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It’s the fastest-growing music in America. It’s a three-billion-dollar-plus industry. Cable stations devoted to it reach sixty-two million homes. And yet, says one passionate follower of country music past and present, its story is over.
November 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 7
Country music is one of those phenomena that remind us how much we’ve packed into the twentieth century, for it is younger than many of our parents. This is its story.
The term country music does not denote “rural people playing instruments and singing”; probably the last place it had this meaning was turn-of-the-century Britain. Country music is not folk music —the orally transmitted songs of a community—but something more complex, more dynamic. It is the product of a collision, some seventy years ago, between Northern businessmen and rural Southern white musicians—folk musicians, but changed by this encounter into a very different species: professionals. Country music , in this usage, means “ commercial country music,” America’s immensely profitable country-music business. Country music, says Robert Cantwell in his good book Bluegrass Breakdown , “has never been anything but entrepreneurial and commercial, prospering in the one commodity which in America is ever in short supply—the past.”
Until very recently country music was almost exclusively a working-class music. The crucial demographic fact of twentieth-century America was the stream of rural people into cities, and country music was a product ofthat migration: the emigrants’ elegiac look back at the old life and their anxious contemplation of the new. Country music was more realistic than its mainstream counterpart, the pop tunes of Tin Pan Alley. Whether the subject was a hated job, cheating on your spouse, or the urge to go out and get roaring drunk, country faithfully charted the vicissitudes of working-class life—“life’s little ups and downs,” as a well-known Charlie Rich song puts it.
The pioneer producer Ralph Peer hated Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “Little Log Cabin in the Lane” when he heard it, but the 1923 recording became country music’s first hit.
But country music has spread far beyond its original audience. Its path has taken it from margins to mainstream, from regional to national, from ridiculed stepchild to full legitimacy in the family of American popular music. Country is America’s fastest-growing music. But the price of acceptance has been the music’s pungency—more, its very identity. To write a history of country music in 1994 is, intriguingly but sadly, to write more than a mere history-up-to-now, with the present an arbitrary terminus; it means writing a self-enclosed chronicle, a story with an end. To the beginning . . .
As mythology would have it, country music was born one summer’s week in 1927, when Ralph S. Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company discovered Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. In fact, by 1927 country music was a hustline little business.
In 1920 America’s young phonograph industry was threatened by a new technology, radio. Record sales reached a high of one hundred million in 1922 and promptly plummeted. New audiences were essential, and they existed, untapped: the Southern blacks and whites who’d been flooding the cities since World War I, consumers for the first time. In 1920 Ralph Peer, a talent scout for Okeh Records, recorded “Crazy Blues” by the Negro singer Mamie Smith; the resulting blues craze helped the record business to its feet.
Peer would become the decade’s dominant country-music and blues entrepreneur. In 1923 he traveled to Atlanta in search of a rival for Columbia Records’ new star Bessie Smith. If Peer was after blues, Polk Brockman, Okeh’s Atlanta distributor, had something else in mind. Just before Peer’s Atlanta trip, Brockman had visited New York. As he sat in a Times Square movie theater watching a newsreel of a fiddlers’ competition, his memory of an Atlanta musician was kindled; in the theater’s darkness Brockman scribbled, “Fiddlin’ John Carson—local talent—let’s record.” So it was that Fiddlin’ John Carson, a performer with his roots deep in the nineteenth century, came to make country music’s first hit record, “Little Log Cabin in the Lane”/“The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow.”
When he listened to Carson’s material back in New York, Peer remembered, “it was so horrible I couldn’t possibly put a number on it [list it in Okeh’s catalog], so we just made the thousand records, put a label without a number on them, and sent them off to Brockman,” who’d ordered one thousand copies to sell in Atlanta. Peer didn’t reckon on a previously invisible market: Fiddlin’ John’s fellow woolhats, transplanted country folk at work in Atlanta’s factories. “A couple of days later,” said Peer, “Brockman got me on the phone and said, ‘This is a riot, I gotta get ten thousand copies down here right now.’ ” After hauling Fiddlin’ John to New York, Peer sat him down to make “another eight or ten selections, and we were off.” Several country musicians actually recorded before Fiddlin’ John, but with less success. Among them were Eck Robertson, a Texas fiddler, and a Virginia millworker named Henry C. Whitter. The latter popped up in Peer’s Manhattan office, “admitting,” said Peer, “that he was the world’s finest harmonica player.” Mostly to get rid of him, Peer recorded Whitter and shelved the disks. When Fiddlin’ John hit pay dirt, Peer invited Whitter back “and I discovered the dope could sing.”
In the eighteen months following Fiddlin’ John’s success, Okeh recorded the Jenkins Family, the Virginia Breakdowners, Chenoweth’s Cornfield Symphony Orchestra, the Hill Billies, and others. Columbia recorded guitarist-singer Riley Puckett and fiddler Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers. Vocalion Records cut seventy-three-year-old Uncle Am Stuart (who gave New York City its first country-music radio broadcast) and Uncle Dave Macon, “The Dixie Dewdrop,” shortly to become the star of WSM Nashville’s live “barn-dance” show; in 1927, two years after its first broadcast, the show christened itself “The Grand Ole Opry.”
In 1924 Victor Talking Machine—the nation’s biggest record company—released “The Wreck of the Old 97”/ “The Prisoner’s Song” by Vernon Dalhart, an erstwhile light-operatic tenor whom Peer called “imitation hillbilly.” The record scaled almost inconceivable sales heights for 1924, becoming country music’s first million-seller.
The new genre still lacked a name. Record companies restlessly tried out “Old Time Songs,” “Old Familiar Tunes,” “Mountain Ballads.” Gradually a single name emerged; mingling amusement and derision, it neatly encapsulated America’s feelings about the new genre: hillbilly. In December 1925 the audio journal Talking Machine World commented on the popularity of hillbilly songs, “which . . . may mark the initial move in the passing of jazz. Whether or not the popularity of such works continues, it is questionable that music lovers will accept the situation as an improvement.”
