Introduction – The “Image” of Country
Historically, in America, country music is looked upon as an object of prejudice and stereotypes. That prejudice is expressed in cultural terms of mockery, ignorance and backwardness. In 2019, someone actually thinks writing an article titled “How Yeehaw Took Over The Internet” is a moment of triumph for the genre (spoiler: it’s not). But the driving forces are more rooted in socioeconomic factors. The same elements country music fans take pride in are looked upon as direct oppositions to the American Dream – passionate loyalty to traditionalism, historical continuity, small social scale, and a cooperation between individuals and groups in the struggle for survival – and, of course, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Country music, to these people, is primitive, not the kind of art capable of capturing or sustaining interest with which “sophisticated” music listeners approach creativity.
For example, one of the earliest examples that, for the record, is directed more toward rural lifestyles rather than “hillbilly” fans, is a 1926 description of white southern rural folks and their preferred choice of music in show business weekly Variety. Their message voices an attitude still echoed in the modern day – “they sing through their noses and cry in their beer.” A ‘hillbilly,’ as they note, 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 writer adds that such people had “the intelligence of morons” and amused themselves with “sing-song, nasal-twanging vocalizing.”
On the opposite end, an anonymous copywriter for a 1925 Victor song catalog was in charge of pitching two of Vernon Dalhart’s “hillbilly” songs. His promotion of the songs entailed focusing on their social benefits, noting that these tunes were not “productions of, or for, the cabaret or the vaudeville stage, but for the roundhouse, the watertank, the caboose, or the village fire station … These songs are more than things for passing amusement; they are chronicles of the time, by unlettered and never self-conscious chroniclers.”
It’s not like Dalhart really needed the promotion. He himself was labeled as a sophisticated veteran of the New York stage and had the first million-selling country record, “The Prisoner’s Song.” The song was cooked up in New York by his Tin Pan Alley creative team, but that’s not important. The bigger problem, and the crutch of this piece, is country music’s representation in popular culture. If country music was confined strictly to the folks and landscape from whom and which it sprang, the attitudes of outsiders would largely be irrelevant. But that’s not how history works.
As soon as technological advancements made their way to this culture via various forms such as the radio, people began trying to sell the music of the country culture beyond those natural boundaries. All of a sudden, those outside opinions mattered.
Early Representation (’20s-’40s)
Perhaps the biggest question facing this piece is, “why should we care?” After all, country music originates from the American South, a region looked upon as a bastion for reactionary modernism. Country music’s ties to musical traditionalism, political conservatism, religious ideologies, and pastoral conventions are the same aspects that disqualify it from cultural consideration at large, sadly. Yet country music as a commercial genre was also built through a demand for the music itself. In 1927, Ralph Peer ventured to Bristol, Tennessee to scout “hillbilly” talent for Victor Records, netting Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family in the process. His motivation derived from financial interests rather than pure passion, sure, but that’s the point – there was a demand for this rural music. The further success of musicians such as Fiddlin’ John Carson and barn dance radio programs broadcast from Atlanta, Chicago and Nashville were only further proof of that.
Of course, Peer did at least have an appreciation for regional music and the artists he helped expose to the world. This sentiment wasn’t, however, reciprocated by the northern cultural industries that bankrolled him. Northern marketers made the critical decision to package regional music into two exclusive categories based on the race of the performers – “race records” for artists of color, and “hillbilly” for whites. “Hillbilly” was, and still is, a term that haunted southern musicians, and, unfortunately, reinforced images of cultural isolation and being out of touch with modern life.
Yet the funny thing is, early country music symbolized radical social change more than traditional repetition. For example, country music broke through courtesy of the radio, a revolutionary piece of technology that entertained rural families and allowed musicians the chance to pursue music as a career choice. Later, regional dynamics such as urbanization and industrial development would alter the geographic mobility of the southern United States. The Great Migration ferried the blues, mixing those southern styles with northern influences. The dustbowl migrations brought a southwestern version of country music to Bakersfield, California, thus giving us Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, among so many other artists.
