The Melting Pot: The Country Music Bicentennial

I recently came in possession of a country music magazine … from 1976. Actually, the magazine is simply called Country Music, so trying to find background information on this specific publication proved difficult, but, according to the Wikipedia article, it started in 1972 as a monthly publication “known for taking an approach to music journalism closer in tone to Rolling Stone with an insistence on high-caliber writing and knowledgeably, unlike earlier country fan publications that opted to uncritically publicize artists and their work.” It eventually became known for its coverage of the outlaw movement and its spotlight on older artists long thought forgotten within the industry (where have I heard that before?). It didn’t last long beyond the decade, but, judging by the cover, it was an important resource for any country music fan.

Country Music Magazine cover, explained in detail below.

The cover, as you can see, is pretty wild. An all-time, all-star hit parade in 1976? Country music had only been a commercial genre for fifty years at that point! Speaking of, the history of country music, part one? Well, a fitting title for a history that really accelerated during the particular decade in which this magazine was published. And a Waylon/Jessi centerfold? Oh, heck yeah.

Flipping through the actual pages, though, proved even more interesting. After thumbing through the table of contents, I found the “Letters” column, in which one reader, who was a prison inmate serving a life sentence, asked whether or not the magazine would publish letters from inmates. Obviously, he got his wish. Johnny Cash likely did, too. Also interesting is a reader who complains about only ever hearing about the “superstars”: “Every time there is a TV special about the Grand Ole Opry, you can be sure of seeing some, if not all, of the following “super stars”: Loretta Lynn,  Johnny Cash and family, Roy Clark, etc., etc. When you visit the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., who do you see? I have visited there the past three summers and I saw: Billy Grammer, Skeeter Davis, Stu Phillips, Jimmie Newman, Charlie Walker, etc., etc. I have never seen any of the “super stars” and I rarely hear them on the Friday and Saturday nights when I listen to the Grand Ole Opry. Maybe there are two hillbilly heavens. One for the super stars and one for the faithful regular members of the Grand Ole Opry who are always there to entertain you.”

Some things never change, folks.

Country Music Magazine Table of Contents

The next page includes news bits on all of the, ahem, “hot and new” artists on the scene, including Loretta Lynn and Tom T. Hall, both of whom were busy promoting and readying books (Coal Miner’s Daughter, for Lynn, and the eventual The Storyteller’s Nashville, for Hall). Ah, I see a promotion for Johnny Cash’s new single, “One Piece at a Time.” “ ‘A Boy Named Sue’ type of song titled ‘One Piece at a Time’ is Johnny Cash’s latest effort for Columbia. ‘Looks like a ‘Big John,’ ’ says his producer Don Davis.” That song ended up being Cash’s final No. 1 hit.

Loretta Lynn Coal Miners Daughter advertisement.

Along the way we get tons of advertisements – mostly for new albums and singles, but a surprising amount for new books and guitar-related entities. You can even send in your money to the magazine department to get those things! They were less subtle about wanting your money then, it seems. At any rate, I’m happy with my copies of Country Music U.S.A. and the Country Music Encyclopedia.

Johnny Cash article, explained in detail below.

A really cool article comes later on, and I’ve included it above. Johnny Cash was honored by his home state in various ways in 1976, including getting his own “Johnny Cash” day by Gov. David Pryor. It’s hard to believe that just a few years later, as the world entered the ‘80s, that his commercial success would be in decline. If only everyone knew what would happen to him in the ‘90s … man.

But, hey, we’re in the ‘70s, perhaps best evidenced by an article called “KWAM: Memphis Radio Goes Progressive,” in which author Michael Bane tries to explain the recent growth of “progressive country.”  Country and rock were merging in real time, and aside from playing the Who right after Hank Williams (wild, man!), progressive country here is described as “an outgrowth of the present popular state of country music.” A quote that came right after that I found interesting and surprisingly modern: “Country music radio programmers are finding it harder and harder to cope with success. Larger audiences are met with increasingly smaller playlists, freezing out new artists and all but the most established ‘name’ stars.”

Dolly Parton advertisement for her music

I repeat, some things never change. “Not surprisingly – since the same thing happened to rock radio in the early 1960s – the demand for a more flexible outlet grew up almost overnight. Call that outlet progressive country radio.” The artists included? Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Linda Ronstadt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Waylon Jennings, and Doug Sahm, among others, included right next to Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton. The results? Apparently country radio listeners were receptive, and even the older listeners came back around. The revolution starts now.

