Country Music, U.S.A. marked its fortieth anniversary in 2008. It has had two serious revisions, in 1985 and 2002. For this third revision I am pleased to welcome Professor Jocelyn R. Neal as my coauthor in a collaborative venture designed to preserve the essence of the older chapters while asserting the relevance of the changes that have taken place in country music in the last few years. As a vibrant and dynamic form of American popular culture, the subject matter and personnel of country music change rapidly. Older performers fall by the wayside, and newer entertainers quickly take their places. The music endures, prospers, and commands increasingly a measure of acceptance in our society. But, perhaps most important, our knowledge of the subject continues to be deepened and broadened by new scholarship, and by the reissuing of older recordings on CDs. I hope to acknowledge some of this research in this new introduction.
For several years I have frankly felt increasingly unequal to the task of revision, mainly because I've let myself grow out of touch with what is now called "country music." Except for a few people such as Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, and Patty Loveless, I like little of what I see and hear on the mainstream Nashville scene. My personal favorites tend to be singers and musicians such as Dale Watson, Tim O'Brien, Iris DeMent, Hazel Dickens, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Dan Tyminski, Buddy and Julie Miller, Robbie Fulks, and John Prine who thrive out on the fringes of country music, outside the pale of Top 40 country radio where they are considered to be too "country."
I seldom listen to Top 40 radio, and almost never watch music videos, because I feel that today's country music is overly packaged and lacks the spontaneity, warmth, and honesty that I heard in the older styles. As a fan, I believe that the music has lost or is losing its authentic country feel, and that it is becoming increasingly divorced from its working-class roots. Obviously by not listening to Top 40 country music, I lose credibility in talking or writing about it. I feel compelled to admit that I may be unfair to the current scene, and that today's music may indeed share a continuity with the older forms that I like. Nevertheless, despite the expertise found in the music that is now heard and despite the relevance of its themes, I do not like the way it sounds, even though I will readily admit that today's country musicians are very good, and their songs are performed and recorded with state-of-the-art skill. The subjects they treat are not only relevant to the concerns of people living today, but also encompass topics—such as personal relationships, home, family, church, patriotism, and private insecurities—that have perennially been central to country music's repertoire. As always, the music is permeated with nostalgia for the good and simple days of a rural past, both real and imagined. Today's country singers also have a vast audience that extends far beyond the reach of America's borders. This audience seems to have no problem in accepting the term "country" as a description of the music that it embraces and enjoys.
A few years ago at the International Country Music Conference (ICMC) in Nashville I expressed these reservations and noted, half-jokingly, that perhaps I should enlist the aid of a young scholar who likes and interprets contemporary country music. Professor Jocelyn R. Neal, from the Department of Music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, volunteered to undertake the task. As her recent book on the music of Jimmie Rodgers suggests, Jocelyn has an affinity for and knowledge of older material, but she also appreciates the artists in the current scene. Jocelyn therefore assumed responsibility for an assessment of contemporary country music, and her name will appear on this and future editions.
For my part, I will not attempt a revision of the earlier chapters, although this is something I would like to do before I pass on to Hillbilly Heaven. Instead, I will mention certain topics that need to be addressed by students of country music, and will acknowledge significant studies that have appeared since the publication of my second revision in 2002. This approach permits interested readers to find this scholarship easily without having to dig for items buried in a revised bibliography and discography.
The music of the interwar period merits an independent study, probably an entire book, because many fine musicians from those years receive only scant attention or get ignored in the standard surveys of country music. Such a study will be greatly enhanced by the publication of Tony Russell's Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921–1942 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), an ambitious work that purports to be a listing of every hillbilly record made during those years, complete with the place and date of each session and the personnel who participated. Russell has also written a fine series of vignettes about pioneer performers entitled Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). The student of those early years will also profit greatly from the following published works: the essays written by Charles Wolfe and Ronnie Pugh in Paul Kingsbury and Alanna Nash, ed., Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Country Music in America (New York: DK Publishing, 2006); James R. Goff, Jr., Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Loyal Jones, Country Music Humorists and Comedians (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008); Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg, Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002); Barry Mazor, Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America's Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); and Jocelyn R. Neal, The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Legacy in Country Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009); Holly George-Warren, Public Cowboy No. l: The Life and Times of Gene Autry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Raymond E. White, King of the Cowboys and Queen of the West: Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2005); and Patrick Huber, Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008). Huber's book is in many ways the most significant of the studies listed here because he challenges, at least implicitly, the myth of the music's Appalachian origins, and reveals country music to be not a reactionary phenomenon that reflected a tenacious clinging to rural ways, but a willing product of the forces of modernization.
Of course, any studies of country music's first two decades will be augmented immeasurably by the reissued material now available on CDs produced by such labels as Bear, Proper, JSP, Revenant, Document, Yazoo, Living Era, BACM, Old Hat, Razor and Tie, Cattle, and Dust-to-Digital. Catalogues of reissued material can easily be found on internet websites, but special mention should be made of a few collections of exceptional merit: Goodbye, Babylon (Dust-to-Digital, 2003), a marvelous six CD anthology of gospel songs encompassing a wide variety of ethnic and racial styles, all originally recorded on 78 rpm labels; and three anthologies produced by Henry Sapoznik: "You Ain't Talkin' To Me:" Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music (Sony, 2005), Ernest V. Stoneman: The Unsung Father of Country Music, 1925–1934 (Long Gone Sound Productions, 2008), and People Take Warning! Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs, 1913–1938 (Tompkins Square, 2007).
