Reading Country Music: Steel Guitars, Opry Stars, and Honky Tonk Bars

Reading Country Music: Steel Guitars, Opry Stars, and Honky Tonk Bars

by Cecelia Tichi

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With its steel guitars, Opry stars, and honky-tonk bars, country music is an American original. The most popular music in America today, it’s also big business. Amazing, then, that country music has been so little studied by critics, given its predominance in American culture. Reading Country Music acknowledges the significance of country music as part of an authentic American heritage and turns a loving, critical eye toward understanding the sweep of this peculiarly American phenomenon.
Bringing together a wide range of scholars and critics from literature, communications, history, sociology, art, and music, this anthology looks at everything from the inner workings of the country music industry to the iconography of certain stars to the development of distinctive styles within the country music genre. Essays include a look at the shift from "hard-core" to "soft-shell" country music in recent years; Johnny Cash as lesbian icon; gender, class, and region in Dolly Parton’s star image; and bluegrass’s gothic tradition. Originally published as a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly, this expanded book edition includes new articles on the spirituality of Willie Nelson, the legacy and tradition of stringed music, and the revival of Stephen Foster’s blackface musical, among others.

Contributors. Mary A. Bufwack, Don Cusic, Curtis W. Ellison, Mark Fenster, Vivien Green Fryd, Teresa Goddu, T. Walter Herbert, Christine Kreyling, Michael Kurek, Amy Schrager Lang, Charmaine Lanham, Bill Malone, Christopher Metress, Jocelyn Neal, Teresa Ortega, Richard A. Peterson, Ronnie Pugh, John W. Rumble, David Sanjek, Cecelia Tichi, Pamela Wilson, Charles K. Wolfe

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822397786
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 07/23/1998
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 424
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Cecelia Tichi is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English and Director of American and Southern Studies at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of High Lonesome: The American Culture of Country Music.

Read an Excerpt

Reading Country Music

Steel Guitars, Opry Stars, and Honky-Tonk Bars

By Cecelia Tichi

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9778-6


Sing Me a Song about Ramblin' Man

Visions and Revisions of Hank Williams in Country Music

Christopher Metress

To get there you take I-65 straight south out of Nashville. The ride is good and gentle, and before you know it you're crossing the Tennessee River into the Heart of Dixie and you're starting to see more frequent signs for Birmingham, the only city that stands between you and Montgomery. After you pass through the Magic City, skirting it to the right, the land starts to flatten out as red iron mountains give way to rich black soil. In just over an hour, you will see Montgomery on the horizon. Stay on I-65 until you near the center of the city. You will exit here and work your way carefully through the streets, following the map on the passenger's seat beside you until you find the road with seven bridges.

Oakwood Cemetery Annex is tucked away in a modest section of the city, only a few blocks from the state capitol building. When you get there it's not hard to find his grave, for it's marked by an upright slab nearly twice the size of a man. Made of Vermont granite, it shines like marble in the afternoon sun. At the top of the slab you find the opening notes of "I Saw the Light." Below this and to the left, a bronze plaque shows him smiling and playing his guitar, and beside it, etched into the granite, sunshine pours through a thicket of layered clouds. A little further down, just above eye level, the name "Hank Williams" is cut deep and thick and clean into the memorial stone.

Resting at the base of this slab is an exact replica of Hank's hat, surrounded by small granite squares where someone has chiseled the front-page sheet music to some of Hank's greatest songs. A few feet in front of all this lies a flat slab that marks the grave itself. The whole area is framed by a rectangular border of stone, and inside this frame stand two urns for decoration and two benches for rest. The grave is not busy at this time of day. A few wrappers and cigarette butts on the artificial turf around the plot let you know that others were here not long ago, but in the quiet of this particular afternoon you rest awhile on one of the benches and spend a few moments listening to the clouds move soundless as smoke overhead.

