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In 1954, a country boy with a funny name from Tupelo, Mississippi cut a handful of songs with a small southern R&B label. The recordings brought a revved up country sound together with distinctly African-American vocal stylings and turned the boy into the nation's biggest star, or biggest scandal, depending on who you asked.
Ten years later, as the Civil Rights Movement demanded the nation's attention, a Cajun singer recording as Johnny Rebel, became the Louisiana-based Red Rebel record label's best selling artist with songs like "Move Them N*****s North."
And not ten years after that, a charismatic African-American singer—whose own record label had initially hid his racial identity from the industry and fans—became one of country music's superstars. To reconcile these three stories is to understand something of the nuanced and sometimes strangely contradictory history of race in the development of American country music.
Country is a style most readily associated with a demographic that's white, rural, Southern, and male. Precisely the demographic that figures as the most intransigent in histories of America's troubled race relations.
But while certain country records were undeniably racist, we need to be careful where and how we point fingers. From the days of blackface minstrelsy through—at least—the tremendously popular "Amos 'n' Andy" radio show that ran into the 1940s, racism was a significant part of American popular culture, a culture of which country music was a relatively minor part.
Attitudes, fortunately, have progressed. But while understanding the broader context may in some ways explain a decidedly un-PC song like Cowboy Copas' 1946 hit "Filipino Baby" ("She's my treasure, she's my pet"), it doesn't begin to account for the popularity of Johnny Rebel, whose string of records embodied everything the Civil Rights Movement was trying to combat.
Throughout the highly politicized 1960s, the Red Rebel label stood on the extreme, reactionary right of country music's political spectrum, and Johnny Rebel—also known as Cliff Trajan—was their best-selling artist. With "Move Them N*****s North" and "Looking for a Handout," Johnny Rebel staked out some of popular music's ugliest territory.
And while few other artists went as far in that direction, the stir created by Marty Robbins' "Ain't I Right," a song against the Freedom Riders (Northern college students who rode busses into the South to register Black voters in the early '60s), and Guy Drake's "Welfare Cadillac," a #5 hit on the country charts in 1970, suggested that the country music fanbase was far from progressive.
And yet, during the same period, an African-American artist named Charley Pride became a country superstar. Pride's background sounded a bit like something from the blues—born in Mississippi in the 1930s to cotton sharecropping parents, and from a young age, he immersed himself in country music. After catching the attention of a few Nashville producers, Pride cut a taut, striking single called "The Snakes Crawl at Night" for RCA.
Despite the fact that African-American performers had achieved some success in country music since at least the 1920s, when the harmonica player Deford Bailey appeared on the Grand Ole Opry program, RCA apparently felt it best not to send a press photo of Pride when promoting the single, allowing DJs to assume that "Country" Charley Pride was actually white. By the time Pride appeared on Opry himself a year later, he had become popular enough that the color of his skin no longer really mattered to most fans.
That Pride scored 29 #1 hits over the next couple of decades suggests that country music could be open to performers of color—and that the fanbase was hardly a single reactionary block—but the fact that even Pride's own record label initially hid his identity as a Black man suggests that those performers faced considerable prejudice.
If Pride's story of overcoming country prejudice by mastering the Nashville form hints at the porousness of some cultural borders, the story of Elvis Presley describes their complexity. Elvis is a figure that every history of every musical genre wants to claim as its own. Country is no different.
The King of Rock and Roll was a country boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, and his early rockabilly singles, cut for Sun Records in 1954, drew heavily on country influences. His "Blue Moon of Kentucky" is a cover of a signature Bill Monroe bluegrass tune. They also drew on the distinctly African-American influences of the blues and R&B, and as is widely repeated in the lore of rock and roll, Sun Records honcho Sam Phillips had been searching for a white singer with Black vocal style. Elvis was that singer, and as Phillips had predicted, the musical marriage of Black and white styles made for some exciting and incredibly popular records, defining the rockabilly sound that kickstarted the rock and roll revolution.
To some country fans, Elvis was a genius. To others, particularly traditionalists and conservatives, he was a pervert, and this split, with its blurring of cultural prejudices and musical tastes is probably as emblematic as anything of the complicated attitudes toward the issue of race that run through the history of country music.
Even folks who took issue with Elvis' mingling of Black and white music might have had to reconsider had they realized just how deep the connections between the two musical cultures went.