Hardly. In December of 1926 Variety ’s Abel Green addressed his big-city readers on the ethnology of the country-music fan. “The ‘hillbilly’ is a North Carolina or Tennessee and adjacent mountaineer type of illiterate white whose creed and allegiance are to the Bible, the chautauqua, and the phonograph. . . . The mountaineer is of ‘poor white trash’ genera. The great majority, probably 95 percent, can neither read nor write English. Theirs is a community all unto themselves. [Mr. Green’s own grammar didn’t set much of an example.] Illiterate and ignorant, with the intelligence of morons, the sing-song, nasal-twanging vocalizing of a Vernon Dalhart or a Carson Robison . . . intrigues their interest.”
To today’s ears much of the first country music sounds pretty rank, with its sawing fiddles and droning voices. The primitive recording gear doesn’t help; to listeners raised on hi-fi, the tinny strains might have been captured at the bottom of a well. There was no microphone; a singer simply stepped up to a recording horn and hollered as loud as he could. Yet even to the uninitiated some of the music sounds wonderful: Charlie Poole’s great string band the North Carolina Ramblers; Riley Puckett’s dancing guitar work; Frank Hutchison’s driving blues; the ringing banjo and vital, if bumptious, comedy of Uncle Dave Macon.
Few of the first hillbilly artists would have an impact after 1930. But in the summer of 1927 Ralph Peer, who’d jumped to Victor, found two who would at the famous “Bristol session,” day one for country-music creationists. The Carter Family—ardent song collector A.P., guitarist Maybelle, and Maybelle’s singing cousin Sara (A.P.’s wife)—heard about an open-call recording session in Bristol, Tennessee, and drove a borrowed Model A from their home in Maces Spring, Virginia. “As soon as I heard Sara’s voice,” said Peer, “that was it. I knew it was going to be wonderful.” The complicated A.P. chimed in only when he felt like it. “You didn’t do very much,” said Peer. “No, I just sorta bassed in every once in a while,” said A.P.
The Carters cut six songs in Bristol and three hundred more in the next decade, including “Wildwood Flower,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” and “Wabash Cannonball.” Their music was a slightly updated version of old mountain balladry; their contribution as folklorists is inestimable. Their impact on commercial country music has been less dramatic (though some historians disagree), strongest, in my opinion, among bluegrass and latter-day traditionalists.
Jimmie Rodgers, on the other hand, shines his light the length and breadth of country music. A native of Meridian, Mississippi, who failed at job after job while fecklessly pursuing a singing career (and contracting tuberculosis), Rodgers was touched by genius. He was a primitive guitarist with, charitably put, an idiosyncratic sense of rhythm; it is entirely to Ralph Peer’s credit that he heard the gleam in Rodgers’s voice, a sunniness that could make listeners feel that Jimmie was their best friend.
Rodgers turned up in Bristol with an undistinguished string band. After Peer auditioned them, he called Jimmie back alone. “He was an individualist, he had his own style,” said Peer; in Peer’s turn-of-the-century language, Rodgers “was singing nigger blues, they were doing old-time fiddle music.” Another reason he gave Rodgers his own session, Peer said, was pity: “He was obviously dying. I gave him fifty dollars a selection [twenty-five was closer to the norm] because he needed it.”
Jimmie needed just the break, not the sympathy. His Bristol sides made a small splash; three months later he recorded his famous “Blue Yodel No. 1.” By mid-1928 he was a star throughout the South. He sold twelve million records while he lived and at one time earned a hundred thousand dollars a year—more than Babe Ruth—charming audiences with his jaunty bonhomie and his famous trademark: the yodel, which he popularized. It must have been wonderful to see Jimmie Rodgers, straw-hatted or in the cowboy costumes he donned late in his career, stick his left foot on a stool, toss back his head, and sing:
A word on Jimmie’s influences. Time and again black musicians had an impact on early country music. “And there’s a very good reason for it,” said Frank Walker, after Peer perhaps the greatest hillbilly-era producer. “On the outskirts of a city like Atlanta, you had your colored section, and then you had your white—Fm sorry to use the word, you had what they used to call ‘white trash.’ They were right close to each other. They passed each other every day, and a little of the spiritualistic type of singing of the colored people worked over into the white hillbilly, and a little of the white hillbilly worked over into what the colored people did.” Rodgers, who spoke in a hip, black-inflected argot, preferred the blues to all of the other songs he did, according to Peer. Bill Monroe, the founder of bluegrass, learned at the feet of a wandering black guitarist named Arnold Shultz. As a young man in West Texas, Bob Wills, progenitor of Western Swing, rode his horse fifty miles to see Bessie Smith, “Queen of the Blues,” sing. Post-World War II country music’s towering figure Hank Williams always said his only teacher was the black street singer Rufus Payne, known as “Tee-Tot.” The country-music innovators who were not directly influenced by black musicians are few indeed.
By 1933, the year Jimmie Rodgers died, the Depression was forcing the record business into a survival struggle. Only 6 million records were sold in the United States in 1932. compared with 104 million in 1927, when the industry had fought back from its early-twenties slump.
Yet the Depression didn’t kill country music; it actually pushed it to new heights of popularity and professionalism. Unable to afford records, rural listeners relied on the radios they’d bought in flusher times. Radio became the essential medium of Depression-era hillbilly music, and powerful stations like Nashville’s WSM. Chicago’s WLS, and Fort Worth’s WBAP began creating country-music fans all across the nation. In 1936 WSM’s “Grand Ole Opry” drew 325,000 letters from fans. Across the Mexican border the outlaw “X stations” used wattages two and three times the legal U.S. limit to blast Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family all the way to Canada.
