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Will Hermes

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

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.

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

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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‘I Love What Human Voices Do Together’: An Interview with Neko Case

AP Photo/Tony Avelar, Getty, Illustration by Katie Kosma

Will Hermes | Longreads | June 2018 | 16 minutes (3,994 words)

 

Neko Case’s powerhouse voice often seems like it might level buildings. But during a 20-plus-year career, she’s put it to more constructive use, both as singular solo act and poster child for collective creativity. She formed the ultra-meta power-pop band The New Pornographers with kindred singer-songwriters Carl Newman and Dan Bejar in 1997, the same year she released her own debut LP, The Virginian, an eclectic, country-rock-leaning set of originals and deep-catalog covers: Everly Brothers, Loretta Lynn, hard-rock-era Queen. Since then she’s worked alternately with the Pornographers and under her own name, with occasional side projects like The Corn Sisters (with Carolyn Mark) and Case/Lang/Viers (a low-key supergroup with k.d. lang and Laura Viers).

Hell-On, Case’s new solo album, is as gorgeous, imaginative, and potent as any she’s made, and for a lyricist given to imagistic fables and emotional meditations, it responds to the cultural-environmental moment vividly. Songs address nature’s ruthlessness (it’s worth noting Case’s Vermont home was destroyed in a fire when she was out of the country recording songs), along with the vagaries and tyrannies of gender, the endless negotiations of love, and even the attributes of the Almighty. “God is not a contract or a guy,” she sings on the title track, a faintly hallucinatory waltz that tilts into an empowered come-on (“I am not a mess/I’m a wilderness, yes/The undiscovered continent/For you to undress/But you’ll not be my master/You’re barely my guest,” she instructs). Another standout, “Halls of Sarah,” casts a #metoo side-eye at the trope of woman-as-muse (“Our poets do an odious business loving womankind/As lions love Christians”). At the same time, “Sleep All Summer,” a song by ex-bandmate Eric Bachmann, is a heartbreaker about faded love that feels like a forgotten classic.

The recording sessions enlisted a busload of other fellow travelers: Viers and lang, punk/pop/queer/ feminist/fashion icon Beth Ditto, veteran grunge crooner Mark Lanegan, Swedish indie-pop scientist Bjorn Yttling, various Pornographers and other long-time associates, a squadron of whom are on the road with her this year. At a tour stop in Brooklyn in May, bandmates Rachel Flotard and Shelly Short formed a powerhouse frontline with Case at the club Littlefield, delivering new songs like a trio of wisecracking Valkyries.

I spoke to Case on the phone some days later, as she was idling in San Diego before another show. She spoke about the album, the fire that recently destroyed her house, and the 2016 WOMANPRODUCER conference, which she described as “the highlight of my professional career.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

(You can listen to an audio version of this interview on the Longreads Podcast here:

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