Country musicians borrowed the banjo from African music and the steel guitar from Hawaii, and the stories of some of country's most legendary performers—Maybelle Carter, honky-tonk demigod Hank Williams, and bluegrass progenitor Bill Monroe, to name just a few—hinge on the young white musicians being schooled by older Black players.
Ultimately, the inescapable conclusion is that without the cultural crosspollination of whites and Blacks in the South, country music wouldn't have developed as it did. Nor would it have grown nearly so rich and varied.
Generations before the Dixie Chicks became country superstars and unlikely political commentators, Sarah and Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family reigned as country music's first ladies and two of its biggest stars.
As long as country music has been played, women have been playing it. But the distance that separates the Carters from Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman" is more than a temporal one. In the 1940s, the difference between men and women as represented in country music was clear. Men could be good-hearted but might be tempted to drink, cheat, fight, lie, and other complicated and questionable behaviors. They were free to be full, three-dimensional people endowed with a realistic spectrum of human emotions.
Women, on the other hand, were just good-hearted, or they were cruel. Typically one thing or another, rarely a human combination of both. The story of gender in post-war country music is largely the story of how women, in song and on stage, came to represent themselves in full.
The Carter Family played traditional, spiritual songs that were selected or cobbled together by the family's impresario, Sarah's husband A.P. Carter. Sarah's voice gave a stark and beautiful clarity to the emotional truths at the core of A.P.'s songs, but those truths, in hits like their recording of the Christian spiritual "Will the Circle be Unbroken," spoke of an existence that was Christian, Appalachian, or universally human perhaps, not one that was specifically female.
And when the Carters' songs did concern women, they were defined by their men as lovers, wives, and widows. Such traditional ideas of gender and family were so central to the Carters' image that when A.P. and Sarah later divorced, they did their best to keep the news quiet and continue to perform as a "family." In other words, the women of the Carter Family performed their country music as country folk, not as country women, and certainly not as unseemly divorcees.
When Patsy Montana's 1935 single "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" became the first million-selling record by a female country singer, the genre's decidedly male bias received its first nudge toward admitting a female perspective. That perspective, however, still suggested a woman as defined by her relationship with a man a.k.a. being the sweetheart to her cowboy.
The early 1950s hit "It Wasn't God Who Made the Honky-Tonk Angels," recorded by Kitty Wells, had a more provocative lyrical spirit that resonated with female listeners but could doubtless have been a better country feminist anthem had it not been written by a man and recorded by a demure housewife.
What listeners might have imagined based on Wells' big single, they finally got in Patsy Cline. Cline, who began life as Ginny Hensley and may have adopted the "Patsy" from Patsy Montana, utterly redefined the idea in the minds of both the industry and the listening public of what a "country" woman could be. She's best remembered for her epic torch songs and ballads, but Cline was comfortable and convincing with everything from straight-ahead country to rock and roll.
She was similarly in control of her persona, beginning her career in singing cowgirl outfits and ending it—when she was killed in a plane crash in 1963—as a sleek, stiletto-heeled country chanteuse. If Kitty Wells gave country fans a different kind of song, Patsy Cline gave them a different kind of singer: sexy and confident, a woman in full. Her influence on subsequent generations of female country singers is hard to overstate.
Several interesting heirs apparent picked up Patsy Cline's brassy mantle through the remainder of the 1960s and '70s. Loretta Lynn, the coal miner's daughter whose hardscrabble rural upbringing became the stuff of American legend, shared Cline's self-assuredness and candor. With songs like "Don't Come a Drinkin' (with Lovin' on Your Mind)" and "The Pill," Lynn's work suggested that country women just might be joining the sexual revolution that was being waged in other quarters of American culture.
A woman of similar determination, Dolly Parton has had a career that probably has its only popular music equal in that of Madonna. Like Madonna, Parton has been reinventing herself for decades, and while she has shrewdly tailored her persona to keep herself in the fickle spotlight, her perspective, like Loretta Lynn's, has remained distinctly that of a woman in control of her career.
Significantly, Parton's career traces an arc from beginning under the wing of Porter Wagoner, an established country performer who took Parton on as a duet partner after the release of her 1967 single "Dumb Blonde"—a part of her shtick—to emerging as an eclectic solo superstar through the course of the 1970s. Although her outrageous outfits and corny humor have at times strayed far into self-parody, Parton's success at manipulating her image has been key to her lasting appeal and provided a highly visible example of a woman who has utterly mastered self-definition.
