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Copyright © 2005 Gerald W. Haslam
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In June of 1922 country music's roots and stems were powerfully, if unintentionally, reflected in the outfits worn by two southwestern fiddlers, Henry C. Gilliland and Alexander C. "Eck" Robertson. Fresh from entertaining at a Confederate Army reunion in Virginia, they trooped uninvited into the New York City offices of the Victor Talking Machine Company, Gilliland decked out in a reb uniform, Robertson clad in a cowboy costume. The folks at Victor wondered what in the world they were dealing with. The company's catalog later recounted, "They told us they could play the fiddle, and asked for a hearing. As we knew several thousand persons who could play the fiddle, more or less, we were not especially impressed, but we asked them to begin."
On June 30 and July 1 Gilliland, an Oklahoman, and Robertson, a Texan, were allowed to cut six sides for Victor, country music's first recording session. The rest, as they say, is history, and those costumesas well as the business suits worn by Victor's executivessymbolize the diverse musical reality that developed: southern, western, and definitely entrepreneurial.
But notions about country , the word itself, have tended to be more romantic, perhaps more mystical, than southern, western, or evencommercial. A college-educated aficionado from Canada told researcher Melissa Ladenheim that "country" meant
the simplicity, you know, not having to worry about schedules or organizations: a sort of natural rhythm and flow of things, things that are intrinsically interesting and fulfilling to do. . . . I think of country people as being honest, . . . talking only when necessary. . . . There's a kind of attitude about making things work and fixing things or using things, a knowledge
of toolsphysical and mentalthat comes with rural living. . . . That is, you know, resourceful in the way that you use something that is available to get done what has to get done and you do so, you know, with a kind of easy and slow-moving wisdom rather than a frenetic desire to get it done as fast as possible.
This is of course a statement of faith, harking to nostalgia for an agrarian past, real or imagined.
What, then, really is country music? This is not necessarily a simple question. The current, fashionable "top-40" version is actually a southern style of pop music so middle-of-the-road that a white line should be painted on it. In fact, it is probably more southern now than ever, thanks to Nashville's command of the business. Still, contemporary themesfeaturing soft-focused ruralismare increasingly cosmopolitan, thus less limited by class, region, or race, despite a continuing revision of the music's history that seeks to make it appear more folk, more southern, and even more "mountain" than it actually has been.
This music's legion of newer fans seems increasingly diverse, better educated, and significantly more affluent than earlier buffs. Perhaps as a result, sales of country albums have doubled since 1990 and are now twenty times higher than they were in 1970: country has become America's most popular music. Still, many old-time fans agree with music journalist Tony Scherman, who asserts that "the price of acceptance has been the music's pungencymore, its very identity."
Country was originally recorded in 1922 and '23, energized in part by technologyespecially the availability of radiosand by the move of rural folks to citiesparticularly the southern diasporaas well as by the fact that many of its early tunes were largely familiar throughout rural and small-town America. Its surge of popularity in the 1980s and '90s may be linked to the suburban flight, to the blandness of competing pop music, and to America's continuing rural romanticism. Of course that has led traditionalists to ask if this electronically perfected contemporary stuff presented by Garth Brooks and the rest is really country music a-tall.
What writer Scherman has called the "oatmeal" now produced by major labels sure isn't what folks raised on Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell would call country, but that's exactly why the audience has grown so large. Former Playboy model and sometime vocalist Barbi Benton explained what had led her to country: "The beat has changed. It's on a
cusp between country and rock." Then she added, "I don't know if I would have liked 'Your Cheatin' Heart' in the old days." Probably not. This new stuff is increasingly homogeneous music for an increasingly homogeneous Americasouthern soft rockyet it is also country's latest legitimate variation. Like everything else, this music changes.
What has historically evolved in country is assorted forms of music assembled under a single name. Any examination of acts on television's enduring "Austin City Limits" will reveal not only obvious versions such as western swing, bluegrass, honky-tonk, and rockabilly, but also zydeco, gospel, "old-timey," cowpunk, spirituals, blues, folk ballads, boogie-woogie, Tex-Mex, Cajun, cowboy ballads, story songs, undisguised pop, and some styles for which no title yet exists. Even the musically conservative "Grand Ole Opry" might present any of those elementsalbeit, later and more reluctantly.