When it's time to go you might decide to walk out the way you came in. But you shouldn't. If you do, if you leave the grave the same way you approached it, you will miss something very important. So, instead of retracing your steps, you get off the bench and walk straight toward the upright slab. Take it in one last time —the deep cut of his name, his sharp face molded in bronze, the clouds and sunshine etched into the granite like some fragile but palpable hope. Now move past the slab. Here, standing in the shadows at the back of the slender marker, you will find a poem entitled "Thank You, Darling." Unlike the lyrics and notes carved into the front of the stone, these words will be unfamiliar:

Thank you for all the love you gave me
There could be one no stronger
Thank you for the many beautiful songs
They will live long and longer

Thank you for being a wonderful father to Lycrecia
She loves you more than you knew
Thank you for our precious son
And thank God he looks so much like you

And now I can say:
There are no words in the dictionary
That can express my love for you
Someday beyond the blue

The poem is signed "Audrey Williams."

At first, what is happening on the backside of Hank Williams's gravestone seems quite clear: Audrey Williams, the grieving widow, is paying her final tribute to her husband. But something makes you uncomfortable. Is it the disjunction between the simple lyrics chiseled on the front of the slab and the discordant poetry cut into its back? Perhaps, yet there is something so touching in what you've just read: the widow fighting through her pain to write a final song for her songwriting husband. Still, something bothers you. It's only after you've listened a little longer to the silence overhead that you remember Audrey Williams wasn't Hank's widow.

Now you begin to understand what's really happening here on the shadowy side of Hank's grave. Everything about the gravesite centers on Hank, or so it first appears. The marker has his name on it, those are his lyrics etched in stone, that's his image cast in bronze. They've let his name, his face, and his words speak for themselves. When you look behind the grave, however, you see that Hank hasn't had the final say. Hank's a legend, after all, and legends become legends because we don't let them have the last word. Rather, after they are gone we continue to speak for them, creating them, if not in our own image, then at least in an image that serves our own purposes. And that's what's happening here in Montgomery. Miz Audrey is staking her claim, making Hank Williams her Hank Williams because she knows that another Williams, Billie Jean, is out there trying to stake her own claim. When Miz Audrey writes, "Thank you for our precious son / And thank God he looks so much like you," you can almost hear the satisfaction, the legacy and the claims of inheritance that are asserted in those lines. The Hank Williams buried here isn't just any Hank Williams but her Hank Williams.

In 1975 Moe Bandy released a song by Paul Kraft entitled "Hank Williams You Wrote My Life." As true as these words are to many country music fans, they may blind us to another important fact: just as Hank Williams wrote our lives, we have written his. Audrey Williams's poem at the gravesite in Montgomery was not the first attempt to take hold of Hank's life and inscribe it in a certain way. And it definitely wasn't the last. For instance, in 1953, the year Hank Williams died, every major recording studio in Nashville released a song about him, sixteen tributes in all. The first to be released was Jack Cardwell's "Death of Hank Williams." A Montgomery disc jockey and singer for King Records, Cardwell knew Hank in his pre-Opry days. When he heard of Hank's death on New Year's Eve, he wrote a song about it that very night. A week later, on 8 January, King Records released "The Death of Hank Williams." It went as high as #2 on the charts, kept out of the top spot by one of Hank's own songs, "Your Cheatin' Heart." With more than 107,000 singles sold, "The Death of Hank Williams" may have been the most successful of all these tribute records, but it really wasn't that much different from the rest. Beginning with a peaceful image of Hank lying in the back of his car, "in a deep and dreamless sleep" from which he never awakens, Cardwell's song tries to reassure us that Hank Williams has "gone to a better land."

When listened to one after another, the sixteen tribute songs of 1953 construct a highly specific image of Hank Williams. A little more than a year before his death, remember, Hank had left Nashville in disgrace. In the tribute songs, however, there is little, if any, mention of the Hank Williams who got himself fired from the Opry for repeatedly embarrassing the Nashville establishment with his drunkenness and unreliability. Yes, Arthur Smith sings, in his "In Memory of Hank Williams," about how, "like all of us Hank had his faults," but those faults are not specified in any of the tributes. What we get, rather, is a kind of hagiography, a portrait of Hank Williams as a country music saint who has gone peacefully to his just reward. In "Hank Williams Meets Jimmie Rodgers," for instance, the Virginia Rounders sing of a "great meeting in Heaven" between the two kings of country music. In this song, Hank doesn't so much die as "answer his Maker's call" to perform with the angels. Jimmie Rodgers tells Hank that he and the angels needed some help in their "heavenly band," so they decided to call for the best singer on earth. In the end, we are assured that

The voices of Rodgers and Williams,
The greatest this world's ever known,
Will blend up yonder forever
Around that heavenly throne.

