Will Hermes | Longreads | August 2018 | 14 minutes (3,585 words)

Read an excerpt of Country Music USA.

First published in 1968, Country Music USA was basically a remix of the thesis Bill Malone submitted for his PhD at UT-Austin. It was, and remains, a staggering work of scholarship that became a cornerstone of American music history— anyone writing seriously about country must reckon with it.

Earlier this year, University of Texas Press issued an updated Fiftieth Anniversary edition, with additional material by scholar Tracey Laird. It includes a new chapter devoted in large part to country’s woman problem — from the excommunication of the Dixie Chicks from the mainstream after Natalie Maines’ 2003 dis of President Bush, through their controversial collaboration with Beyoncé on the 2016 CMA Awards and the rise of “bro country.” Laird writes about how country radio has been effectively black-balling women artists, a situation crystallized in the unfortunate words of a radio exec who described women artists as the “tomatoes of our salad.”

As a real and/or perceived banner of red-state, pink-skin culture, country music can seem purely that. But Malone and Laird document that, like most great things in America, it’s a melting pot of influences, attitudes and orientations, political and otherwise. And while the current landscape might not rival that of the Hank Williams-led halcyon days, artists like Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, and others suggest we’re in a new golden era for the music, a renaissance Malone and Laird put in perspective.

We caught up with Malone in his longtime home of Madison, Wisconsin; Laird called in from Atlanta.

This book is an amazing achievement by 2018 standards — but Bill, you wrote the first edition a half a century ago in 1968! For the benefit of the youngsters, how do you go about researching a book like this without the Internet, let alone Spotify?

BM: Well, there were no repositories for country music either! In Nashville, the Country Music Foundation was just getting started; they didn’t have an archives yet. I just had to use whatever I could find, and that meant everything from Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs, where I read about instruments, to popular magazines, and interviews when I could get them — when a person came to town, or when I could get up enough resources and go and find somebody.

But indispensable were the record collectors. I would really have been lost had it not been for the work that they had done. That was a real starting point.

These were not academics, strictly speaking, but armchair academics, correct?

BM: Enthusiastic and very informed collectors.

Tracey, how did you approach this revised edition? What did you want to accomplish with it?

Tracey Laird: My main task was to take the story Bill has told and extend it into the 21st century. It was a little intimidating because, frankly, Bill is one of the heroes of my own scholarly story. But I decided early on that I couldn’t mirror his encyclopedic knowledge. And so what I tried to do was connect things going on in the 21st century with other, I think, significant dynamics — including new media that’s shaping the way people apprehend country music.

BM: Tracey did work that I couldn’t have done and I probably wouldn’t have done. We just don’t think in the same directions, but it’s really necessary to have the kind of information she’s provided.

One of the first points you make in the book punctures a myth about country music representing some sort of a pure monoculture, when in fact it’s much more multicultural than that.

BM: It’s very romantic to think that this music began in some isolated enclave way back in the Appalachians or the Texas plains. And I think I probably fell into that trap a little bit in the beginning. But one of the book’s main purposes was to show that this music came from many, many sources. It was largely American-made, and it was anything but pure. The early hillbilly musicians borrowed from everyone around them — the African American influence was particularly strong, but everywhere you could see the influence of the varied ethnic groups that populated America and had driven pop music.

I’ve continued to be amazed at how many of the old songs came from Tin Pan Alley in New York City — these hard boiled songwriters who wrote songs on every subject, and then had their music disseminated by vaudeville, minstrel, burlesque entertainers. Music moved into the repertoires of country music, and consciously or unconsciously, they changed the music, and then it came down to us on recordings and sheet music and personal appearances. Country has been a very eclectic music. I think musicians tend to play whatever appeals to them. They don’t care where it came from.

There’s a pretty big Hawaiian influence, surprisingly.

BM: Very much so. I think it was 1915, there was a international exposition in California and musicians came from everywhere. But there was a contingent that came from Hawaii, introduced their style and their instruments, and then some of them began touring the country. Young American musicians heard this music, were intrigued by it, and began trying to learn the Hawaiian guitar. It just provided a really nice complement to old lonesome songs, and came about as close to simulating the voice as any instrument did.