By the close of the 1970s, when Tammy Wynette, then the reigning queen of country music divorced the king, legendary crooner George Jones, it was a wildly more public affair than the hushed divorce of A.P. and Sarah Carter three decades earlier.
Wynette went on to remarry several times and dish on her tumultuous relationship with Jones in a bestselling memoir, none of which hurt her tremendous success as a recording artist. The country women on today's charts are, indeed, a far cry from the prim personas of the Carter Family, or even Kitty Wells. They're brash and intelligent, flawed, openly sexual and complex people, like their male counterparts.
For something that's now considered to be such a quintessential part of American culture, country music has an interesting history with regard to the idea of being "mainstream."
At its inception, commercial country music was deemed nationally marketable precisely because of its regional specificity. Some of the best early country music worked because it was so distinctive. The blue yodel of Jimmie Rodgers and the mountain music of the Carter Family didn't sound like anybody else. These performers and the larger musical contexts that surrounded them were predicated on a kind of difference, an identity that was defined in opposition to something else.
The genre tag "country" comes from the Billboard chart designation of "country & western," as a sort of catch-all meant to somehow differentiate music from a more urban, citified sound. The label attempts to acknowledge a stylistic as well as geographic and cultural difference between the East—particularly the music publishing mainstays of Tin Pan Alley in New York—and the rural South and West. Before "country," the music was called "old familiar" or "hillbilly," both of which get at a similar quality that's essential to country music. "Old familiar" ties the music to a sense of the past, of a culture based on tradition rather than on hit records. And "hillbilly" likewise tags the music as homespun and decidedly rural in way that sets it apart from the sound of urban, industrial America.
Tremendously popular live radio shows like Grand Ole Opry and strong record sales for its biggest performers brought country music and its regional stars closer to the mainstream of national popular culture. The country sound began to infiltrate the urban metropolises of Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York—which had been the seat of the nation's music publishing business since the 19th century—but as an industry, country music never quite took hold in these traditional hubs of the entertainment business.
The explanation for this is largely economic. Most performers made so little money through record sales and song royalties—which were notoriously difficult for artists to secure—that they remained almost wholly focused on securing a gig with one of several enormously popular radio "barn dance" programs. These programs were live broadcasts of country's hottest performers that reached homes, farms, and fans across a large swath of the nation.
The Nashville-based Grand Ole Opry was the largest of these programs, and in the 1940s, scoring a chance to perform at the Opry was the gold standard of success. An Opry performance announced a star's arrival and maybe the beginning of a regular gig: every singing cowboy or cowgirl's dream.
The only catch? Opry performers were expected to be in Nashville and ready to go on air every Saturday night. The Opry's insistence on that policy combined with its continued reputation for making and sustaining stars did a lot to move country singers, songwriters, and musicians to Nashville.
A parallel music publishing and recording industry, a country music establishment, and even a certain sound coalesced in Nashville around the Opry and the country-focused publishing house run by Roy Acuff and Fred Rose. Former industry outsiders became Nashville insiders, and more than a few piles of money were made as successful producers replicated chart topping hits and pop crossovers.
The eventual downside to finding a sort of Nashville formula, not surprisingly, was the creation of a lot of formulaic music, songs that tried to split the difference between country and pop, hoping to catch both audiences but too often winding up blandly over-produced and forgettable. Kenny Rogers and Olivia Newton John are two of the more popular artists associated with the country-lite style of pop, which was dubbed by the industry, not without humor, as "MoR," middle-of-the-road music.
Fortunately, country music always had its rogues, and fans have maintained their identification with outsiders. In the 1940s, Hank Williams, a brilliant songwriter and serious alcoholic, came to personify the rough and lean honky-tonk style—named for working-class, edge-of-town type Texas juke joints—that had been gaining notice with its bouncing rhythms and electric guitar leads.
Williams cut just 66 songs under his own name, 37 of which became hits. His spare, emotional style, troubled personal life, and mysterious drink and drug-related death at age 29 have combined over time to make him probably the most iconic figure in all of country music. Williams is country music in the same way that Kurt Cobain is 1990s grunge. And for similar reasons.