In the twenties hillbilly recording artists were essentially amateurs who earned their real livings as railroaders, millworkers, and miners. Making records was a lark. “When you’d picked out the three or four things in their repertoire,” said Frank Walker, “you were through with that man as an artist. That was it, you forgot about them and said good-bye, and they went back home; they had made a phonograph record, and that was the next thing to being President of the United States in their mind.” But the Depression made part-time music making an untenable luxury, and casual pickers and fiddlers were replaced by a more professional, more ambitious lot.
The medium itself—radio, that is—helped select a new type of performer. “Old time music, 1920s style, had been shaped in the days of no microphones, when subtlety was lost in the ambient noise of schoolrooms and front porches,” writes Bob Coltman in a provocative essay on Depression-era country music in the journal Old-Time Music . “By contrast the radio . . . was hushed, intimate . . . encouraging soft, expressive, modulated voices. . . . The old shouters and straightaway pickers began to tumble from grace,” replaced by “supple, sweet singers,” like Bradley Kincaid and the Delmore Brothers. The emblematic mid-thirties act was the Monroe Brothers, who dominated radio in the Carolinas. Voices seamlessly blending, Charlie and Bill Monroe sped through breakneck versions of mountain ballads and religious tunes, as if daring each other to play or sing a wrong note. These duets aren’t merely a forecast of Bill Monroe’s coming greatness; they are a high point in country music.
With the new professionalism came an impatience with the term hillbilly ; it was too easily ridiculed. “There is a practice among recording companies ... to call them [the mountain songs] Hilly Billy songs,” said Bradley Kincaid, a star of WLS’s “National Barn Dance,” in 1930. “When they say Hilly Billy Songs they generally mean bum songs and jail songs.”
Another image was ready to hand. Americans in the late twenties and early thirties, fed a steady diet of Western films, were cowboy-happy. Here was the answer to the hillbillies’ image problem: a ready-made rural persona that Americans found romantic and liberating. President Roosevelt’s favorite song, after all, was “Home on the Range.” “No youngster in the thirties and forties ever wanted to grow up to be a hillbilly,” writes country-music scholar Douglas Green (himself a cowboy singer) in an essay on Gene Autry, “but thousands upon thousands wanted to be cowboys.” The public tended to conflate the two personas anyway; an early silent Western by the director Tohn Ford, The Scarlet Drop , bore the working title Hill Billy . “The only real difference between a hillbilly singer and a cowboy singer,” said the national music weekly Billboard in 1944, “is a ten-gallon hat. When a hillbilly singer gets the price of said hat, he immediately steps into the cowboy class.”
The list of thirties hillbilly singers who donned ten-gallon hats is long indeed. Gene Autry, a hillbilly singer from Texas, went to Hollywood in 1934 and became the movies’ first famous singing cowboy. The same year, a group called the Kentucky Ramblers metamorphosed into the Prairie Ramblers; one of their singers, Arkansan Rubye Blevins, became Patsy Montana and warbled the million-selling “I Wanna Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” The Girls of the Golden West, Dolly and Millie Good, were sisters from Illinois whose manager invented a whole biography for them, according to which they were ranch girls from Muleshoe, Texas, who’d learned to yodel by imitating coyotes.
And cowboy imagery stuck, for good. In the forties Hank Williams, an Alabama farm boy, wore Western costumes and called his band the Drifting Cowboys; in the fifties and sixties spangled cowboy suits became a country cliché; and in the seventies Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, calling themselves Outlaws, chose the look of nineteenth-century cattle rustlers. Today, in an absolutely unremarked bit of cultural schizophrenia, the singer Dwight Yoakam prides himself on his Kentucky coal-mining roots but wears a ten-gallon hat, chaps, and lizard-skin boots.
In the honky-tonks’ sexually charged atmosphere, old-time hill-billy music with its sentimental themes seemed out of place. Patrons wanted tougher fare, music that reflected their lives.
While Eastern entertainers dressed up as cowboys, real-life Westerners forged their own country-music sounds. A hybrid style blossomed in thirties Texas and Oklahoma: Western Swing, which blended the jazz of Southwestern black orchestras (the so-called territory bands of Count Basic, Bennie Moten, and others) with Southeastern hill-billy music. More ingredients were present: Cajun music, Mexican mariachi, New Orleans jazz, even the polkas of Texas’s German and Polish populations. Largely the creation of one man, Bob Wills, Western Swing was powered by a tension between big-band modernity and folk tradition. A vital, throbbing music, all pounding rhythms and borderline-lewd lyrics, it quickly swept the Southwest. A 1941 Billboard report has the wide-eyed tone of anthropological discovery. “Bob Wills, hillbilly band leader from Tulsa, Okla., is rated to be the most popular and wealthiest territorial [bandleader]. Wills concentrates on Oklahoma and parts of Texas. . . . His story is one of the most amazing in the band business. . . . It is often said that Wills is the most popular citizen in Oklahoma today.”
When Wills, who’d been appearing in Hollywood Westerns, moved to Los Angeles in 1943, Southern California became America’s Western Swing capital. The term Western Swing , in fact, was first applied not to Wills but to the California bandleader Spade Cooley. Yet Wills was indisputably the king; in World War II American pilots over Europe celebrated their hits by crowing “Ah- hahh !—Wills’s famous falsetto cry.
Wills loathed the term hillbilly , hardly a fair characterization of a sixteen-piece orchestra, complete with reeds and brass, that could swing like Ellington’s. He protested in vain. “Juke box operators are up a tree as to how to judge a hillbilly record,” said a 1944 Billboard article about Wills. “All they want is to get their hands on a slough of ‘em, pardner.” In one of the first country-music stories in a national newsmagazine, Time reported on March 24, 1941, that Bing Crosby’s hit “San Antonio Rose” was “written by Texan Bob Wills and recorded a year ago (in’ Columbia’s hillbilly catalogue) by Wills and his Texas Playboys.” Groundbreaking or not, Time ’s article is heavy-handedly patronizing: “Most Southern minstrelsy sticks to an ancient form: a 16-measure ballad, repeated over & over”—an interesting description of Wills’s complex arrangements.