Variety has become country music's defining characteristic. When people say, "I don't like country, but I love rockabilly," they're really saying that rockabilly is a kind of country they love. Jo Walker, longtime executive director of the Country Music Association, admitted in 1970, "We used to spend a lot of time trying to define what a country song was. A committee was even appointed to work up a definition. We finally gave up."
The name, itself, hasn't always been clear-cut. William Ivey, former executive director of the Country Music Association Foundation, credits the 1968 publication of Bill C. Malone's landmark book Country Music U.S.A . with having finally established the term country as the accepted catchall for what might fairly be termed "nonpop" popular musiceverything from Patsy Montana's yodeling to Lester "Smiley" Burnette's croaking, with a few dangerously high notes from Bill Monroe tossed in. For years, no one knew what to call such an assortment: "folk," "old-time," "hillbilly," "hill country music," "songs of mountains and plains," "old familiar tunes," "country-western," and, in California 50 years ago, "Okie music" (as with "hillbilly music," the term was often used pejoratively). In the Southeast this state's music has been labeled "West Coast country" or sometimes simply "coast country."
Despite (or because of) country's variety, many admirers remain quick to assert what the gen-u-ine deal is, usually something old and southern, but such assertions are just variations of an enduring "countrier-than-thou" phenomenon. An unidentified man at a 1996 old-time fiddling
A rural dance hall, the Pumpkin Center Barn, in the 1950s.
Courtesy of Kern County Museum. Used by permission.
competition in Oroville said, "This is what country really is, mountain music." Sorry, pardner, it really is everything it is.
Country music arose in the 1920s as industrialization, urbanization, mechanizationas modernism itselfthreatened old ways, and many country lyrics have revealed resistance to such changes. In the 1980s, for example, Merle Haggard's hit "Are the Good Times Really Over" celebrated this enduring topic. As a result, a series of generally popular themes have distilled as listeners from Carolina to California to Canada responded to its simple tunes and often frank verse. Country lyrics have tended to face reality, or some version of it anyway, head on. In what
other popular music, for example, have songs celebrated birth control ("The Pill"), reliable farm equipment ("The John Deere Tractor Song"), interracial romance ("Irma Jackson"), or dashing around naked in public ("The Streak")?
Despite its dynamism and recent catering to mass-market tastes, this domain retains a conservative core, celebrating traditional valuesfamily, church, nation, and workduring periods when other forms of popular music seem to be without orthodoxy. As a consequence it has not infrequently offered anthems to those unhappy with or threatened by contemporary existence. Says songwriter/singer Tom T. Hall,
You know, since day one of the Declaration of Independence, the American working man . . . [has] been jerked around from one calamity to another. And so that's where the songs come from. It's not easy out there if you wonder where the next refrigerator payment is coming from, or if the kids are going to eat, or if they're going to close down the plant where you work.
Scholars exploring country's choice of topics agree that love of one kind or another still dominates and that a romanticized rural motif remains pervasive. John Buckley's list of subjects in country songs, for example, includes (1) satisfying and fulfilling love relationships, (2) unsatisfactory love relationships, (3) home and family, (4) country (the agrarian ideal), (5) work, (6) individual worth, (7) rugged individualism, and (8) patriotism.
All of Buckley's subjects are present among songs that have been created in California:
1. Satisfying and fulfilling love relationships. This subject/theme has run the gamut from Stuart Hamblen's 1950 classic "(Remember Me) I'm the One Who Loves You," to John Hartford's countrypolitan hit "Gentle on My Mind," with several fine examples by Harlan Howard, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard.
Asked what inspired his song, Hamblen remembered that one day his wife, Suzy, asked, "Why not write a song about me? Remember me, I'm the one who loves you." Bingo.
2. Unsatisfactory love relationships. The list is long here, too, with Dallas Frazier's Country Music Association's 1967 song of the year, "There Goes My Everything," Haggard's "Holding Things Together," and (with Red Simpson) "You Don't Have Very Far to Go" especially strong. During Howard's stay in California, he produced several remarkable examples, among them "Heartaches by the Number," "Pick Me Up on Your Way Down," and (with Owens) "Excuse Me (I Think I've Got a Heartache)."
Of the last number, Howard explained that he and Wynn Stewart inadvertently found themselves in the midst of a friend's collapsing marriage, and the friend said, "Well, you guys'll have to excuse me. I think I've got a heartache."