Even when analyzing song lyrics, early country songs depicted themes of missing home rather than staying home. Moreover, they depicted increased geographic mobility and urbanization. Country music also more often addresses a decline in traditional social norms rather than reinforces them. How else would we have so many songs about cheating, drinking, gambling and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E?” Even before Rodgers’s discovery by Peer, it wasn’t like he was sitting around waiting for stardom to come. He was a railroad worker and professional musician, performing in his signature train conductor’s cap and coveralls while carrying numerous nicknames, one of which was the “Singing Brakeman.” Moreover, Rodgers had been tutored by African American musicians in the Mississippi trainyards and was well versed in a wide variety of musical styles from blues to Tin Pan Alley pop. His vagabond spirit was symbolic of a life marked by mobility, not stagnation.
On the other hand, where Rodgers represented the modernity of hillbilly culture, the Carter Family crafted an image of domestic stability and traditionalism. Made up of husband-and-wife A.P. and Sara and A.P.’s sister-in-law, Maybelle, the Carter Family preformed using traditional instruments and arrangements. A.P. often reworked traditional hymns, with the trio’s biggest example being “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?”
But as Edward Comentale argues in Sweet Air, “If the Carter Family’s music proved essential to American lives, it was because they confronted the pain and alienation of a specifically modern life and turned contemporary feelings of loss and detachment into a virtue of form.” In their careers as musicians, the Carter Family didn’t even make a living. A.P. had to take sabbaticals from the group to earn money as a carpenter. Their music lives on, with their songs recorded time and time again from the ‘30s all the way to today. Meanwhile Rodgers becomes the first recording artist to parlay authentic, rural-grounded music into national stardom. He’s also country music’s first dweller and tragic hero, a good person lost in a bad world.
Mama Wants To Change That Nashville Sound (’50s-’60s)
Jumping forward a little in history, The Nashville Sound has met with plenty of criticism when analyzing country music history. While it did give rise to some of country music’s finest performers in Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves and Glen Campbell (among so many others), in terms of cultural representation, it was a movement that tried to make country music look “cool.” From a business perspective, this made sense. The smooth tones and lush strings were made to combat the onslaught of rock ‘n’ roll, as old, pure honky-tonk hillbilly hits just weren’t cutting it anymore.
And it was successful.
Record sales achieved a life-saving level relatively quickly and only continued to rise over the next 15 years. But the dream of equality, both in terms of economic and social factors, was still elusive. Despite the profitability of this era, it almost didn’t make much sense in terms of its concept. Its primary demographic was aimed, as Billy Sherrill puts it, to “the housewife washing dishes at 10 a.m. in Topeka, Kansas,” a demographic that didn’t buy many records. And no one believed that artists such as Roger Miller or Charlie Rich, no matter how lavish they looked, were golfing with country club elitists. The image was a farce. It’s hard to tell what drove this era – basic economics, or a desire for full acceptance of Nashville in the country clubs and other high-end establishments … or both.
Don’t Let The Old Man In (Representation in the ‘70s)
Today, to certain disgruntled country music fans, Nashville represents an enemy of quality. To an even more specific sector, Nashville has always been that way. While significant business practices have shaped the country music industry as we know it, fans just looking for something they like and are familiar with aren’t interested in that. But to rock fans in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it started to at least represent … well, something . It was, after all, the place where Bob Dylan made Blonde on Blonde. But when the industry was committed to rural political conservatism on one hand and suburban social convention on the other, the new youth values of the time did start seeing Nashville as an enemy. In other words, Nashville and the hippies didn’t exactly go together.
But like Hank Williams before, certain artists acted as the necessary bridges needed to expose a different side of country music to new fans. I’ve already discussed this at length in a former piece with fellow writer, Nathan Kanuch, “The Epic Scene of Country Rock,” but to make a long story short, Gram Parsons was an essential part of making country music “cool” to outsiders. Parsons had long hair and wore Nudie suits embedded with marijuana leaves. To play devil’s advocate with this piece, while country music obviously has always suffered from a representation problem, it was also quick to box out someone like Parsons. And the sad part is, during his time, Parsons likely knew and cared more about country music than most artists in Nashville. Thankfully, the genre made up for its mistakes, as his contemporaries such as Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt were later welcomed into the genre.