As if their point had not been made well enough in this song, the Virginia Rounders also released "There's a New Star in Hillbilly Heaven," in which they speculate that the angels called for Hank Williams because they needed "someone to write them new songs."

Jimmie Skinner's "Singing Teacher in Heaven" and Johnny Ryon's "That Heaven Bound Train" each maintains this comforting portrait of a singer called home to "his Maker." Skinner assures us that Hank has "traveled on to a house of gold" where "the saints of God abed." For Ryon, Hank "is riding to glory on that Heaven bound train," where he will find angels to sing "the many songs that [he] will bring." Moreover, both Skinner and Ryon imagine moments when they will join Hank in some unbroken circle in the sky. Ryon sings of how "someday we all will be with him again" when we are called upon to ride "that Heaven bound train," while Skinner prays for a reunion with Hank on the day when he himself must "join the heavenly choir."

In "Hank, It Will Never Be the Same Without You," Williams's good friend Ernest Tubb sings of how, from the start, Hank's life was full of "misery." But that misery doesn't matter now because, in his death, Hank has finally achieved that goal he struggled "so bravely for" in life: "eternal happiness." A similar sentiment is found in Jimmie Logsdon's "Hank Williams Sings the Blues No More," in which we are assured that Hank has now found "a new singing place / Where the sun shines on his face." In "The Last Letter," Jimmy Swan offers the most explicit assurance that the Ramblin' Man has indeed achieved eternal peace when he sings of how he dreamed one night of meeting Hank Williams in heaven. Swan's dream centers on an image of Hank holding tightly to a "little white Bible."

Many of these first tribute songs were written by artists who knew Hank well, so we certainly can't fault them for being sentimental portraits of a good friend. But as Hank Williams, Jr., said on one of his early albums: "In January of 1953, my father stopped being a man and became a legend." These tribute songs initiated the construction of that legend. The man who died alone in the backseat of a car because his heart finally failed him after so many years of heavy drinking had now simply passed away in a "deep and dreamless sleep." This long night's sleep, more of a summons from heaven than an actual death, had finally allowed the Ramblin' Man to gain his rightful rest. Moreover, the man who had been fired from the Opry two years before no longer existed. Instead, Hank now sings forever with the angels in some kind of Grand Ole Opry in the sky, and we too will sing with him "someday beyond the blue." Hindsight has allowed Hank Jr. to understand exactly what was going on in 1953. In Living Proof, his 1979 autobiography, he wrote: "While [Daddy] was alive, he was despised and envied; after he died, he was some kind of saint. And that's exactly how Nashville decided to treat Daddy—country music's first authentic saint."

Nashville may have needed a saint, but Miz Audrey simply needed a husband. If the tribute songs served to smooth over the divorce between Hank and Nashville, Miz Audrey's songs served to smooth over her divorce from him. In a series of records released during the first two years after his death, Audrey Williams had her chance to write Hank's life the way she wanted it to be read. Fighting for custody of his memory as well as his estate, she was not only billing herself as "The One and Only Audrey (Mrs. Hank) Williams," she was singing about herself that way as well. On one of her early records, she tapped into the heaven imagery of the tribute songs, and just as the Nashville musicians imagined a reunion with Hank in the great beyond, Miz Audrey imagined a heavenly reprise of her wedded bliss with Hank on earth. "Are you writing songs for me up in Heaven?" she asks Hank. "So when I meet you beyond the blue, / You'll say 'Come here and listen to me,' / Then I'll smile and listen just as we used to do." In another song, entitled "My Life with You," she sings of how she and Hank first met and of how, when they were later married, she wept with happiness. She notes, however, that their "happiness didn't last long" because people started "wagging their tongues," and in the next stanza, she describes their divorce in a way that, well, makes it seem like they never got divorced:

Along about then, everything went wrong,
Little did we know it wouldn't be long
'Til you'd be in Heaven no more to be blue,
It's hard to go on without my life with you.