Williams had a raw personal quality that Nashville could never quite replicate—although it tried plenty—let alone invent in the studio. His hard-edged honky- tonk had an energizing effect on country song craft that a handful of other innovators would have over the next few decades. Elvis Presley, of course, in defining the rockabilly style in the 1950s brought the rock revolution to country and managed to be both rock and roll and country in a way that no other figure has. Although Jerry Lee Lewis, the "Great Balls of Fire" country wildman whose excesses rival most anything in rock, came pretty close.
The West Coast brand of dusty, guitar-driven country associated with the Bakersfield, California scene of post-Dust Bowl transplants from Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas—the most famous being country guitar hero Buck Owens—digested early rock and honky-tonk to create a rougher sound that provided a counterpoint to slicker Nashville crossover efforts through the 1960s.
The country outsiders who rose to prominence in the next decade combined the influences of the Bakersfield sound with the eclecticism and folk roots of Johnny Cash, himself a rough contemporary of Elvis who had carved his own idiosyncratic space as a country star through the 1960s. Artists like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson self-consciously fashioned themselves as an alternative to Nashville, and fans embraced the idea of "outlaw" country in huge numbers.
Jennings, whose 1972 album Lonesome, On'ry and Mean is often cited as the original "outlaw" album, had been known to brandish a pistol on at least one occasion, and Nelson, most famous for his 1975 album Red-Headed Stranger, is almost as well known for his IRS scandal and pot smoking as he is for his prodigious musical output. "Outlaw" followers were often just cashing in on an image, but the appeal of that image—rebelliousness, a pride in being different, and a refusal to compromise or kowtow to the Nashville establishment—represent an important and ongoing streak in the evolution of country music.
Through the 1990s and into the present, popular country has been dominated by big names making radio-ready music and performing elaborate shows for stadium crowds. But for every Garth Brooks and Dixie Chick, there are several bands operating at the margins of country culture, the territories of which have come to be collectively known as alternative or simply alt-country.
The margins of country music continue to serve a dual function of assimilating new sounds and serving up refreshing outsiders. What rockabilly and the Bakersfield sound were to country in the '50s and '60s, "cowpunk" (a horrible name for a remarkably fertile subgenre that infused a country soul with punk rock urgency—see the Gun Club's Fire of Love album and Uncle Tupelo's No Depression LP) and other strains of alt-country were in the '80s and '90s. So, the sparks of cultural "difference" that made the earliest country music so compelling have been kept alive long after country's success had brought it into the American mainstream.
The most influential figure in the early history of country music wasn't a honky-tonk man and certainly wasn't a coal miner's daughter.
He was a dapper A&R—Artist & Repertory—man named Ralph Peer, who was based in New York and worked for Okeh Records and Victor in the 1920s and '30s. Beginning with his recording of Fiddlin' John Carson in 1923, Peer created the idea of commercial country music. Combining an anthropologist's enthusiasm for field recording with a Hollywood scout's eye—and ear—for talent, Peer was part of a larger process that extended the reach of the major record companies beyond urban America and into the homes and the culture of the rural South and the West.
The advent of field recording, well before the rise of independent labels, marked a first step in the democratization of the record business. It didn't put any power in the hands of performers, but it did mean that you didn't have to live in New York or Los Angeles to cut a record.
In fact, you didn't even have to be able to get there.
One of the great apocryphal legends of country music is a story about how the Carter Family showed up late for the recording session that would make them famous. Driving a borrowed car down from Clinch Mountain, on the Virginia-Tennessee border, into Bristol, Tennessee, the Carters suffered a few tire blowouts, and the sweltering pavement melted the patches off the tires faster than family impresario A.P. could replace them. When the Carters finally made it to Bristol, it was too late to rehearse, and they were too beat to do anything but sleep.
Sounds like a killer country song, huh? At the recording session the next day, they blew Ralph Peer away just the same.
The story of the blowouts probably isn't true, but the point's clear enough. Field recording connected record companies to folks who weren't going to get anywhere near New York City without some serious help and a record deal in hand.
Does this mean country music as we know it began as a commercial enterprise run by carpet-bagging A&R men? Of course not, but it should give us pause enough to consider just where the idea of "country" music came from and just what we mean when we talk about it.
Country developed alongside the nation's media technologies. Two of the great American social developments of the first half of the 20th century were the proliferation of mass media and the proliferation of a truly national popular culture. The spread of country music from its regional roots to a nationwide phenomenon was bound up with those developments.
