercial boost, hard-core country fans and musicians reacted to each with a purist backlash (bluegrass, the Bakersfield sound, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings' "outlaw" movement, neotraditionalism) that eventually brought the market back around to traditional sounds.

In the Reagan-Bush-Clinton era, country music has slowly ascended again to mainstream popularity with sounds and images revealing few traces of country's old-time rough edges. This time around country's new audience seems to come from aging white boomers and younger middle-income suburbanites who've tired of classic rock and can't tolerate aggressive youth sounds (metal, hip-hop, alternative rock) or easy listening pop. For these listeners, country supplies a guitar based rock influenced sound, adult subject matter, and yearning for a more simple and decent way of life.

Unfortunately in meeting this demand, the music industry has again resorted to formula: muscles in big hats, starched boot cut Wranglers, choreographed sexy moves, and pale, twang-free impersonations of heartbreak. But at the borders of country, in the progressive new voice of women, left-of-center hillbilly folk (Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Tom Russell, and Iris Dement), country rock (Rodney Crowell and Travis Tritt), traditional bluegrass (the Johnson Mountain Boys), and tradition conscious hard country (Dwight Yoakam and Marty Brown), you can still hear the raw emotions and wild and blue themes of a truly populist art form. The "old" story country music has to tell is too real and too rooted to be forgotten.