The Southwest gave birth to another, even more influential country style. In Texas of the thirties and forties, honky-tonk denoted not merely a hangout but a special kind of hangout. According to Texas law, a honky-tonk was a place where “conduct... [is authorized that is] lewd, immoral or offensive to public decency”—in other words, the hundreds of gin mills spawned by the oil boom of the twenties and thirties, outskirts-of-town joints where oil workers and factory hands, many of them uprooted Southeasterners, flocked at night. The songwriter Al Dexter told the writer Nick Tosches that he’d never even heard the phrase honky-tonk before 1936, when a buddy defined it for him as “those beer joints up and down the road where the girls jump in cars and so on.” Like rock ’n’ roll, whose name originally denoted sexual intercourse, honky-tonk music was born in sin.
In the honky-tonks’ sexually charged atmosphere, old-time hillbilly music and its frequently sentimental themes seemed out of place. Honky-tonk patrons wanted tougher fare, music that reflected their new lives. “Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow” was replaced by “Driving Nails in My Coffin,” “The Wild Side of Life,” “Worried Mind,” or the almost unbearably sad honky-tonk classic “Born to Lose.” The honky-tonk song title, at its best a precise balance of self-pity and wordplay, would come to supply satirists with rich material—when it wasn’t intentionally parodying itself, as in “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Made a Loser Out of Me).”
Honky-tonks changed the sound, not just the sense, of country music. Singers had to be heard over the clink of glasses, the noise of brawls, the cacophony of working people unwinding. When the Texan Ernest Tubb, the first famous honky-tonker, revolutionized country music by hiring an electric guitarist, his motive wasn’t aesthetic; Tubb simply wanted to be heard inside a honky-tonk. (Similar forces were at work in black music of the day. In the South of the twenties and thirties, blues singers played unamplified guitars; when Southern blacks flooded Chicago and Detroit in the forties, the bluesmen went electric to cut through the city’s din.)
If a royal road runs through country music, it is honky-tonk. In its sound and lyrics honky-tonk embodies country’s great complex of themes: the opposing tugs of country and city; the collapse of traditional supports like family, community, church; rural Americans’ hard adjustment to urban life. Ray Price’s fifties honky-tonk hit “City Lights” states the theme perfectly:
When Ernest Tubb joined the Grand Öle Opry in 1943, honky-tonk’s plangent strains were adopted by country singers everywhere. The honky-tonk sound, in which a fiddle and a steel guitar usually figured prominently, dominated country music until the mid-fifties. Honky-tonk hit its creative peak with Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell in the early fifties, was forced underground by rock ’n’ roll, and re-emerged in the sixties—which only shows that a good sound and a strong dose of self-pity are timeless. A century from now honky-tonk will probably be considered the classic country-music style. It has been endlessly parodied as maudlin and tasteless, but the titter of sophisticates may only reflect their discomfort with honky-tonk’s directness, their embarrassment at so naked an emotional display.
World War II was the pivotal event in country music’s nationwide spread. Defense work drew Southerners to every corner of the United States, and Northern cities swarmed with Southern migrants looking to unwind after work. “Hillbilly Tunes Gain Popularity in Baltimore,” said a Billboard story on March 6, 1943; the songs were “especially popular in spots patronized by West Virginians, North and South Carolinians and other native Southerners who have virtually invaded the defense plants. . . .” “Hillbilly Tunes Score Big Hit in Most Detroit Jukes,” Billboard said on September 9, 1944, but there was a new wrinkle: “The insistent rhythm” of country music had “got under the skin of the Detroit ‘natives,’ and they tend to like the tunes, in moderation.”
Thousands of Southern boys entered the service, exposing Northern GIs to Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb. “I went into the merchant marine in 1943 and took my guitar with me,” said the fifties country star Ferlin Husky during a 1958 congressional hearing on the music industry. “There were lots of boys . . . who had never really heard country music before, and it was interesting to see how fast they acquired a taste for it.” In September 1945 a debate raged among GIs in Munich: Who was better, Frank Sinatra or the Grand Ole Opry’s Roy Acuff? A four-thousand-vote radio poll put Acuff ahead by six hundred.
The patriotic mood was probably responsible for Roy Acuff’s status as “King of Country Music” (the title was bestowed by baseball’s Dizzy Dean, a big hillbilly fan). A Tennessean raised on folk music and hymns, Acuff performed in a completely unironic, almost solemn style. Unlike almost every other country-music star of the thirties and forties, he eschewed cowboy clothes and never recorded a single cowboy song, cloaking himself instead in Appalachian hearth-and-home values. In 1942 his income topped two hundred thousand dollars. The story is often told that when the Japanese attacked American positions on Okinawa, they cursed the three things they thought Americans held dearest: “To hell with Roosevelt, to hell with Babe Ruth, to hell with Roy Acuff!”
The mainstream press was finally showing real curiosity about country, not just flip condescension. A 1944 Saturday Evening Post article by Maurice Zolotow, “Hillbilly Boom,” said there were twenty-five million “admirers of the lonesome Texas plaint and of the mountain melancholy. . . . When a unit, say, like Roy Acuff and his Smoky Mountain Boys is scheduled to hit a town like Albany, Ga., farmers will pour into Albany from a 200-mile radius. . . . Acuff will play to audiences of 4,000 in places where Betty Grable or Tommy Dorsey or Bob Hope would only succeed in drawing boll weevils.”
Country was big business now. In 1944 Billboard counted six hundred country radio shows in the United States with an audience of forty million. “When the box-office count is in,” said Billboard in 1943, “King Korn can top anything the exponents of jumpin’ jive have done. . . . [The] rural rhythmites go blithely along with satisfied smiles on their kissers and coins that jingle, jangle, jingle in their kicks.”