But still, there were missed musical connections in the ‘60s and early ‘70s between Nashville and California country hippies. But the discussion of Parsons, Harris (to a significantly smaller extent) and Ronstadt is sadly mostly relegated to the outside looking in. For those who need any further proof that Nashville would eventually accept something “different,” let’s move now to the outlaw movement.
Between the drug culture, sexual revolution and various authoritarian political movements of this time, shaggy looking creatures like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson were more trustworthy than the average “appealing figure.” Whereas before when the friction between country fans and hippies was too close for comfort, now, rock ‘n’ roll fans didn’t have to feel bad about buying a country record (and vice versa). To be fair, maybe it helps that these two, along with others during this time period, were also anti-Nashville.
Like any time period in country music history, this didn’t last. This was evident by the time Urban Cowboy hit the market, with the country image given a new spotlight over the actual music (which is not unlike what’s happening now with the phrase, “yeehaw culture”). Still, apart from broadening the boundaries of what country music could be (in an authentic way), for once, country music penetrated the youth market. To kids of this time period, the first image that popped into their heads when they thought “country music” wasn’t broken-hearted rednecks wanting their dog back, nor did they see a divide between hippies and rednecks. Instead, they saw artists; real people behind the microphone that sang about topics that maybe they could relate to after all.
Grandpa, Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Old Days (The Paradox of the ‘80s)
Going back, briefly, to a discussion on Urban Cowboy, it’s worth diving into the specifics of the film itself and how it actually featured “country” music. The soundtrack features a hodgepodge of names from The Eagles to Jimmy Buffett, Joe Walsh, Bob Seger, Charlie Daniels, Linda Ronstadt, Kenny Rogers and more. Helped in part by the film’s success, country music was America’s best-selling genre of music by 1981. Other booming entities of the time were movies like Coal Miner’s Daughter centered around Loretta Lynn, 9 to 5 starring Dolly Parton, and Honeysuckle Rose with Willie Nelson.
Yet this boom was short-lived, despite the film’s seemingly positive ramifications. By 1986, country music accounted for 9 percent of all records sold, a 6 percent drop from 1985 and lower than the 10.5-12 percent average of the ‘70s. As a commercial genre, country music regained its footing by taking control of its own brand image. A new generation of artists was ushered in, with targets set not on world domination, but on reasonable goals given country music’s current situation at the time. Pared-down A&R staffs were more open to fresh musical approaches than before, with the emphasis now being placed on an entire label roster, not just a flagship superstar or two. Country artists deemed too traditional now found themselves with record label deals. Of course, alongside Randy Travis, Keith Whitley, Patty Loveless and more, there was also room for pop-oriented acts like Exile, Gary Morris and Lee Greenwood. The brand image, in this case, was strengthened by embracing variety. Even mainstream rock publications like Rolling Stone and Spin ran articles on artists like Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam, artists who drew more ink than big sellers like Travis or Ricky Van Shelton.
The ‘90s Boom – Country Music’s Greatest Decade
In some ways, the ’90s are both a vilified and beloved time in country music. On one hand, it was the biggest era commercially the genre had ever seen. On the other hand, country music fans wondered if certain members of the new class represented a loss of country music’s authenticity.
Of course, an embrace to fuse the old with the new is what marked the Nashville Sound, and, sure enough, Garth Brooks represented both sides of the coin. One side was the honky-tonkin’, working class man who sang songs like “Rodeo,” and the other half was someone who incorporated rock and pop into his recordings and gave energetic live shows.
However, Brooks, ironically, is one of the artists who showed why it was alright for country music artists to take pride in the genre. The success of all of these artists during this time period was aided by the advent of the Soundscan system in 1991. Basically, its design was to offer a more accurate measure of record sales. Prior to this, Billboard and other trade papers regularly called a preselected group of record stores and distributors around the country and asked a manager or assistant manager what the top sellers in every category were. It wasn’t a matter of compiling actual sales figures. Country music always went under-reported seeing as how country music fans weren’t known to shop in traditional record stores. Most country music sales took place in discount retailers such as Wal-Mart, which, at the time, didn’t even provide sales reports to Billboard.