Henry Sapoznik once told me that he thought that the most significant omission in Country Music, U.S.A. was the neglect of the old-time string-band revival. He was referring to the enthusiasm for old-time string-band music that has flourished since the mid-sixties, when such groups as Durham's Hollow Rock String Band and Berkeley's Highwoods String Band began popularizing their high-energy brand of fiddle and banjo music. The preoccupation with old-time music clearly has been a facet of the Back-to-the-Land movement and the search for simpler lifestyles in the United States, and a healthy recognition that people can make their own music. The Old-Time Herald, published in Durham, North Carolina, has served as an indispensable chronicler of the string-band revival and other forms of traditional music, but Sapoznik is right. A comprehensive history of the movement is sorely needed. My forthcoming biography of Mike Seeger, who before his death in August 2009 had become the patriarch of the old-time string-band culture, will fill some of the void. But other students of the movement, such as Sapoznik himself, are encouraged to undertake explorations of this vital musical phenomenon.
Other areas that call for investigation, or more extended discussion, concern the perennial questions about country music's alleged southernness, identity, and authenticity. Is the music "southern," or has it always been linked to the lives of people in other regions? Is the music "working class," or has it always found an appeal that spans class and social categories? Have historians properly acknowledged and explored the very old musical interrelationship between black and white Americans? Has the "business" of country music—its promotion, packaging, and distribution—been more important than its "art" in shaping its identity? Why doesn't someone publish a book on the unsung heroes of country music: its instrumentalists and sidemen? Has the role of women been sufficiently documented? What role has mythmaking played in creating visions of country music? Some observers have indeed questioned whether there exists a distinguishable cultural phenomenon known as "country music" (i.e., a body of songs and musicians that evolved organically out of the cultures of working people), or whether it is largely a construct designed to exploit urban America's romantic affection for its rural past.
Many of these questions have been explored in such books as Barbara Ching, Wrong's What I Do Best: Hard Country Music and Contemporary Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Cecelia Conway, African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995); Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Holly George-Warren, Michelle Freedman, James H. Nottage, and Marty Stuart, How the West Was Worn: A Complete History of Western Wear (New York: Abrams, 2006); Anthony Harkins, Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Joli Jensen, The Nashville Sound: Authenticity, Commercialization, and Country Music (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998); Kristine M. McCusker, Lonesome Cowgirls and Honky-Tonk Angels: The Women of Barn Dance Radio (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008); and Diane Pecknold, The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).
A number of fine books have reminded us that while Nashville has been immensely important in shaping and distributing certain brands of country music, it has not monopolized the definition or delivery of the genre. Country music outside of Nashville is the subject of such books as Chad Berry, ed., The Hayloft Gang: The Story of the National Barn Dance (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008); Ryan A. Brasseaux and Kevin S. Fontenot, Accordions, Fiddles, Two Step and Swing: A Cajun Music Reader (Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, 2006); Patrick Huber, Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South; Peter La Chapelle, Proud to be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Migration to Southern California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Tracey E. W. Laird, Louisiana Hayride: Radio and Roots Music Along the Red River (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); James P. Leary's study of a popular Wisconsin band, Polkabilly: How the Goose Island Ramblers Redefined American Folk Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); and two works that center much or all of their attention on Austin: Joe Nick Patoski, Willie Nelson: An Epic Life (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008) and Jan Reid's new edition of The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004).
Ever since the Dixie Chicks provoked controversy in 2003 by criticizing President George Bush in London, the politics of country music has become a topic even more hotly contested than it was during the Vietnam War. Most critics have alluded to the music's right wing and jingoistic postures, but some have argued that populism is a more accurate description of the political positions taken by country musicians, and a few have even found examples of liberalism in the attitudes of some songwriters and performers. Whatever their current stances, I have argued that country music, historically, has not been irrevocably linked to any specific political position in Bill C. Malone, "We Still Wave Old Glory Down at the Courthouse" in Don't Get Above Your Raisin': Country Music and the Southern Working Class (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002). Until Ronnie Pugh writes his promised general history of the politics of country music, interested readers and students will profit from Chris Willman, Rednecks and Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music (New York: The New Press, 2005); Peter La Chapelle, Proud to be an Okie; and Hazel Dickens and Bill C. Malone, Working Girl Blues: The Life and Music of Hazel Dickens (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008).
These, then, are only a few of the subjects that warrant further research and interpretation in country music. My hope is that Country Music, U.S.A. will not only continue into its fifth decade as a source of information, but will also inspire serious students of American vernacular music to ask their own questions and pursue their own inquiries into the lives, lyrics, and instrumental styles that have made country music a vital and ever-changing popular cultural form.
Bill C. Malone