From the late-1940s on, the reins of country-music power would be held in Nashville. Blowing through in 1927, Ralph Peer had dismissed the town as a recording center. But fifteen years later “The Grand Ole Opry,” broadcast live nationally over NBC radio since 1939, was attracting a disproportionate number of stars. With so much talent Nashville was a logical place to make records, and in 1947 three WSM engineers started Castle, the city’s first recording studio. By 1950 country-music record producers no longer needed to bring their artists to New York or roam the nation with portable gear. Now they headed for Nashville.
Hank Williams—born in poverty, alcoholic since childhood, miserably married to a true Lady Macbeth—may be the only country-music artist to whom the term genius fully applies.
In 1942 Roy Acuff and the songwriter Fred Rose founded Nashville’s first music-publishing company. (By the forties, sheet music was no longer lucrative, but music publishers remained powerful; putting a songwriter under contract, they shopped his songs and channeled royalties to him.) Acuff-Rose Publications quickly became a force, and not merely in country music. In 1949 Fred Rose brokered a country song called “The Tennessee Waltz” to a Columbia Records executive in New York—none other than Mitch Miller. Hiring Patti Page to sing it, Miller made the song a number-one pop hit. It eventually sold nearly five million copies, one of America’s all-time best-selling singles. In 1951 Acuff-Rose struck again: Fred Rose steered a tune called “Cold, Cold Heart” to Mitch Miller, who thought it was perfect for young Tony Bennett. Bingo—another number-one pop hit.
The author of “Cold Cold Heart” might be the only country-music artist to whom the term genius fully applies. Born in poverty, alcoholic since childhood, miserably married to a country-music Lady Macbeth, Hank Williams was a truly unhappy man. The hundred or so songs he dashed off before dying at twenty-nine are country’s most enduring canon, from terse distillations of misery—“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Your Cheating Heart”—to up-tempo celebrations like “Hey, Good Lookin,” “Jambalaya,” and “Settin’ the Woods on Fire.” No country musician is surrounded by a more intense mythology; more songs, probably, have been written about Hank than by him. His funeral, an orgy of public mourning, drew twenty-thousand weeping fans to Montgomery, Alabama. Though he could be an electrifying performer when he wasn’t drunk, it was as a writer, a supplier of songs to the pop mainstream, that Williams had his biggest impact. More than anyone else, he opened the New York-Nashville pipeline, and by the early fifties, Manhattan music publishers and record executives were flying regularly to Tennessee or opening Nashville branches, eagerly hunting new songs.
The immediate postwar years saw country’s greatest surge yet. In 1947 Ernest Tubb headlined the first country concert at Carnegie Hall. In 1949 Tubb convinced Decca Records to stop calling his music hillbilly and start calling it country; that same year Billboard retitled its “American Folk Tunes” record-sales chart “Country & Western.” “Ten years ago,” said Newsweek in 1949, “if a hillbilly record sold 10,000 copies, it was a hit; today a 50,000 sale is mediocre.” Between five and eight million Americans were tuning in “The Grand Ole Opry” every Saturday night, and in 1951 Billboard counted fourteen hundred radio shows playing a weekly average of eleven hours of country music. Roy Acuff found himself on Newsweek ’s cover in the summer of 1952; inside, the magazine put country’s share of the music business at 20 percent. In 1956, said the Wall Street Journal , Americans bought fifty million country-music records.
And that was as good as things got, for a while. Mid-fifties Nashville, like the rest of America, was shaken to its roots by rock ’n’ roll. Rock’s initial impact on country was disastrous. Radio stations dropped country in favor of the new sound, which in turn affected record sales. By 1957 country music was in a deep slump. Its struggle to recover took two paths.
The first was toward rockabilly. This was easy: Elvis himself had played the Opry, and rock was nothing more than a synthesis of country music and rhythm and blues. The Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash, Wanda Jackson, Marty Robbins, and Sonny James were country music’s answer to rock ’n’ roll. (Cash would go on to a longer, almost protean, career—a sixties to seventies superstar and a nineties icon.)
But Nashville, with its close supervision of artists, was infertile soil for a music as anarchic as rock. Far more appropriate to Nashville’s ethos was a second response to rock: the bland style known as countrypolitan, or what came to be dubbed the Nashville Sound. If country music were to survive, its executives reasoned, it needed to appeal to as broad a segment of America as possible. Since it couldn’t compete with rock for the new youth market, it would have to wean mainstream pop fans away from Dean Martin and Perry Como. As early as 1954 RCA Victor Records’ Nashville boss Steve Sholes prophesied, “I believe 1964 will find the country and western and pop fields of entertainment so closely allied that it will be impossible to tell the difference without a score card.”
Two Nashville producers, Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins, became country’s master sweeteners. Bradley oversaw Patsy Cline’s hits—“Sweet Dreams,” “Walking After Midnight,” “Crazy.” With their swirling strings and Cline’s rich voice, the records would have led Patsy to mainstream pop if she hadn’t died in a plane wreck in 1963, only thirty-one. Bradley told Billboard in 1961: “We’ve cut out the fiddle and steel guitar and added choruses to country music. But it can’t stop there. It has to always keep developing to keep fresh.” Ten years later he was having second thoughts. “We’re getting the music too pop,” he said in Look magazine. “I say, let’s keep it hillbilly.”
Merle Haggard has given us country music’s finest oeuvre after Hank Williams; in his best tunes Haggard is truly, as he’s sometimes called, “the poet of the common man.”