There were other influences, too — Mexican influences and Tyrolean yodeling.

BM: You’ve got all kinds of speculation about where the yodel came from. Swiss musicians came before the Civil War and traveled generally, I think, with minstrel troupes.

You know, there are all kinds of ways in which the human voice has been used to punctuate a moment or a mood. Cowboys had their hollers; African Americans shouted their field hollers. And I know my father, when I was growing up in east Texas, he used to get up every morning and — this is literally true— go out on the front porch and just holler at the top of his voice. I think it was just his way of sort of greeting the morning, getting ready for what he had to do.

All kinds of influences that were available to people. But I still think it was those traveling vaudeville and minstrel entertainers who really planted the yodel in the minds of American musicians.

Right, and of course Jimmie Rodgers was the man who really popularized one variation — the “Blue Yodel.”

BM: Yeah, he’d yodel in just about every song. Even the love songs! Blues songs and train songs, love songs — he just couldn’t resist.

He was a guy who drew from all sorts of stuff, and certainly from African American music. I was surprised to read that he’d performed in blackface for a period.

BM: Yup. Like a lot of the early musicians did. And you find examples of that right on up into the early sixties, when the civil rights revolution came along, [musicians] finally got too self-conscious and dropped the form.

There’s been a lot of scholarship around that period of music in the last 10 years. People were embarrassed by it and didn’t want to look at it. But it was a form of cultural exchange; African American artists performed in blackface, too. It was complicated.

BM: When black musicians began striking out to try to create their own identities and introduce their own forms of music to the American public, they felt, “well, if we want to make it, if we want to get inroads into public entertainment, we better play by the rules.” But of course, while playing by the rules, they also introduced their styles to other musicians as well.

TL: And subverted the rules along the way, I would like to think.

BM: That’s right.

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African American influence also came into country music in the form of jazz. One of the greatest pleasures of early country-western music is the sound of Bob Wills. Western swing recordings were a real fusion of black and white American music.

BM: And there were a number of blues singers in the late twenties, early thirties. Many of them are pretty obscure today, largely unknown, but they sounded so black to some listeners that their records were advertised along with the music of African American entertainers.

TL: And even mistakenly released as “race records,” right?

BM: Yeah. Unfortunately, in the early days, I think this adoption of terms like “race” and “hillbilly” obscured the fact that those forms of music were more similar then they were unlike, and that the musicians were borrowing from each other continually.

Let’s talk about the term “country.” The music that we’re talking about wasn’t labeled that way originally, right? There were a number of different terms.

BM: Yeah. They didn’t quite know what to call it. The record companies tend to do come up with their own designation. “Old time”… “Hill-country” tunes. “Folk” was used on occasion.

TL: I also think the story of rock ‘n’ roll gets mixed up in there, because someone like Elvis is being introduced in country terms, because there’s nowhere else to put him. But then — sort of after rock ‘n’ roll — folk became, among certain sectors of the youth population, a reaction to rock ‘n’ roll, something more authentic and down home. But by then they didn’t mean country music. They meant a separate stream — they meant, you know, Woody Guthrie, and Leadbelly, and things that we don’t consider in the center of country music anymore. It’s all fascinating dynamics.

BM: Hillbilly came about kind of accidentally. The story that Archie Green came up was that in about 1925, a group of musicians from eastern Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina, a group led by Al Hopkins, made some records. And Ralph Peer, who seems to have been everywhere …

Right — the great record man who traveled around and recorded some of the earliest country acts…

BM: And he asked ‘em “What do you want to call your music?” And Al Hopkins supposedly said, “Well, we’re just a bunch of hillbillies. Call us anything you want.” And so Peer described them on the record label as Al Hopkins and the Hillbillies. And little by little, other groups began to adopt the term, too. By the time I was growing up in the 1940s, hillbilly was a commonly-used term. That’s what we always called it at home. We weren’t saying that we were mountain people. We were just saying we were backwoods people. In other words, “hillbilly” had a very broad connotation. And there are still folks today, like Marty Stewart and Dwight Yoakam, who still refer to their music as “hillbilly.” I think that’s just one way of not only defending the music, but defending the culture from which it came.

