- Historic Sites
The old Confederacy got only as far north as Pennsylvania, but its great-grandchildren have captured America’s culture. Joshua Zeitz looks at sports, entertainment, and religion to show how.
August/September 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 4
Over the years, as its fans climbed the socioeconomic ladder, NASCAR angled for a more respectable image. In the 1950s it banned women from the pit, thus drawing to a premature close the racing careers of drivers like Sara Christian, Louise Smith, and Ethel Flock Mobley. As the organization steadily moved North, where millions of white transplants demonstrated as much enthusiasm for the sport as their Southern cousins, it began to look less like itself. By 1960 the Southern circuit had eight paved courses; in the 1970s officials introduced organized prayer services at the start of races. In time the tracks came to resemble big-city sports arenas. At Darlington, South Carolina, spectators who can afford $500 tickets are now ushered off to the Azalea Terrace; others vie for even more expensive chairs in the President’s Suite or the Fourth Turn Club. In perhaps the most conspicuous example of NASCAR’s self-reformation, drivers are now fined $10,000 for fighting.
By the 1940s Grand Ole Opry had become perhaps the most admired radio show in the United States.
If skeptics had any lingering doubt about NASCAR’s stature as a national pastime, the coverage of this year’s Daytona 500 put the issue to rest. On February 17, NBC bumped its coverage of the Winter Olympics in Utah in favor of the race at Daytona Beach. The decision reflected NASCAR’s immense profitability to its sponsor networks. In 2001 NEC’s stock car ratings jumped 34 percent over the previous year; among men earning $75,000 and more, a phenomenal 74 percent. NASCAR is no longer a Southern phenomenon.
Writing in the mid-1990s, Peter Applebome, a former Atlanta bureau chief for The New York Times , affirmed that country music had become “white America’s music of choice,” and Nashville, the capital of country, “the Tin Pan Alley of the nineties.” What was once a marginal form of entertainment is today the staple of more radio stations—2,600, to be precise—than any other kind of music. Seventy million Americans tune into country and help drive what has become a two-billion-dollar industry. Country superstar Garth Brooks has sold more than 60 million records, making him second only to the Beatles in total U.S. sales.
Unlike stock car racing, country music was a highly lucrative industry as early as the 1920s, when advances in recording and radio helped capture and institutionalize the “hillbilly” sounds rural Southerners had invented, and reinvented, over the better part of two centuries. Bill C. Malone, the leading historian of country music, has written that the South prior to World War II was sufficiently conservative to encourage “the preservation of older values and institutions,” particularly a rich “folk culture.” Yet that folk culture, at least in its musical form, was always a “vigorous hybrid.” radio show in the United States.
The mix contained evangelical hymns and camp songs (first dubbed “gospel” music in 1875), African-American song styles —most notably the blues—outpourings of New York City’s Tin Pan Alley, whose professionals produced a variety of music wide enough to satisfy both Northern urbanites and Southern country folk. Most regional troubadours probably didn’t realize that such Southern favorites as “Old Dan Tucker,” “Listen to the Mockingbird,” and “Cotton-Eyed Joe” had been written by Northern minstrel troupes, or that sturdy American tunes like “Flop-Eared Mule,” “Fire on the Mountain,” and “Leather Breeches” had been born in Britain. Anthropologists in the 1920s were astounded to find “maverick” remnants of sixteenth-century English verse alive and fully integrated into regional music in the Southern Appalachians. In some cases whole songs, like the haunting ballad “Barbara Alien,” remained intact. Yet even these enthusiastic and knowledgeable students never appreciated the dynamic evolution of Southern country music. It was neither entirely authentic nor invented.
Thanks to technology—the phonograph and the radio- country music matured after World War I. At first record companies weren’t interested in rural sounds. But early radio producers were, and in the twenties radio fast outpaced the phonograph as a source of popular home entertainment. Between 1920—the first year of commercial broadcasting—and 1930, annual sales of radios jumped from $60 million to $842 million. At the close of the 1920s more than 12 million American households owned radio sets.
Because most stations then could reach only local audiences, their selection of music tended to be more democratic than the recording industry’s. Small stations carried local country talent from the beginning, and in 1922 the Atlanta Journal’s radio station, WSB, became the first high-power outlet to feature what Americans soon called “hillbilly music,” and for the first time millions of listeners heard authentic country talent like “Fiddlin’ John” Carson.
Following quickly on the heels of WSB’s coup, WBAP in Fort Worth invented the first-ever broadcast “barn dance,” a live country-music and talk program that proved immensely popular with Southern listeners. By the late 1920s WLS (Chicago) and WMS (Nashville) had perfected the form with “National Barn Dance” and “Grand Ole Opry,” two mainstays of American radio culture: “Barn Dance” ran for a quarter-century, and the “Opry” is with us still. By the 1940s “Grand Ole Opry” was perhaps the most admired radio show in the United States, with a cast of songsters and comedians that included Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Minnie Pearl, and “Uncle Dave” Macon. Like its Chicago counterpart, the “Opry” purveyed rural folk culture with an urban, commercial twist. After the 1920s that combination, more than anything else, would define the otherwise eclectic and diffuse art form that was country music.