3. Home and family. This is another popular subject/theme in California, a state of so many transplants. Most "home songs," such as Woody and Jack Guthrie's "Oklahoma Hills" refer to places left behind. The hankering for the home that couldn't support you is linked of course with a more genuine yearning for family and friends. Perhaps that's why Lefty Frizzell had a great hit in the Golden State with "Mom and Dad's Waltz," for it proclaimed a sentiment with which literally thousands of transplants could identify.
4. Country (the agrarian ideal). Closely related to home and family, some variation of this positive agrarian imageor illusionseems to exist in most country songs. In this state it can be linked to disillusionment because the old rural ways so seldom lead to a decent living, as is exemplified by Dallas Frazier's "California Cottonfields" or Haggard's "Hungry Eyes." It can also show country resourcefulness, as seen in Tommy Collins's "Shade Tree (Fix-It Man)." The best example of all may be Haggard's "Big City."
5. Work. Closely tied to number 4 above, this subject/theme is owned by Haggard, with everything from "Tulare Dust" to "Workin' Man Blues" and plenty in between.
6. Individual worth. Haggard leads again with "I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am" and "My Own Kind of Hat," and lots of others.
7. Rugged individualism. Haggard reigns once more with such songs as "I've Done It All" and "Mama Tried," among others.
8. Patriotism. This term is generously defined here, so numbers as varied as Haggard's "The Fightin' Side of Me," Kris Kristofferson's "The Vietnam Blues," and Country Joe McDonald's "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" all count.
Any deep understanding of the themesindeed, of the metaphysicsof country music demands some examination of the larger issue of national culture or perhaps of what it has meant to be an American. In her stimulating 1931 volume, American Humor: A Study of the National Character , Constance Rourke argued that cultureever dynamicmoved from the masses to the elite not vice versa, and she denied the existence of a "high" culture separate from "popular" culture; to her, they were parts of the same whole, with considerable shared middle ground.
Country musicin its forms, in its themes, in its very existenceseems to validate Rourke's thesis. Its heterogeneous nature embraces the elements of her prototypical American "comic trio": the Yankee, the Backwoodsman, the Negro. Recognizing the blended essence of this nation's traditions, she wrote: "The mythic trio's comedy, their irreverent wisdom, their sudden changes and adroit adaptations, provide emblems for a pioneer people who required resilience as a prime trait." Unaltered, the scholar's words might describe country music, especially in its earliest forms.
This music's traditional independent and improvisational tone has reinforced many characteristics central to the development of our national personality. Illusions of its British or European origins notwithstanding, country musiclike its even more distinct cousin, jazzhas been essentially American, especially in its feisty nature. But that nature has become less feisty, less independent, and certainly less innovative since big business in the guise of top-40 stations, cookie-cutter producers, electronically smoothed performances, and so on, began clamping a hammerlock on artists and songwriters four decades ago. That country retains much of its original power at all represents a triumph of popular taste over commercialism and is largely the product of this music's contemporary marginsespecially in California and Texasnot its mainstream.
In 1972 sociologists John D. McCarthy, Richard A. Peterson, and William L. Yancey flatly stated that country's fans were "predominately southern and white." Even today, when observers suggest that country music has remained close to its origins, they usually mean its southern origins. This branch of the music business certainly did originate in the South, where various American commercial styles combined with British and African traditionsthemselves much Americanizedto produce some unique works. Those in turn resonated with the experiences and the
nostalgic tastes of rurally identified folks nationwide. The music is more complex and varied now because it has borrowed widely, mostly for commercial reasons, and it seems more southern than it is because Nashville has become its commercial home and because the music's major image-shaper, the Country Music Association, is located there.
In fact, two questionable "givens" regarding the southernness of this music have come to be widely accepted: One is that Nashville has always been the center of country music; the other is that country music started with British songs retained in the mountain South. Neither is true. The former myth is simple to refute. According to the editors of Country Music magazine, Atlanta dominated the 1920s, Chicago the 1930s, and Hollywood the 1940s, then Nashville attained prominence, and it has steadily built preeminence.
The latter myth, however, is more persistent because so many folks want it to be true. A few of country's oldest songs can indeed be traced to music from Britain, but they are just the oldest, not the most or the most important. Country music was commercial from the start. During the first two years of recording country music, performers were indeed primarily rural and southern, and they were allowed to choose their own songs. Scholars Anne and Norman Cohen identified about 70 percent of those selections and found that only 2 percent were of pre-1800 British origin; 6 percent were from post-1900 Tin Pan Alley; 7 percent were from post-1900 American folk sources; 26 percent were from 18601900 Tin Pan Alley; 59 percent were from pre-1900 American folk or early minstrel sources.
J. K. Johnson, a musician reared in rural California recalled, "Well, when those new records from the South came out in the twenties, we mostly recognized the songs. They sang some dandy ones." He pointed out one difference, though: "Here we played most of the same ones they did, but Spanish stuff too'El Rancho Grande' or 'La Golondrina.' And we really liked that Haywire Mac [McClintock] and his hobo songs. I sure bought his records."
"Spanish stuff" was common in the Southwest, of which the southern half of California was a cultural extension; Texas music, too, was much influenced by Latino styles. That's revealing because most popular definitions of the musical South seem to focus on the Southeast, due in no small measure to Nashville's present prominence and perhaps some skillful revisionism by the Country Music Association. But the Southwest has
Hollywood helped spread country music. Merle Travis and Carolina Cotton harmonize in a 1940s film
short. Playing steel at the far left is songwriter Bonnie Dodd. From the Gid Tanner Artist File #NF1996,
The Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
certainly held its own in this music in terms of styles, of performers, and of audiences, and it has most influenced California's country music.
"Southwest" in this context does not refer to the mesas of New Mexico or Arizona but to a variation of what historians refer to as the "Old Southwest," in this case Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texasa tier of states that has contributed so much to settlement on the West Coast. Moreover, those states, with their more heterogeneous histories and populations than the Deep South's, have had at least as much in common with the Golden Stateincluding varied ethnic musicas with Tennessee or Georgia.
In a memorable article published in the spring 1975 issue of the Journal of Country Music , "The Fertile Crescent of Country Music," sociologists Richard A. Peterson and Russell Davis, Jr., made two central points: One, "notable country musicians have been, and continue to be, primarily country born"; two, "the South has been, and still is, the cradle of country music." They define the fertile crescent as an "arc of states beginning with West Virginia in the Northeast continuing south and west encompassing most of the Southeast, as well as including Texas and Oklahoma."
That interesting designation, however, isn't necessarily as significant as it seems. The inclusion of Texas and Oklahoma moves the fertile crescent well beyond the Deep South. John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed point out in 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About the South that in their southernness "Texas and Oklahoma are marginal but show an east-to-west gradient"; the eastern sections of those states were much more influenced by Dixie, while their central and western sections (the particular areas that most contributed population and culture to California) escaped reb homogeneity in their populations and music. In fact, as Peterson and Davis also pointed out, Texas has produced more country-music notables than any other statemany of whom, from Stuart Hamblen to Bob Wills to Buck Owens, have chosen to reside in Californiawhich indicates that they have avoided domination by the Southeast. Oklahoma and Missouri have sent nearly as many important musicians to the Golden State.
California has provided few native-born stars. At the time Peterson and Davis were writing, only Cliffie Stone, Sammi Smith, and Merle Haggard were California-born luminaries; for each of them, there have been dozens of outstanding transplantsthe Rose Maddoxes, the Gene Autrys, the Merle Travises, and the Dwight Yoakams. It's important to note of course that this state's general population (and especially its population of entertainers) has been characterized by a large number of folks born elsewhere, and that some areas of it have served as virtual enclaves of this culture or that one. In the entertainment industry today, it seems difficult not to have a California connection, no matter when or where you were born.
More to the point, the eclecticism and independence of many musicians in the Southwest and California have linked them as outsiders (or, trendily, "outlaws") since Nashville gained control of this business on the
cusp of the 1940s and '50s. A decade after that a fan named Frank Chase said, "They used to call it country and western, but now they ought to call it country and southern." He was of course commenting on a subtle musical change that dated from Nashville's rise to dominance. By the 1980s John Denver would identify himself as a "western singer not a country singer" because by then Tennessee's version of the music had come to be so thoroughly identified with southern styles. Ironically, following Denver's death in 1997, fully six of his albums were listed in the country-music top 10.
Today, with pop techniques in vogue nationally, the gap that has grown between "country" and "western" remains clear: they are different threads of a cloth. Suggests singer U. "Utah" Phillips, "in Nashville, you have to wear a new hat; in the West, you have to run over your hat with a truck before you wear it." Sonoma County favorite Ace Atkins summarizes the difference this way: "Western singers sing about their horses and they never kiss women. Country singers sing about drinking and chasing women. And they do both."
Ironically, the openness to new ideas that emanated mainly from the Southwestincluding Southern Californiahas arguably proved at least as predictive of what country music has now become as have narrower early southeastern definitions. Perhaps the most important single lesson Californians learned from their southwestern neighbors, for example, was that country music should be danceable, as were western swing, honky-tonk, and rockabilly.
Peterson and Davis's use of "production of notables" as a criterion, while interesting, is by no means a definitive revelation of the music's hub. Nashville now dominates country, and many stars from elsewhere cluster there, just as they historically have in the Golden State, America's favorite destination since 1848. In fact, enthusiastic audiences, varied venues, movie opportunities, radio and television programming, and regional recording labels along with the West Coast impulse to reinvent not only self but music, too, seem to have established California as second to Tennessee in country music's history; only Texas challenges. Such an assertion may run counter to this state's and this music's images, but history (even as regards a domain as public as the entertainment industry) contains many surprises.
The production of fans and the intensity of their identification have
Bob Wills (third from left) in the 1950s with a group that includes (left to right) Cliff Crofford, Will Ray (?),
Billy Mize, Jean Shepard, Johnny Cuviello (partly obscured), Bill Woods. Two people on the right are
Courtesy of Kern County Museum. Used by permission.
been a revealing gauge. A national community has been created by country, and its concerns have of course been national (perhaps universal) not regional; the music's blue-collar and countercultural connotations, for example, have endeared it to people who have been shadowed or luminated by their own experiences in the class-conscious Golden State. When fans see Buck Owens on stage, they don't see Bakersfield, California, or Sherman, Texas; they see themselves and their dreams.
Historically, most of America, including the rural South, was much influenced by various commercial music well before the dawn of recording.
Sears Roebuck, for example, was sending millions of copies of catalogs (featuring everything from fiddles to songbooks) to rural folks by 1920. Traveling minstrels and vaudeville revues (both still common in the early 1920s), medicine shows, sacred "singing schools," and sheet music (published of course in cities) were other early shapers of this commercial genre. Dixie indeed remained a unique realm when in 1916 the British musicologist Cecil Sharp observed of the region, "I found myself for the first time in my life in a community in which singing was as common and almost as universal a practice as speaking."
Sharp collected 1,600 versions of 500 traditional songs in the southern mountains between 1916 and 1918, yet logged almost no instrumental music. Conversely, Roy Acuff, perhaps the greatest of singers in the southern hill-country tradition, reported that when he was young, he and his friends didn't often sing a song outside of church; mainly, they played instrumental music for their neighbors at parties and dances. Early hillbilly recordings, even those with vocals, were dominated by instrumentals.
The prototypes of country music, whatever their sources, enjoyed a national reach from the start; as scholar D. K. Wilgus explains, while its "manifestation was of the South; its essence was of rural America."
That hillbilly music is a phenomenon solely of the South in general and of the Southern Appalachians in particular is a myth in the best sense of the word. . . . Early hillbilly performers came not only from the lowland and upland South, but from the Great Plains and the Midwestand eventually New England, Nova Scotia, and Alberta.
Folklorist Roderick J. Roberts agrees, saying that "tradition-oriented people outside the South bought commercially recorded Southern music because it was the closest available . . . to their musical aesthetic."
Scholar Robert Cantwell adds a telling point: "Hillbilly music has never been anything but entrepreneurial and commercial, prospering in the one commodity which in America is ever in short supplythe past." The title of a recent book by sociologist Richard A. Peterson is also informative: Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity .
At its inception, this music's underlying sentiment certainly jibed with a prevailing national mood; its primary theme, as sociologist Alex Freedman summarizes, was that "the country is good and the city is bad
there is no in-between position," an almost perfect expression for rural people caught in the process of urbanization.
"Poor-but-proud" is another enduring motif; this has not been the music of big shots. If country's first powerful connotation was rural and its second was southern, its third has been white people in blue collars. That identification is no coincidence, since folks near the bottom of America's class-conscious society have been acutely aware of their position; scorning country music's fans has, until recently at least, been common. When country became increasingly popular in the Golden State during the 1940s, it was often called "Okie music." Said Spec Haslam, "They called it 'Okie,' but that didn't mean Oklahoman or southern, it meant poor mostly. Someone it's okay to look down your nose at."
This music can, in fact, be viewed as a survivor of a forgotten nineteenth-century battle between promoters debating what American musicand by implication, American societyshould be. Musicologist Charles Seeger points out that aristocrats and urbanites then "were at loggerheads with respect to what was good, but in agreement upon one that was bad, the folk art favored by rural people." Then as now, class tensions were persistent. While gentry supporting European "classics" competed with urban dwellers who endorsed newly emerging commercial American sounds (such as Tin Pan Alley's), the traditional songs that endured in every village and on every farm were viewed as unfit for high culture or perhaps for any culture at all.
Of course this hasn't been an entirely one-sided struggle. Many hard-working pioneer Americans have considered classical music to be a foreign affectation of the idle rich. Disparaging art, and anti-intellectualism in general, have been popular practices among those who identify with what historian James Gregory calls "plain-folks Americanism." Long before there was country music, there was social awareness; it's still an important aspect of country music's world, well summarized by Lester Flatt and Earl Scrugg's song title, "Don't Get above Your Raising." A Stetsoned habitui of Penngrove's Twin Oaks Saloon in 1996 winked as he said, "Hell no, I sure wouldn't wanta miss an opera or one of those ballet deals"; in the background his pals laughed.
The roots of country music actually penetrated California with the Gold Rush. Fiddle music was common in the camps on holidays, and miners danced with one another if ladies (professional or otherwise)
Honky-tonkin' at the Blackboard in Bakersfield during the 1950s. On the band-
stand are Bill Woods and his Orange Blossom Playboys, featuring young Buck
Owens on guitar.
Courtesy of Kern County Museum. Used by permission.
weren't available. Often such music was one of the few touches of home lonely men retained. By the time the Civil War raged in the East, young William Henry Brewer, a leader of the California Geological Survey party, traveled about the state, and he found a decidedly heterogeneous society, including many southerners, referred to scornfully as "Secessionists."
Fiddle music was often heard in rural California, and it would eventually prove central to the development of commercial country music. Scholar Douglas B. Green explains that because the instruments were portable as well as versatile, "fiddles came over with the earliest settlers and became a part of the American folk tradition." Certainly, fiddlers were the favorite musicians in rural nineteenth-century America, whether on a farm or in a mine, in a village or at a cattle camp. Generation after generation of some families passed fiddle playing down, and few communities were without someone who could "pull that bow."
Competitions among fiddlers became a tradition, and those contests eventually provided a training ground for many of country music's first performers, as the sobriquets of Fiddlin' John Carson, Fiddlin' Sid
Harkreader, and Fiddlin' Bob Hayes, among others, illustrate. In San Antonio Rose , his biography of Bob Wills, Charles R. Townsend describes a West Texas contest that involved Bob's father:
Eck Robertson and John Wills were selected for the finals. . . . Eck went to the platform first and probably played "Beaumont Rag" . . . whatever he played was good, and when he left the platform everyone knew he would be difficult to beat. John Wills, in his turn, probably played "Gone Indian," for that was one of his best. When John reached a certain place in the tune, he began hollering and held an elongated cry about an octave above his fiddle music so that his voice harmonized with the fiddle. John kept the music and the holler going for what seemed like minutes. His performance was a crowd and judge pleaser, and he won over his arch-rival. As Robertson left the scene of the contest, someone asked, "Eck, did John outfiddle you?" Eck answered, "Hell, no! He didn't outfiddle me. That damned old man Wills outhollered me!"
Fiddling was common to all of the English-speaking Americas. In his history of the "Grand Ole Opry" Charles Wolfe tells the story of Mellie Dunham from Maine, who was considered by many to be the world champion fiddler in the mid-1920s. Uncle Jimmy Thompson, a southerner, had been declared America's champion barn-dance fiddler following a competition in Dallas, so Dunham challenged him. "He may have defeated 86 opponents in the Dallas contest," said Dunham, "but they were all southerners, and they don't know as much about barndance fiddling in that section as they do 'down in Maine.'" (The challenge wasn't accepted.)
Instrumentation has long defined country music, and nowadays a twanging steel guitar, not a fiddle, can turn virtually any performance into country. That defining twang derives not from a southern source, but from Hawaiian performers. A "classic" instrument in Europe, the guitar was well established in music from the lowland South before it made its way into the mountains. Railroad workers, most of them black, penetrated the highlands late in the nineteenth century; they brought their music, introducing not only strong rhythms but new types of melodic picking. By 1894 Sears advertised seven guitar modelsmost cheapmaking the instrument widely available. Then via vaudeville at the turn of the century the Hawaiian instruments and "sliding steel" styles of play
were adopted from performers who toured rural America. From them later developed dobros, steel guitars, and pedal steels. Mexican guitars and methods spread from the Southwest at about the same time as Hawaiian guitars appeared. Historian Bill C. Malone has pointed out, "Most of the innovative developments in steel guitar style came from musicians west of the Mississippi River." Those varied developments typify the eclectic nature of what has come to be called country.
Blacks in particular had a great impact on country guitar playing. Such stalwarts as Bill Monroe, Ike Everly, and Mose Rager (as well as, indirectly, both Merle Travis and Chet Atkins), for example, were in the thrall of an African-American musician named Arnold Shultz. He is often credited with having developed the syncopated "thumb style" of guitar picking, with its heavily accented bass, swinging tempo, and chording up the guitar's neck; and via his white disciples, Shultz revolutionized "white" country music at a time when racism and racial barriers in America were horrendous. Cantwell explains a deeper import of such contacts:
It may be difficult for us to catch the significance of a young rural white in the 1920s taking up what the late Birch Monroe called "them old nigger blues." To seek out the black bluesman was usually a literal journey to the nether regions of societyshantytown, railroad, honky-tonkbut more significantly, a social descent which, like the descents of mythology and folklore, was made on behalf of the special powers conferred by secret knowledge.
Minstrel shows introduced another vital agent, the banjo; ironically, an instrument originally developed in Africa was spread by whites in blackface. The mandolin was adopted after the wave of immigration from Italy shortly before the turn of the century. The accordion made its way into southern music via both German and Cajun (Acadian French) music, while the harmonica ("mouth harp," "French harp," etc.) was developed in Germany.
As tastes changed and electrical amplification influenced musicians and audiences alike, solid-bodied guitars eventually became dominant. By the early 1960s writer Rich Kienzle points out, "Fiddles were . . . considered too corny by several country producers, and for a time they became casualties of the so-called 'Nashville Sound.'"
There has, in truth, been no practical limitation on instruments that
can be used in country, although certainly some are more traditional than others, and various conventions rise and fall. No outfit better illustrated that truism than the zany Hoosier Hotshots ("Are you ready, Hezzie?"), movie favorites in the 1940s. They employed guitar, clarinet, bass, slide whistle, washboard, bulb horns, pots, pans, and anything else that worked to produce (in the words of their own promotional material) "a wonderful tintinnabulation heretofore unheard by mortal ears." Perhaps only the novelty of Spike Featherstone's harp in Spade Cooley's orchestra rivaled them.
In any case, during the post-World War I period technology had played a major part in country music's birth. The popularity of radio after that conflict caused a significant drop in record sales, prompting recording companies to cast about for new audiences. That resulted in the initial recording of many rural southern entertainers, black and white alike. This music, that as dogma has complained about big cities and newfangled devices, was largely brought into being by them.
Now, over seventy years later, Nashville is the seat of this music's business. It is not, however, its spiritual core: that can still be found in the lives of hard-working people everywhere, perhaps at the churches and honky-tonks, the rodeos and monster truck rallies, where they gather. And of course much of this music has indeed been countercultural, revealing rootlessness, loneliness, and more than a little desperation in the American psyche. It has notuntil recently at leastbeen the anthem of a contented people.
If the southern diaspora energized songs and spread the audience for this commercial music in the 1920s, the Okie migration of the 1930s had a similar effect in California, and the World War II and postwar migrations were even larger and more important. But the various types of country music had enjoyed a considerable following in the Golden State even before those events occurred. It can be said to have started in the 1920s with a family of southern transplants called the Crocketts.
Excerpted from Workin' Man Blues by Gerald W. Haslam Copyright © 2005 by Gerald W. Haslam. Excerpted by permission.
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|A Musical Interlude: Bakersfield, 1994||1|
|1||Country Music - Roots and Stems||7|
|2||The Crockett Family||25|
|A Musical Interlude: Penngrove, 1994||83|
|10||Rose and the Maddox Brothers||167|
|A Musical Interlude: Los Angeles, 1995||217|
|A Musical Interlude: Bakersfield, 1995||315|