Brooks’ No Fences album jumped from No. 16 to No. 4 the week the program was instigated. His next album, Ropin’ The Wind, would be the first country album to debut at No. 1 on the pop album charts. For the first time ever, a country music star was in the same league as Michael Jackson or Billy Joel. This was a rare moment in country music history that saw country music content with being … well, country. This was all part of a larger campaign to woo new listeners by convincing them country music was cool, and, more importantly, a genre for everyone. Of course, it’s not like the pride didn’t come with a bit stinging embarrassment of the genre’s past reputation. The CMA’s 2003 slogan, for example, was “Country. Admit it. You Love it,” as if, despite its popularity, you still might feel insecure about liking *gulp* country music.
Further Discussion – Counry Music Representation With Television
One aspect of country music that gets misconstrued by the mainstream media is its relationship with television. In 1969, Hee Haw debuted, a program that positioned country music legends amid hay bales and cornfields of the mythical Kornfield Kounty. During its time, it was looked upon as backward for its mash-up of “hillbilly” stereotypes – scarecrows, hound dogs and blacked-out teeth. To outsiders, Hee Haw was nothing more than an additional punching bag for country music, but as always, it meant something to fans of the music. It combined the downhome, rural feel of the old radio barn dance with cutting-edge video technology. It was a way of combining something new with the old, in other words.
Around this time, two other shows debuted – the Johnny Cash Show and the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour . Campbell’s show represented the more urban side of country music pulling from its Nashville Sound elements. Themes of rural dreams, common struggle, the West and America’s virtues and failings made their way into Cash’s show. Two popular segments on the show included “Country Gold” and “Ride This Train.” The former segment sought to feature country legends who either were seeing their glory days at radio fade or simply not featured all that much on television networks. More importantly, though, it allowed viewers to connect the historical dots between gospel, western, Nashville Sound and beyond while also connecting younger and older performers. The latter segment always occurred in the middle, with monologues and songs narrated by Cash himself as he took a video journey through hobo camps, prisons, Indian reservations, interstate highways, and other forgotten points of history in America.
Fans loved it, but, as always, outsiders weren’t so keen on it, bringing us to the “rural purge.” Thanks to the Prime Time Access Rule, which took effect in 1971, it was instituted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to restrict the amount of network programming that local television stations owned by or affiliated with a network may have aired during the evening. Basically, CBS had to trim the equivalent of seven half-hour programs from their weekly schedules and give them back to the local stations. When Petticoat Junction was replaced by The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1971, the audience was completely different. The latter show catered to an audience that was urban and sophisticated. Silverman responded by slashing the rest of the shows deemed “rural,” including Cash’s show (Campbell’s show would last until 1972). Ironically, Hee Haw, one of the shows axed from the program, carried on via syndication, independently produced and distributed, for two decades longer, ending in 1992. Outsiders may not have understood, but Hee Haw helped establish a quintessential position in country music history for looking to the past with rural forms of humor and musical tradition while looking toward the present for contemporary country icons and toward the future for new technology-driven possibilities.
Further Discussion – The Contradictions of Authenticity
When it comes to authenticity, it’s both an essential element to the genre’s history and a constant victim of contradiction. When Hank Williams described what it meant to be a “hillbilly” singer, he said, “you’ve got to know a lot about hard work. You’ve got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly.” Well, that just about excludes Williams himself then. Given that he suffered from an undiagnosed case of spina bifida, Williams never truly engaged in hard, manual labor, nor was he raised on a farm. Instead, Williams spent his time being tutored by African American bluesman Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne. His mother operated a boarding house in Greenville, Alabama, so Williams was more exposed to rootless folks rather than rooted ones.