The term fell from favor when marketers were trying to put more of a highbrow, mainstream sheen on it.

BM: You don’t really find the word “country” used to describe the music until well after World War II…

TL: To disassociate the term “hillbilly” with the music that they were making…

BM: Yeah, a more respectable, all inclusive term than “hillbilly” was.

Women have always had a central role in country music, but maybe not always acknowledged. Could you talk a little bit about the hurdles that might’ve been specific to gender, historically, and how they sort of played out over time and changed? They’ve certainly changed.

TL: There have been women all along in country music who have innovated and pushed boundaries, and they famously get pushed back. People like Kitty Wells in the ‘50s, she’s recording “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” and getting banned from the radio for the edginess of her sentiments. That happens with Loretta Lynn, too, although it didn’t dent her popularity.

One of the things that I talked about in my contribution to the book was that shifting in the ‘90s — there being what one writer called “country girl power songs” for a bit. But there’s always been, I think, even in the midst of the shifting aesthetic quality or the quality of expression in those songs, there’s still resistance in the media. You have the very successful radio consultant in a country music radio industry who unapologetically said 19 percent is the maximum amount of women’s voices you should have in any country music playlist in order for your radio station to be popular.

The “tomatoes in the salad” coinage.

TL: Yeah — the women are the tomatoes in the men are the lettuce was his metaphor, which is really unfortunate. I also think, though, that those formulas for radio popularity are breaking down, because radio no longer determines what’s popular. And I think that’s kind of opening up some of those old industry constrictions on women. I’m optimistic that the new media environment is a way all those old walls are going to fall for women in the industry. It’s a fascinating time for music and politics — and these things are always, on some level, combined.

It was good to read about woman behind the scenes, like Cindy Walker — who I interviewed before she passed — and Felice Bryant, two names that might not be known to a lot of people, but who are two of the greatest songwriters of the postwar era. Bill, you wrote about that period as the golden era of country music. Why do you call it that and why do you think that era happened at that point in time?

BM: Well, country music was achieving popularity and reaching out to new audiences, while at the same time, in my opinion, it was preserving its distinctiveness. It was still country. With Hank Williams being at the top of the list, you know, these musicians sounded like they came from working class homes and they understood the working class they were singing about. My assessment was as much personal as it was academic. I just believed that the music was both good and popular.

I guess that its mass popularity was also helped by some big crossover hits like “Tennessee Waltz”…

TL: And “Cold, Cold Heart.”

BM: And again, demonstrating that it was not a pure-bred form. The music would not have achieved the popularity that it had without the work of somebody like Mitch Miller. This very urban producer for Columbia Records who worked out this deal with Fred Rose of Acuff-Rose publishing house in Nashville — where [he’d say] “If Hank Williams comes along with a song, we’ll place it with Tony Bennett, or Sarah Vaughan.” Writer Chet Flippo, in one of his last articles, said this is the guy who’s responsible for the crossover records, what enabled country music to achieve this mass national, and eventually international, following.

TL: The nature of radio at that time was such a big part of that. You might hear your hillbilly music in the morning, your Arthur Godfrey network shows in the middle of the day, your R&B show in the afternoon and more hillbilly music and what-have-you in between. People were listening to all that on the same station.

BM: And people were hearing the music and not necessarily attaching a definition to it. It was just a song.

I first learned about Merle Haggard and Marty Robbins through the Grateful Dead covering their songs, to be totally honest.

BM: My wife and I play country music, and just a week ago we were invited to a kind of a sing-along in this place right outside of Madison. Just a few people were performing. They were doing stuff like “King of the Road” and “The Battle of New Orleans” and I thought: This is Top 40 music. These people aren’t thinking of it as being country or pop or anything else. It’s just stuff they grew up on. They didn’t necessarily hear it on a hillbilly show like I would have. They just heard it on a Top 40 show, and it became internalized.

Country music has generally steered clear of politics, but not always, and as you document in the book, it’s not always predictably conservative — although everybody thinks about “Okie from Muskogee” and that Toby Keith song [“Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”].

BM: I’ve always liked the term “populist” as a description for it. The music reflected popular taste, both good and bad, conservative and liberal, angry, whatever, you know? So you will find songs in country music’s past that defended workers and labor unions, and struck out against what was considered to be predatory big business, particularly railroads, bankers…. but with no clear political identification. The music wasn’t Democratic; it wasn’t Republican. It wasn’t really liberal, but it was populist in that it did take the side of little people.

It wasn’t really until the sixties, during and particularly in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, that you began to find songs like “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and that’s sort of thing. What do you think about that, Tracey? You may have thought of this in different ways than I have.

TL: I agree with everything you’re saying. In terms of trying to, you know, associate [country] with a set of ideals, maybe that really starts with Richard Nixon. I mean, he showed up at the Grand Ole Opry, and he makes an overt connection between the country music world and the so-called silent majority. I think that’s where it really started. And Reagan kind of emphasized that. There’s actually a new book out called The Honky Tonk on the Left. And the argument, I think, of this collection — the subtitle is Progressive Thought in Country Music – is that it never has been one thing, and even now isn’t monolithic in terms of political ideology. And nowadays there are artists like Sturgill Simpson working kind of outside of the country mainstream. Kacey Musgraves had a success with “Follow your Arrow,” and that was kind of a groundbreaking song for country music radio, I think.

Absolutely. Are there other artists, personally, that you folks are excited about among the current crop of country stars?

BM: Well, I tend to like what’s outside of the commercial mainstream. I like Tim O’Brien’s music because he can do everything, and do it well. If you need a good harmony singer, call on Tim. If you need a good, well-written song, call on Tim. If you wanted somebody who can play every string instrument, call on Tim O’Brien. Bluegrass, old time. He has an album of Bob Dylan songs. I’m just very high on him. Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Iris DeMent. Uh, Lucinda Williams. Who am I leaving out? If my wife was here, she could remind me.

TL: [Laughing] Those are all good names. I would add Sturgill Simpson. We were talking earlier about definitions of country music, and to me he’s one of the best country music singers around right now, in terms of how I conceive of that. But you don’t find him on the country music award shows because, like you say, he’s operating outside the periphery. But I think he’s making amazing music.

Right. He was literally busking outside of the arena where the CMAs were being held down in Nashville last year. I thought that was pretty amusing.

BM: I like Jason Isbell a lot.

Me too. He’s one of the great songwriters of the current era, I think. And he doesn’t get played on country radio, either.

BM: No, he doesn’t.

Tell me about working on this Ken Burns documentary. I’m guessing it’s in post-production now. It’s apparently scheduled to air next year.

BM: I was interviewed back in … I believe it was 2014. It was like going through a PhD preliminary examination! They were asking me all kinds of things, for two or three hours, and at the end I was exhilarated but emotionally spent. So I did that, and then I’ve read their scripts as they come along. I’m really glad to have been a part of it.

Most of the people who had been doing consulting work for them were invited up [to New Hampshire] to see preliminary viewings of their segments. We were supposed to make sure that they were getting it right, and try to reduce the length of it so it’d fit the public television needs. My wife went with me, and we both think it was the best period of our lives, you know — just to be with all those people who were into country music, who really respected it.

A lot of tears were shed, including mine. Not only to see just how much this music meant to the people who had made it, people on the film, but it brought back memories of my own childhood. My mother was the first person I ever heard sing country songs, just around the kitchen at home. I felt the documentary was going to validate that experience, and legitimize the culture I grew up in, and the work that I’ve devoted my life to.

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Listen to an audio version of this interview on the Longreads Podcast here.

Read an excerpt of Country Music USA.

Will Hermes is a New York-based author and journalist. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, the New York Times Magazine, and other publications, and he’s a frequent contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered. He’s the author of Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: Five Years In New York That Changed Music Forever. He’s currently writing a biography of the musician and poet Lou Reed.

Editor: Sari Botton