Atkins—a superb guitarist who, ironically, grew up steeped in Appalachian tradition—probably did more than anyone else to dilute country music. Succeeding Steve Sholes in 1957 as RCA’s Nashville boss, he produced hundreds of inoffensive easy-listening albums for singers like Jim Reeves and Don Gibson. Like Bradley, Atkins developed regrets, going so far as to apologize publicly. “We’re about to lose our identity,” he told People in 1974, “and get all mixed up with other music. . . . Of course I had a lot to do with changing country, and I apologize.” “We were just trying to sell records,” he said in Rolling Stone in 1976.
Sell records they did. In 1964 the country-music industry (records, radio, and concerts) earned a hundred million dollars, according to Time . But the music was often wan and saccharine. A reaction set in: neo-honky-tonk, or “hard country,” a return to honky-tonk’s gritty verities. The East Texan George Jones, whose heart-stopping glissandi and melismata make his, to many minds, the most expressive voice ever to sing country, started in the ear- Iy fifties as a Hank Williams imitator, passed through a mid-fifties rockabilly phase (as “Thumper” Jones), and rose, with songs like “She Thinks I Still Care,” “My Favorite Lies,” and “The Grand Tour,” to apotheosis as the beloved “Ol’ Possum.”
But hard country’s richest vein lay in Southern California, home to thousands of uprooted Midwesterners. Born in Texas, Buck Owens moved to Bakersfield, California, as a young man. Merle Haggard, the son of migrant Oklahomans, was born outside Bakersfield in 1937. Both became famous in the mid-sixties. Owens retired after a decade of hits, but Merle Haggard and his band the Strangers still roam the country in a pair of buses. As a songwriter Haggard has given us country music’s finest oeuvre after Hank Williams’s. As a musician he has forged a supple style he calls country jazz; it is Haggard, not today’s dozens of by-the-letter Bob Wills revivalists, who is keeping alive Wills’s sophisticated swing. The tune that won Haggard fame, or notoriety, “Okie From Muskogee,” represents just one facet of his complicated soul (politically he hews to a sort of right-wing anarchism). In his best tunes, sung in a lived-in, cracked baritone, Merle Haggard is truly, as he’s sometimes called, “the poet of the common man”:
There was a second backlash against the “Nashville sound.” Although acoustic string bands had ceased to figure commercially after the early forties, acoustic country music survived as a subculture, its leader mandolinist-singer Bill Monroe. Monroe is usually given credit for developing the genre we call bluegrass; in fact, the style didn’t coalesce until Earl Scruggs brought a spectacular, three-fingered banjo technique—the “Scruggs roll” into Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in December 1945. Scruggs’s sound gave bluegrass its surging, headlong thrust—”folk-music in overdrive,” the musicologist Alan Lomax called it in a 1959 Esquire piece. In the sixties, thousands of country fans, turned off by Nashville’s blandness, defected to bluegrass, by then in its second generation: the Osborne Brothers, the Country Gentlemen, Jim and Jesse. Today’s bluegrass fans and performers are mostly college-educated professionals, not the music’s original working-class constituents. Despite its followers’ passion, bluegrass remains commercially marginal; Robert Cantwell’s over-imaginative remark that it has “swept into the social and psychic space occupied a century ago by religion and by religious revivals and camp meetings” is silly. From time to time a bluegrass musician arrives (today the fiddler-vocalist Alison Krauss) who breaks through to a wider audience.
By the mid-sixties the counterculture was seeping into country music. To understand the strangeness of this convergence, one must realize that mid-sixties country music, to the typical Eastern intellectual, could not have seemed more retrograde. Most country singers supported the Vietnam War (Johnny Cash, always a musical and political renegade, was one exception), patriarchy (Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man”), truck drivers, and Richard Nixon. Hippie bashing was a favorite pastime of Nashville songwriters. But in 1966 Bob Dylan, attracted by the city’s top-notch musicians and desperately trying to exit publicity’s glare, began recording his folk-rock music in Nashville. Two years later he made Nashville Skyline : out-and-out country music (Dylan had always been a Hank Williams fan anyway). In the late sixties Dylan’s influence among musicians and the hip intelligentsia was immense. When he called George Jones’s “Small Time Laboring Man” his favorite song of 1968 in a Rolling Stone interview, left-wing intellectuals—though George Jones was as exotic to them as Balinese gamelan music—gamely started listening to the Possum. And hard as it was for them to get past Merle Haggard’s jingoistic veneer, if Bob dug him . . . and pot-smoking lefties discovered Haggard’s rough magic.
A dissolute Florida orange-grove heir and Harvard drop-out named Gram Parsons was the first member of the counterculture to play authentic country music. Parsons was just twenty-six when he died, but through his friends —the Byrds, the Eagles, the Rolling Stones (he inspired the Stones’ “Wild Horses,” “Dead Flowers,” and “Honky Tonk Women”)—he drew thousands of rock fans to country. A writer of heartbreaking, if often unfinished-sounding, songs, Parsons made two beautiful albums, GP and Grievous Angel , and died of drugs in the California desert in 1973. His brilliance notwithstanding, his biggest contribution may have been to convert a twenty-one-year-old Joni Mitchell-style folk singer named Emmylou Harris to country music.
Gram Parsons’s impact was on his fellow rockers; he had no immediate effect on Nashville. Yet by the late sixties, a group of young Nashvillians—songwriters, mostly—were starting to flout the city’s prim social conventions, growing their hair, smoking pot, questioning the Vietnam War. Under Dylan’s and the Beatles’ influence, they rebelled musically too. Tame as it sounds today, John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind,” a late sixties hit for Glen Campbell, had a Whitmanesque sweep that made it a big step in Nashville’s self-liberalization. In 1970 Kris Kristofferson, an amazing fellow (Rhodes scholar, West Point instructor, failed novelist, Army helicopter pilot, and eventual Hollywood star), started placing his loose, raw-boned songs with stars like Ray Price (“For the Good Times”) and Johnny Cash (“Sunday Morning Comin’ Down”). When the rock superstar Janis Joplin cut Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” he became the hottest songwriter in Nashville, an antiauthoritarian smack-dab in the belly of the establishment.
Kristofferson’s success lit a fuse that hissed and popped with Waylon Jennings’s brooding early-seventies country-rock and finally exploded into the utterly improbable superstardom of Willie Nelson. A successful songwriter (“Crazy,” “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away”), an unsuccessful performer, and a closet liberal, Nelson had abandoned Nashville around 1970 for Austin, Texas. He became the hub of an Austin-Nashville coterie that called itself Outlaws—Jennings, Tompall Glaser, Jerry Jeff Walker, and others. The Outlaws’ surly machismo (which publicists quickly turned into a marketing tool) masked a serious intent: wresting control of their music from Nashville’s powerful producers. In 1972 Jennings bulled his way to a contract with RCA that gave him unprecedented artistic freedom (Chet Atkins, bested in the negotiations, complained that his own contract was more restrictive). The result, Jennings’s 1973 Honky Tonk Heroes , was a huge hit. Two years later Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger , which Columbia didn’t want to release—it sounded unfinished, it griped—was an even bigger hit. The 1976 album Wanted: The Outlaws , a slapped-together pastiche featuring Nelson and Jennings, was the first country album to sell one million copies. Nuisances no longer, Willie and Waylon were suddenly country’s ambassadors to the outside world. Every self-respecting rock fan loved the Outlaws.
Though today’s industry would loudly dissent, it makes sense to consider the generation of George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard the last great infusion of country-music creativity.
His 1978 album Stardust , which would stay on Billboard ’s country chart for ten solid years, the pop chart for two, brought Willie beyond rock fans to their parents; with his grizzled ponytail, bandanna, and known fondness for pot and tequila, he was Middle America’s unlikeliest icon ever. Today the Outlaws are in-laws. Waylon’s music chugs along safely, and in 1993 the sixty-year-old Willie became the youngest member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Though today’s country-music industry would loudly dissent, it makes sense to consider the generation of George Jones, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings the last great infusion of country-music creativity, the last wave of artists to truly enrich the music. In the wake of Nelson’s huge success, country descended in the early eighties, the awful Kenny Rogers years, to an almost insufferable blandness, the emblem of its pasteurization Dolly Parton, with her eager passage from fresh-voiced singer-songwriter to Top 40 hack. In retrospect it sometimes seems that the only late seventies-early eighties star to resist sweetening her music, Vegas style, was Gram Parsons’s old singing partner Emmylou Harris.
Following her lead, a flock of younger singers grew curious about Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Merle Haggard. The East Kentucky native Ricky Skaggs, born in 1954, apprenticed with Ralph Stanley’s bluegrass Clinch Mountain Boys, joined Emmylou’s Hot Band, and went on his own in 1980, riding an electrified, bluegrass-influenced sound to big record sales. Skaggs’s music was given a name: New Traditionalism. Dwight Yoakam, the most talented country singer to emerge in the eighties, was also born in East Kentucky but fell in love with Buck Owens’s California honky-tonk. In the late seventies Yoakam was rejected by Nashville as uncommercial. After heading to California, he played his loud, snarling blend of honky-tonk and rock ’n’ roll in Los Angeles bars, hooked up with the brilliant guitarist and producer Pete Anderson, and made in 1986 what remains his best album, Guitars, Cadillacs Etc. Etc.
Ricky Skaggs’s selection as the Country Music Association’s 1985 Entertainer of the Year signified New Traditionalism’s commercial acceptance. Of course, it also meant Harris’s, Skaggs’s, and Yoakam’s music would be fed into Nashville’s conveyor belt, and indeed, before long dozens of imitators were capturing the trimmings (fiddles, acoustic guitars, sparse arrangements) but not the heart of New Traditionalism. Clint Black and Randy Travis, almost always classified as New Traditionalists, are competent performers, but they lack Emmylou Harris’s passion or Dwight Yoakam’s bite. Vapid newcomers like Alan Jackson are marketed now as traditionalists, demonstrating once again the ease with which Nashville’s producers and studio musicians can depersonalize a fresh style. Meanwhile, a genuine traditionalist like the talented young Marty Brown probably has little future in Nashville. Record executives, one insider told me, are embarrassed by Brown’s old-fashioned music. “He disgusts them. They won’t even have lunch with him.”
The latest strain to emerge, “Contemporary Country,” or country-pop, is country music’s most thorough self-evisceration yet. Whether genuinely self-expressive (Rosanne Cash, Wynonna Judd) or blandly commercial (Garth Brooks, whose No Fences and Ropin’ the Wind are, at more than ten and nine million respectively, country’s all-time best-selling albums), Contemporary Country represents country music’s problematic future.
Problematic future? Nashville’s accountants would hoot. From 1985 to 1993 country-music record sales almost quadrupled, from nearly $440 million to $1.75 billion. Country’s share of the recorded-music market jumped from 10 percent in 1985 to 17.5 percent in 1993. Though rock is still the nation’s most popular music, country is the fastest-growing. Country radio is America’s favorite format, with twenty-five hundred stations playing full-time. A relatively new medium, country-music cable TV, reaches sixty-two million homes; most Americans can flick on country TV (live music, MTV-style videos, talk shows) at any time.
An amazing commercial triumph, indeed—and with it go the last shreds of the rich heritage we have traced.
For Contemporary Country symbolizes, along with Kmart and McDonald’s, the end of regionalism in American life. Popular music, just as much a commercial product as groceries, is no longer marketed locally but by a few huge corporations: Sony, Time-Warner, MCA, BMG. A teenager in Shreveport flicks on the radio. He gets not the “Louisiana Hayride”—the “Hayride” went off the air in 1971—but Madonna’s latest hit. Frightened of losing the teen-agers’ dollars, executives in Nashville concoct music sounding more and more like Madonna, less and less like George Jones. “Why is country music so big these days?” the singer Marty Stuart asked rhetorically in a 1992 New York Times story. “It’s the reason Long John Silver sells more fish than the catfish house on the edge of town—they’ve succeeded in making fish taste not so much like fish.”
Nor is the new fish very nourishing. As no less an authority than Willie Nelson complained about country radio, in an unpublished 1992 interview with a Time correspondent: “They are not playing the people I like to hear. So I don’t listen. Public radio does it now.”
Intended to go down easy now, country music sounds like nothing so much as what used to be called soft rock. Indeed, if the soft rockers James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, and the Eagles were new artists today, they would without a doubt be called “country” and marketed by the record labels’ Nashville branches.
Country music was born of the trauma of rural people’s adjustment to industrial society, but that fight has been fought. Millions of country people are settled now in suburbia; they no longer need their struggle cathartically mirrored. That classic expression of the migrant’s homesickness, Tillis and Dill’s 1962 “Detroit City”—“Last night I went to sleep in Detroit City/And dreamed about those cotton fields and home”—means nothing to the migrant’s children; they’re from Detroit, or its suburbs, and they like Guns ’N Roses.
Severed from its working-class origins, country music is becoming a refuge for culturally homeless Americans everywhere. They make strange bedfellows, nineties country-music fans: long-time Middle American followers of the music; baby-boomer professionals raised on sixties rock but unable to stomach its descendants; senior citizens always game for easy-listening fodder; whites who hate rap. Indeed, country’s new popularity has a troubling undercurrent: the widening gap between black and white culture. If whites loved Stevie Wonder and the Suprêmes, most of them still run from rap. As a 1992 Time article pointed out, country’s new popularity is, in part, the musical equivalent of “the urban escapism known as ‘white flight.’”
Late-twentieth-century Americans thirst for pastoral imagery, and that’s what country music can do for them. But Contemporary Country is bouncily, phonily pastoral. “Yearning [for the past],” writes the New York Times music critic Jon Pareles, “has become a standardized product,” in which “Grandma always sings ‘Amazing Grace’ and the water is mountain-pure and Daddy’s advice is invariably sage.” Classic country music, even if it descended into bathos, was never afraid to look death and tragedy in the face, whether in Dorsey Dixon’s 1939 “Wreck on the Highway,” where “whiskey and blood run together,” or in MeI Tillis’s “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” whose crippled Vietnam vet knows “it’s hard to love a man whose legs are bent and paralyzed.” Today’s country has little of the old grit.
The traditionalist tells the country-music listener, ‘Here, buy these old overalls, you can get good and dirty in ’em.’ But the fan says, ’They make me feel like a hick. You can keep’em.’”
But hasn’t the new country music been freely chosen by its public? Tony Brown, Nashville’s hottest producer (Wynonna Judd, Reba McEntire, George Strait) and the president of MCA Records’ Nashville branch, said to me last year, “The traditionalist tells the country-music listener, ‘Here, buy these old overalls, you can get good and dirty in ‘em.’ But the fan says, ‘Hey, these are a little old-fashioned, they smell bad, and you know what? They make me feel like a hick. You can keep ‘em.’ Country music is changing because the fans want it to change.” Brown’s argument is in less than perfect faith. Once, when American regions were more distinct, cultures truly were the expression of people’s wants; they evolved separately, uninfluenced by any central force. Today the public’s desires are channeled, even created, by a few big corporations. Tony Brown’s claim—that people choose their music freely—is a convenient fiction.
It wasn’t always. Willie Nelson, for one, can recall country’s pre-corporate days. “I remember,” Willie said in 1992, “when we’d have a new single out, we’d go around to different country stations. If you could get a record played in enough areas, you could not only sell a couple of records, you could build up an audience by playing in those areas. Then came the computer age, when everything started being programmed in New York. It didn’t do any good to go to a station because it was already programmed.”
So it looks as if it’s good-bye to country music, at a time when it has never been more popular. The apparent paradox, of course, is that it’s good-bye only to country music as we knew it from 1920 to 1980, good-bye to Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and George Jones (whom the Nashville tastemakers simultaneously lionize and muzzle; elected in 1992 to the Country Music Hall of Fame, Jones, in as fine voice as ever at sixty-three, has a harder and harder time getting on the radio).
It’s possible to argue, as some critics do, that country music can indeed flourish apart from its vanished rural roots; that today’s country fan, who may well be a native Long Islander—or a Parisian—is making an aesthetic choice, like a city dweller who favors cowboy boots. “Country,” the argument goes, is only a set of symbols; it need not be the expression of a living culture. “Authenticity” is a meaningless criterion in country music—the music has been artificial for decades. An interesting line of thought, this perspective see country’s life span as potentially infinite. But it begs two questions. First, how far from its social origins can an art form grow before it simply loses meaning (or turns into something different)? Second, the argument seems naively apolitical, ignoring the fact that popular tastes, including the taste for country music, are less and less freely arrived at, shaped more and more by a few corporations.
It would not be surprising to see a Nashville marketing campaign emerge in the next few years and try to replace “country music” with something new—“American music,” say, or “heartlands music.” For “country music,” unfortunately, smells too much like those old overalls. As Dwight Yoakam told me in 1993, “Ultimately we’re going to lose contact with that white rural experience—we already are. And that’ll lead to the demise of country music as a collective genre. I’ll lament its loss. But lamenting it too much is like lamenting the fact that we drive cars today. Where will tomorrow’s great cavalry riders come from? Well, they aren’t going to come. Because there are no more horses to ride.”
It’s not like in the movies; no, the cavalry won’t be riding to the rescue. All we can do is count the bodies, and who better to count them with than old Ralph Peer? He not only started it all; he could see the end coming too. “I came in before the old life was destroyed,” said Peer in 1959, retired to his camellia garden, “and I picked up the things that had floated to the top. But nowadays there’s not too much difference between the standard of living in Georgia and the one in Illinois.”