Accordingly, the history of country music as we know it—as an umbrella genre grouping several types of strikingly different music types—is entwined with the history of recording technology.
Before it existed on the record for commercial purposes, there was no "country." Just many regional musical styles that occasionally borrowed from and bled into one another. Western swing mashed up country fiddle tunes with jazz and a bit of polka, but tended to prominently feature Hawaiian style steel guitar. Appalachian folk, a kind of traditional mountain music, had lyrical roots in the popular culture of 18th-century England, and had adopted the banjo—actually an instrument of African origin—from the music of Black slaves.
And yet, the Appalachian sound was unlike anything anywhere in the world. It bore the unmistakable stamp of lived experience of its creators, having evolved in isolation to mirror the hardship and spirituality characteristic of Appalachian culture. It was powerful and unique and, therefore, marketable.
The recorded legacy of the Bristol sessions that launched the Carter Family would quickly be pressed to wax and heard far outside of Appalachia. The cultural impact of the Carters and Jimmie Rodgers, who was recorded in the same session, and quickly became country music's original rambling man and first superstar, was clear and immediate. Whether tabulated in record sales by the thousand, or imitators by the dozen.
A more subtle legacy emerged from Bristol as well, that of Ralph Peer, the A&R man, and his field recording equipment. With Peer began a process that would shape the nation's many regional variations on traditional music into something more uniform, something more approaching our idea of "country" music.
When record companies—and their representatives—cut deals and arranged distribution, they not only determined the success of an artist, but they also passed judgment on a sound and style. Success would be replicated and ideas would be borrowed.
Every singing cowboy from Gene Autry on down wanted to be Jimmie Rodgers and cut his teeth on Rodgers' standards.
Perhaps not surprisingly, radio technology had an effect on the development of country music not unlike that of field recording. The hugely popular live broadcast "barn dance" style programs, of which Nashville's legendary Grand Ole Opry was only the most famous, brought regional stars national audiences and decisively shaped the evolution of the music. Rather than drawing on local tradition, artists would begin to draw on contemporary popular culture. The success of the traditional and regional sounds created a threat to musical regionalism and traditionalism itself.
This was, and is, a threat of some consequence for a music and culture that place a premium on authenticity and connection with the past. Some techniques and traditions are popularized and preserved. Others inevitably lose out in the process. Maybelle Carter's innovative guitar style has been widely imitated for generations. The same goes for the banjo technique popularized by Earl Scruggs, a bluegrass innovator who made his name as a banjo ace with Bill Monroe's band.
But consider this: Scrugg's three-finger style, which facilitated incredibly quick melodic runs, became so dominant that some other styles have nearly vanished.
And when a musical culture becomes a business, it's not just techniques that are lost. Songs are forgotten as well. In its early days, the lyrical universe of country music might be home to four or five versions of the same traditional song, the variations differing according to region, performer, or decade. As the songs came to be sold, however, performers and publishers claimed them. An arbitrary version became definitive, and the others might fade away.
And yet for all the forward-looking influence of media and innovation and economics and copyright law, country remains a culture profoundly concerned with roots, a condition that fosters a give-and-take between past and present that's rare in popular music.
Consider the case of bluegrass. People often conflate bluegrass with the original mountain music of Appalachia, when in fact, bluegrass is a more recent development, an innovation of the 1940s really, and the creation, chiefly, of Bill Monroe. Monroe and his band, the Blue Grass Boys, took some of the old mountain songs, like Jimmie Rodgers' "Mule Skinner Blues," and gave them a thorough reworking with faster tempos, higher keys, and lengthy instrumental solo breaks. The results were brilliant, defining an entire new genre while giving new life to old songs.
Eventually, what was cutting-edge became old fashioned and venerable. There was a bluegrass revival in the '60s when folk music was being "discovered" by new urban audiences, and arguably, the 21st-century has experienced a second revival, too, with the success of the bluegrass soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Raising Sand, the 2007 collaboration between Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and the bluegrass musician Alison Krause.
In an important sense, what's true of bluegrass is true of country music in general. It's a nationally popular music with a strong, specific sense of place. It has a deep reverence for and connection to the past, particularly its own past, from which it continues to draw inspiration. And it's a music with a strong sense of tradition that remains vital in the present. And of course, it's more popular now than ever before.