Speaking of, if you’re wondering if there’s anything on Dolly Parton beyond the cover, a poster, and a few advertisements for her music … well, sadly, no. But after progressive country comes Bill C. Malone to explain where country music’s been and where it’s going … you know, again, in the ‘70s. I’d like to quote a large part of it:

“Country music can trace its history as an industry back about fifty years, when radio and recording combined to provide performing outlets for rural folk entertainers. The music itself, however, owes its origins to the very earliest days of American history when British immigrants began arriving with their storehouse of ballads and folk-songs, instrumental tunes and dances, and performing styles. In their movement across the Southern frontier, these diverse British peoples intermingled their often dissimilar songs and styles to the point that not even the most highly-trained folklorist can distinguish conclusively between English, Scottish, Irish, or Welsh tunes.

The British also came in contact with other ethnic and racial groups from whom they drew musical sustenance. German settlers moved from Pennsylvania down through the Shenandoah Valley and into the Southern hill-country bringing their musical preferences with them. In southwestern Louisiana, the French-speaking settlers, the Cajuns, contributed songs like ‘Jole Blon’ and ‘Colinda’ as well as distinctive instrumental styles which still surface in country music today. In south central Texas, Mexican-Americans and settlers of central European derivation (Germans, Poles, Czechs) preserved much of their musical inheritances and influenced the Anglo music around them. Western Swing and its derivatives have always shown the influence of these diverse southwestern ethnic styles.

And everywhere in the South, blacks contributed songs, styles, and dances which have affected the entire course of American popular music, while also enriching country music.”

The hyped Waylon/Jessi poster!
Talking this to my wall immediately.

Sadly, there’s only three pages dedicated to that history, but as always, Malone makes every word count. Not long after that is the hyped Waylon/Jessi centerfold … and it doesn’t disappoint! We hear a little more from Waylon Jennings in the next section, in the “All-Time, All-Star” parade, albeit briefly. “Though his notoriety has come only in the last few years, Waylon has been turning out hit records for nearly a decade now. He is the figurehead for one of the most important musical movements of the Seventies” (surprisingly, the term “outlaw” is only ever mentioned a few times in very loose contexts). From the Carter Family to Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson (a surprising yet earned choice), George Jones, Patsy Cline, Glen Campbell, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, and so many more, the list hits upon almost everyone you’d think of in the modern day. Of course, its publishing date meant that a lot of the blurbs and biographies came with the added bit that these stars are “still as big as ever.”

The Ralph Mooney article, explained below.

More surprising is what comes next – a deep-dive on steel player and legend Ralph Mooney, whose playing basically defined the Bakersfield Sound. The article keeps it all about the music and play-style, including his friendship with Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter. It’s easily the most heart-warming selection of the bunch, to me.

Last but not least comes the review section, which of course interests me, mostly because this one provides analysis on each record beyond notions of “good” and “bad.” Olivia Newtown-John is daringly declared an “outlaw” with her Come on Over album; critic Rich Kienzle makes the case for Willie Nelson’s follow-up to his landmark Red Headed Stranger album, The Sound in Your Mind, as his second classic. A case of getting in on the hype surrounding Nelson or the real deal? It’s up to you.

Even though the design of the review section is to sell the albums discussed (“Save $1.00 on Every Record & Tape in This Record Review Section!,” they say, before unveiling their offer), they don’t shy away from honesty. Merle Haggard received a surprisingly negative review for his It’s All in the Movies album (but, according to the aforementioned Kienzle, “Merle will have to do a great deal worse to lose his place on my turntable.”) The Tammy Wynette review for ‘Til I Can Make It On My Own has a surprisingly modern tinge to it, given that the author criticizes the radio single chosen when the best cuts are the deep cuts. Boy, do I understand that one.

And aside from a few more advertisements my eyes sort of glazed over, that’s kind of it. Oh, there is a Lefty Frizzell retrospective that comes right before the reviews. An important article, given that he would have only been gone for one year at that point. Overall, though, this was a fun insight into a time period I never got to experience firsthand and have only ever experienced through retrospectives. I wish I had access to more, but as one of my favorite decades of country music history, it was kind of thrilling reading about a lot of budding movements within the genre – especially when you know what happens next. The next decade would get a little rockier and turn itself around – just as country music always has – but it only goes to show that country music was in a damn good place in 1976.

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