But it’s that sorrowful upbringing that frames another kind of authenticity, the one evident in his music. In a nutshell, his life is a nightmare relieved only by bouts of hardcore honky-tonking. What he wants out of life is the million dollar question, but the point is, he’s never going to get it. Even if one were to match his pain, no one could achieve the same level of stardom with it. But his pain is also relatable. The world was ravaged by the brutal consequences of war and cheated by peace to the point where alcoholism, divorce and suicide rates were higher than at any previous point in American history. Social backgrounds at this point were irrelevant – anyone could relate to Williams’s pain. The fact that certain fans point to Williams’s reign as the “Golden Era” of country music isn’t strictly a comment on its sound. In Williams, country music had finally found its ambassador; a communicator who could move anyone, anywhere. If anything, it proved not what the packaging of the music meant – traditional, bluesman, cowboy or whatever else – but what the emotional power of the performance meant.
In Conclusion: An Age-Old Debate Goes Down An “Old Town Road” … And The Cycle Repeats Itself
A Rolling Stone article from this year titled, “Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Was a Country Hit. Then Country Changed Its Mind,” highlights exactly why this issue of representation still exists today.
For one, the piece was written by Elias Leight, a writer with credentials and expertise in rap music, not country music. Second, Lil Nas X is not a country artist, and that’s not just merely one writer’s opinion. Lil Nas X (birth name Montero Lamar Hill), is an Atlanta-based hip-hop artist who released “Old Town Road” in December 2018. “Old Town Road” debuted at No. 19 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart dated March 16, and also was labeled country by iTunes and other music providers in their metrics. Billboard eventually corrected their mistake, but didn’t do so publicly or erase the damage done.
According to Leight, Billboard removed “Old Town Road” in a statement to Rolling Stone that reads as follows: “upon further review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard‘s country charts. When determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is musical composition. While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”
The last line is troubling, because it signals that country music isn’t a genre of music worth considering – it’s a place to make fun of southern stereotypes and cast aside (or embrace) the genre purely on image alone.
Of course, there’s more evidence to suggest that later in the piece. According to Lil Nas X’s manager, Danny Kang, “‘Old Town Road’ was broken [in part] using country channels.” Even more alarming, Kang admits that “Old Town Road” is a product of chart manipulation: “On SoundCloud, he [Lil Nas X] listed it as a country record. On iTunes, he listed it as a country record. He was going to these spaces, gaining a little bit of traction on their country charts, and there’s a way to manipulate the algorithm to push your track to the top. That’s favorable versus trying to go to the rap format to compete with the most popular songs in the world.” In other words, country music was purely a vulnerable genre of music that nobody cares about anyway, so any questions of the ethical circumstances surrounding this don’t matter, right? It’s just country music, after all.
Meanwhile, Leight argues that, “the track elicits an enthusiastic reaction based on ‘country relevance.’ But for some, it still doesn’t qualify as country.” The debate over what qualifies as country and what doesn’t will never be solved, and the history is too complicated to draw a definitive line in the sand. But this isn’t just an issue of what “Old Town Road” sounds like anyway. This is an issue of turning country music (and southern) culture into a meme, insinuating that country music can, for one, only be a southern thing. The two elements aren’t mutually exclusive despite country music’s commercial roots in the southern United States, a fatal flaw in the writer’s argument. Most of all though, “Old Town Road,” humorous or not, signals that it’s easier to laugh at country music than to truly understand it. As history will show, that is still a hurdle country music needs to overcome in the general public scope. To do that, however, we need to erase past false stereotypes of what it means to be a “country music fan.”
Aside from the numerous articles linked throughout the piece, this article was written thanks to the following sources:
- Country: The Music and the Musicians by the Country Music Foundation, which supplies the Billy Sherrill quote. Specifically, though, the chapters, “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’: Ricky Skaggs, Alabama And Their Contemporaries” by David Gates and ”The Changing Image of Country Music” by Patrick Carr were consulted for this piece.
- The Oxford Handbook of Country Music edited by Travis D. Stimeling, specifically the chapter, “The Sociology of Country Music” by Richard Lloyd.
- Past articles I’ve written elsewhere, including “Let’s Talk Business … The Country Music Business” over at Swamp Opera, my senior thesis, “Breaking The Bond Between Country Music And The Radio” and “Country Music Is Back In The ‘Urban Cowboy’ Phase” here, all of which come with their own bibliographies.
- The Hank Williams discussion stems from Mark Ribowsky’s biography on him called, Hank: The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams.