Real Country: Music and Language in Working-Class Culture / Edition 1

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In Lockhart, Texas, a rural working-class town just south of Austin, country music is a way of life. Conversation slips easily into song, and the songs are full of conversation. Anthropologist and musician Aaron A. Fox spent years in Lockhart making research notes, music, and friends. In Real Country, he provides an intimate, in-depth ethnography of the community and its music. Showing that country music is deeply embedded in the textures of working-class life, Fox argues that it is the cultural and intellectual property of working-class people and not only of the Nashville-based music industry or the stars whose lives figure so prominently in popular and scholarly writing about the genre.

Fox spent hundreds of hours observing, recording, and participating in talk and music-making in homes, beer joints, and garage jam sessions. He renders the everyday life of Lockhart’s working-class community in detail, right down to the ice cold beer, the battered guitars, and the technical skills of such local musical legends as Randy Meyer and Larry “Hoppy” Hopkins. Throughout, Fox focuses on the human voice. His analyses of conversations, interviews, songs, and vocal techniques show how feeling and experience are expressed, and how local understandings of place, memory, musical aesthetics, working-class social history, race, and gender are shared. In Real Country, working-class Texans re-imagine their past and give voice to the struggles and satisfactions of their lives in the present through music.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Real Country is by far the best book on Texas country music and working-class culture since Manuel Peña’s The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working-Class Music was published in 1985. As opened to us by Aaron A. Fox, the working-class world of Lockhart, Texas, is complex and richly textured, and country music is its most characteristic and expressive voice. Grounded both in the most sophisticated recent scholarship and in Fox’s longtime involvement as performer and observer, Real Country extends to the music the full measure of respect it deserves. In so doing, it carries country music scholarship to a new level that will challenge and guide all subsequent commentators.”—David E. Whisnant, author of Rascally Signs in Sacred Places and All That Is Native and Fine

“Aaron A. Fox’s Real Country gets to the heart and drama that fuels the cigarette smoke, music, talk, and beer of a honky tonk Saturday night.”—Peter Wolf, musician

“Aaron A. Fox’s Real Country is a powerful and moving study of Texas working class culture (including an articulate defense of the now heavily criticized notion of ‘culture’ itself). Combining the tools of linguistic anthropology, ethnomusicology, and sensitive ethnography, Fox performs a series of brilliant interpretations of ‘vocal practices’—country music and all kinds of talk, mostly in bars—as these actively shape personal subjectivities and interpersonal relationships. The chapter on ‘The Fool in the Mirror’ alone is worth the price of the book.”—Sherry B. Ortner, author of New Jersey Dreaming: Capital, Culture, and the Class of ‘58

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822333487
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 10/28/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 363
  • Sales rank: 628,113
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 8.84 (h) x 0.91 (d)

Meet the Author

Aaron A. Fox is Associate Professor of Music and Director of the Center for Ethnomusicology at Columbia University. He is a guitarist and singer who has played with many bands in Texas. He has hosted country music radio programs on several stations in New York City and continues to guest-host shows on a regular basis.
To visit Aaron A. Fox's website and blog, please click here.

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Read an Excerpt

Real country

Music and language in working-class culture
By Aaron A. Fox

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3348-1

Chapter One

Voicing Working-Class Culture

[It is] ... a contingent consciousness, burdened with matter which here makes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in short, of language. Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity of intercourse with other men ... Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all. -Karl Marx, Capital

This is a study of country music as working-class culture, ethnographically observed in the small town of Lockhart, Texas. My basic argument is that, for working-class Texans, the voice is a privileged medium for the construction of meaning and identity, and thus for the production of a distinctive "class culture." Song and singing comprise the expressive apotheosis of this valued vocality, and song, in turn, is locally understood as a consciously elaborated discourse about (the) voice. Through song and its attendant forms of expressive, technical, critical, and playful talk (especially narrative and humor), working-class Texans construct and preserve a self-consciously rustic, "redneck,""ordinary," and "country" ethos in their everyday life.

I interpret this reflexive and deeply felt construction, in its contemporary form, as a class-specific cultural response to changes in the regional, national, and global economy in which American blue-collar manual workers have experienced a loss of both cultural identity and economic security. These recent changes are set against a longer history of tenuous gains and devastating losses of social power and prestige, and especially the era of the "postwar class compromise" (roughly 1950-75) during which many of the people who appear in these pages formed their social identities and their musical habits and tastes. In the face of hard and confusing times, and in an era in which mass-mediated culture has penetrated every corner of American life, speaking and singing artfully, improvisationally, and with minimal reference to exchange value have remained essential to the social construction of history, identity, and sociability for these Texans, and for a significant number of other working-class Americans who live in similar peri-urban and small-town communities.

For the people who appear in these pages, country music is a vital cultural tradition, and a specific kind of intellectual property. Country music is, in Texas, an essential resource for the preservation of community and the expression of white (but not only white, as I explain below) working-class identity. It is also, of course, a canon of songs known through commercial recordings, a pantheon of mass-mediated "stars," and a suite of institutionalized forms of consumption. A reading of country music as working-class culture cannot be isolated from considerations of ideological hegemony working through figures of reified "authenticity" and the commodity form. (Such a perspective has become deeply naturalized in cultural studies, and more recently in country music scholarship, specifically.) But working-class country music is also the expressive, stylized, ritualized surface of a deep ocean of popular social experience. I view the significance of country music in Texas working-class culture as complexly shaped by-but ultimately theoretically distinct from-the logics of the music industry or histories of recorded musical style.

I approach this significance here through an exploration of the cultural processes, phenomenologies, and logics in which country music is embedded for a blue-collar community in Texas. Under the rubric of "culture," I emphasize themes of emplacement, embodiment, the organization of temporal experience and memory, and normative local understandings of emotion, subjectivity, and proper sociality. I examine the way these themes emerge within local expressive economies that conjoin referential language with poetics, music, movement, and visual art. My focus thus alternates between the discourses and practices of everyday Texas working-class life, and the rhetoric, poetics, and techniques of country music performance. Ultimately, I view performance as both a commentary on and a vital resource for ordinary social life.

More exactly, I examine how vocal expression (including verbal art, ordinary "talk," and song, as well as intersections and movements between these modalities) is used by working-class Texans to construct, interpret, and remake their own theories, models, understandings, and experiences of space and emplacement, of time and memory, of personhood and the self, of emotion and reason, and, especially, of sociability, social obligation, and class, gender, generational, and ethnic identity. I focus on the particular content of these cultural categories by, first, representing vocal expressions empirically (largely through transcriptions and descriptions of naturally occurring verbal and musical discourse), and then by analyzing the characteristic rhetorical, poetic, and grammatical tropes that recur in these sounding expressions. I describe-but also narratively evoke-the linguistic and musical practices that do the important work of symbolizing, interpreting, criticizing, reproducing, and synthesizing these tropes. I present metacultural arguments encountered in ordinary talk, in elicited discussions, and in dialogues about my own project and my own role in the community described here. And I trace the force of these arguments (as well as their limits and contradictions) through less theoretical, more practical forms of competence and consciousness-the "common sense" skills and orientations of working-class Texans.

Ritual and Sociability in the Honky-Tonk

While I document these voiced tropes and practices in a wide range of contexts characterized by voluntary social interaction between working-class people in Lockhart, my ethnography emphasizes the setting in which my interlocutors there cultivate live musical performance, dance, heightened sociability, and artful talk: the local tavern, "beer joint," or "honky-tonk" bar. The defining feature of a working-class honky-tonk bar in Texas is the nearly constant aural presence of what working-class Texans call, with a very complex and elusive sense of irony, "real country music." This phrase refers to live performance, usually by professional or semiprofessional musicians, of a defined canon of songs in a clearly delimited (though evolving) musical style. Such performance typically occurs in ritually framed events called "dances," and in more informal jam sessions or parties. The availability of the same musical canon in the form of recordings on a jukebox, performed by a set of venerated country music stars, is also essential for honky-tonk sociability. So, too, is the possibility of more informal live performance at any time by less gifted or polished local and amateur musicians, and the spontaneous emergence of artful, musical expression from the dense textures of "ordinary" social discourse.

