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‘Country Music … Was Anything BUT Pure’: An Interview with Bill Malone and Tracey Laird

Will Hermes | Longreads | August 1, 2018 | 3,585 words
Posted inArts & Culture, Nonfiction, Profiles & Interviews, Story

‘Country Music … Was Anything BUT Pure’: An Interview with Bill Malone and Tracey Laird

The co-authors of ‘Country Music USA’ – a revised edition of the genre’s definitive history – talk about the music’s African-American tributaries, its unpredictable politics, country radio’s woman problem, and working on Ken Burns’ forthcoming doc.
Carly Rae Hobbins / Unsplash, University of Texas Press; Anniversary edition (June 4, 2018)

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.

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