Besides these musical characteristics, honky-tonks are defined by the presence of highly polished verbal artists of various kinds-storytellers, comedians, "liars," and "fools"-and by the expectation that most members of the tavern-based community are capable of verbally artistic participation in sociable talk to some degree. Ice-cold beer, a verbally authoritative bartender, dense cigarette smoke, loud, cold air conditioners, invisibility to passersby on the road outside, a visually riotous display of amusing and sentimental memorabilia, and a good balance of male and female patrons, each with the ability to "take a joke," are also key ingredients. Worn wood furnishings are always appreciated, and pool tables, game machines, beer posters of seminude women, and a back door are desirable optional elements. Honky-tonks are run by local owners from working-class backgrounds, and these owners must allow their institutions to be used for parties and for "benefits" to raise money for sick or unemployed patrons. In Texas, children of any age are permitted in most honky-tonks, especially during the day, at parties and benefits and at weekend dances. Honky-tonks thus overlap the more private spheres of domestic life. They are (at times) "family-centered" institutions. A successful honky-tonk must also be a comfortable place in which to conduct a wide range of deal-making activities in the domains of business, politics, kinship, and sexuality. The tavern plays a significant role in the economic life of the community, especially as an institution for the socialization of wealth and the maintenance of networks of reciprocity.

The local honky-tonks in which I spent much of my time during five years of fieldwork in and around Lockhart (and to a lesser extent throughout the state of Texas and elsewhere in the nation) all fit this description closely. Such places are historically central cultural institutions for working-class communities like the one described in this book (Halle 1984; LeMasters 1975; Lindquist 2002; Rosenzweig 1991). Honky-tonks are to some extent "public" institutions, and they function as nodes in a larger and more diffuse local working-class public sphere that also includes churches, workplaces, stores, and to some extent even homes and yards (which are far less private in this kind of community than they are in more urban and middle-class places). But honky-tonks are also less than fully public, in the sense that they are working-class-controlled spaces, hidden from outside scrutiny by windowless walls and a reputation for danger and debauchery.

As businesses, these taverns are, of course, open to the world and subject to the penetration of the commodity form and capitalist logics (in the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and music especially). They are closely regulated in certain aspects of their functioning (such as hours of operation) by the state as well as by local customs, reflecting a venerable historical struggle over working-class alcohol consumption and the meaning, autonomy, and value of "leisure" practices (Thompson 1991). It is certainly true that these institutions both concentrate and help reproduce some social and individual pathologies, especially alcoholism, with occasionally devastating effects. But in essence honky-tonks are locally controlled spaces that share qualities of sacredness with churches (to which they are sharply opposed in other respects) and qualities of domesticity with homes, while they also embody their own specific qualities of poetic license, altered states of consciousness, and theatricality. They are deeply valued sites for the highly ritualized production of cultural identity and community solidarity, and they function as community centers in very practical ways.


Like the churches whose functions they overlap and complement and with which they compete to a certain extent for the loyalty of working-class people, Texas honky-tonks are relatively racially and ethnically segregated institutions, and are understood as such by locals. The majority of the blue-collar patrons in the places I worked were white or "Anglo" people. And the bars were universally referred to as "redneck" bars, by locals of all ethnicities and class levels, just as these same people referred to similarly marked "black" and "Mexican" bars along the state highway.

Many of the people who appear in this book would happily describe themselves as "rednecks," though they might resent being described that way by me. The prideful figure of "redneck" identity plays an important, though confined, role in contemporary commercial country music, and in ideologically charged situations this figure can elicit compelling identifications from working-class country fans. The term "redneck" has an obvious derogatory sense, when spoken by someone who does not claim the identity; and it has an equally well-known prideful sense. It names, in both senses, an identity that is canonically bound up with a defensive articulation of whiteness-a particular class-positioned way of being "white" (Fox 2004a). This is, however, marked whiteness, in the form of an accusation or in the form of an assertion, not an unmarked and hence unproblematically privileged whiteness. It is, specifically, working-class whiteness, an identity sometimes even polemically framed as "white trash" by its claimants and its critics. The embodiment of this identity entails a stereotypical range of class-marked attitudes and ideologies, including parochialism, nationalism, patriarchy, inscrutability, a penchant for violence, and an ingrained racism. (This final sense is so pervasive that the word "redneck" is sometimes used as a synonym for "racist.") And although the term has been adopted and used to refer to working-class people and ideologies everywhere in recent decades, "redneck" is still an identity rooted in the southern United States, and in the specific white supremacist, antimodern, and antiurban politics and culture of the Confederacy (inflecting the stereotypes of patriotism and nationalism with a rich irony). These roots, signifying a universally recognized conflict between tradition and modernity, have made "redneck" an appealingly rebellious yet conservative political identity for America's modern white working class.

"Redneck" identity is ambivalent and subject to complicated maneuvers and transformations. It is a relational identity, expressing dimensions of the social encounter between rural and urban sensibilities, and between "white" and "nonwhite" communities, in the historical context of the large-scale migration, proletarianization, and urbanization of America's rural and small-town working poor over the course of the twentieth century (Huber 1994). And "redneck" is emblematic of a much less clear contemporary historical moment too, in which American blue-collar workers and small-town communities feel a profound sense of political disempowerment and economic and cultural insecurity, and in which the dignity of embodied labor is in question as never before. In this moment, when historical ethnic and racial essentialisms have been reconfigured within emergent structures of hegemonic "identity politics," "redneck" has also acquired a specifically postmodern character that emphasizes "whiteness" as a cultural rather than economic or biological identity. And many white American workers see their own contemporary insecurity as a result of economic globalization, which has pulled them into a draconian competition with nonwhite workers around the globe (including new immigrants to the United States), setting back years of hard-won gains in working-class economic and political power. Drawing on older models, such competition is often and easily racialized. The "redneck" identity is overdetermined in American discourse by rhetorics of racialized nationalism, however ahistorical, stereotypical, inaccurate, or unfair these rhetorics might sometimes be. And they are not always so inaccurate.

Thus it is important to stress that this book is largely about "Anglo" or "white" working-class culture, identity, and musical practice. The majority of my interlocutors would and do self-identify as "white." However, like most public sphere institutions in Texas (and throughout the South) in the years since the civil rights movement, even "redneck" bars are not ethnically exclusive enclaves, and African American, Mexican American, and Cajun patrons were among the respected regulars at Ann's Other Place and the other honkytonks in which I spent my time. (In fact, local bars that were marked as "black" and "Mexican" places were far less integrated than Ann's Other Place.)

Subtle forms of racialized hierarchy persisted, of course, structuring interethnic sociability in "white" and "redneck" settings and in the local public sphere. These structures could be challenged and disputed by authoritative members of the community, including those from minority groups, usually but not always in an indirect and joking manner. In absence of minority patrons-but rarely in their presence-the derogatory terms "nigger," "wetback," "coon-ass" (for Cajun), and "Messican" were used by some white bar patrons to refer to racialized social aggregates. But in five years of fieldwork, I never heard any of these terms used as a face-to-face insult (with the exception of white patrons jokingly insulting each other). And I heard them used in overtly political polemics against minority groups only on relatively rare occasions. (The term "minority" itself had some polemical force, however, and locals sometimes expressed anxiety about the emerging "minority" status of whiteness.) Nonetheless, racial ideology-in particular a defensive articulation of an increasingly denaturalized and deprivileged "whiteness" and a range of anxious and resistant responses to that articulation (such as racist jokes, particularly in the domains of sexuality and kinship)-played an important part in the construction of this community's culture as "country" and as working-class, and in the verbal art I analyze here.


Excerpted from Real country by Aaron A. Fox Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Prelude : "turns" 1
1 Voicing working-class culture 20
2 Knowing Lockhart : two perspectives 46
3 "Out the country" : space, time, and stereotype 74
4 "The fool in the mirror" : self, person, and subjectivity 107
5 "Feeling" and "relating" : speech, song, story, and emotion 152
Interlude : photo essay 193
6 "Bring me up in a beer joint" : the poetics of speech and song 214
7 "The women take care of that" : engendering working-class culture 249
8 The art of singing : speech and song in performance 272
9 "I hang my head and cry" : the character of the voice 300
Coda : indigenous to modernity 317
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2011

    Great History!

    If you love Texas and Country Music, this is the book for you! This book is easy to read and it actually makes you "feel" involved. Maybe it's because I've known a lot of these musicians since I was 14 years old and I had long since forgotten some of the important memories. I don't know if I feel old today or younger because of the trip down memory lane but, one thing I have learned with this group of fine musicians is; every day was a new opportunity for adventure. I definitely recommend this book to all Country Musicians. Thank you Aaron, I enjoyed your book!

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