When she wasn't writing her own songs about Hank, Miz Audrey was recording songs that carefully wrote her back into Hank's life. In Lycrecia Williams's 1989 memoir, Still in Love with You: The Story oj Hank and Audrey Williams, she recalled one of her mother's Decca recording sessions in August of 1953:

Still backed by the Drifting Cowboys, but short one guitar player, [Mother] recorded three emotional numbers that day. First was a recitation of Daddy's "To My Pal Bocephus," a poem filled with a father's hopes and concerns for his baby son. She read the words just as Daddy would have done, without changing the wording for the speaker as a "man" and a "father." Her second number, "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know About Him," a current hit ... for the Davis Sisters, was so appropriate to her feelings about Billie Jean's claims to Daddy that it might have been written just for her. For the last song, Mother rewrote the lyrics to Daddy's "Ramblin' Man" to express some of her own thoughts:

Some folks might say that I didn't care,
But wherever you went I was always there.
When 1 get lonely, at your grave I'll stand.
So I'll be near my ramblin' man.
I still love you honey and I can't understand
I am a ramblin' gal that lost her ramblin' man.

As Chet Flippo argued in Your Cheatin' Heart: A Biography of Hank Williams, those who knew Hank "revise[d] his history to sweeten their own." And this, of course, was what Audrey Williams did when she decided to revise Hank's music—in revising "Ramblin' Man," she was revising the Ramblin' Man and sweetening her life with him. The two bitter divorces and the long separations never really happened because, in truth, wherever Hank Williams went, she was "always there."

As much as Miz Audrey was rewriting in song her husband's problematic past, she was also writing in life her son's promising future. Whereas other artists could only pen or perform tributes to Hank, Audrey Williams could turn her son into a living, singing tribute. And this she did. Although it was to a son named Randall Hank Williams that Audrey gave birth on 26 May 1949, she raised him as "Hank Williams, Jr." The boy's renaming was only the beginning. In his autobiography, Hank Jr. recalled those early years of careful refashioning: "Mother used to coach me in things Daddy said and then I'd go on stage and the audience would go crazy. They'd say I sounded just like ole Hank, and I guess I did."

By age eleven, young Hank sounded enough like "ole Hank" to take the Opry stage and sing a few of his father's songs. Four years later, in 1964, he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and sang "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," a cover of his father's #1 hit from 1950. Peaking at #5, the song gave fifteen-year-old Hank Jr. his first chart record. When he tried to follow up later in the year with two singles of his own songs, he reached no higher than #42 on the charts. To the young Hank Williams, the message couldn't have been clearer: "There'd be the people [at my concerts] who came looking for my daddy, who wanted to hear nothing but 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry' and 'Jambalaya and a crawfish pie-a and a me-o-my-o,' and would be bitterly disappointed when they found only me."


Excerpted from Reading Country Music by Cecelia Tichi. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction / Cecelia Tichi 1

Sing Me a Song about Ramblin' Man: Visions and Revisions of Hank Williams in Country Music / Christopher Metress 4

Blue Moon of Kentucky Rising Over the Mystery Train: The Complex Construction of Country Music / David Sanjek 22

Bloody Daggers and Lonesome Graveyards: The Gothic and Country Music / Theresa Goddu 45

A Musical Legacy, A Way of Life: A Photo Essay / Charmaine Lanham 65

Commercial (and/or) Folk: The Bluegrass Industry and Bluegrass Traditions / Mark Fenster 74

Mountains of Contradictions: Gender, Class, and Region in the Star Image of Dolly Parton / Pamela Wilson 98

Keeping Faith: Evangelical Performance in Country Music / Curtis W. Ellison 121

Girls with Guitars - and Fringe and Sequins and Rhinestones, Silk, Lace, and Leather / Mary A. Bufwack 153

Event Songs / Charles K. Wolfe 188

Country Green: The Money in Country Music / Don Cusic 200

Country Music and the Contemporary Composer: The Case of Paul Martin Zonn / Michael Kurel and Cecelia Tichi 209

"My name is Sue! How do you do?" Johnny Cash as Lesbian Icon / Teresa Ortega 222

The Dialectic of hard-Core and Soft-Shell Country Music / Richard A. Peterson 234

"The Sad Twang of Mountain Voices": Thomas Hart Benton's Sources of Country Music / Vivien Green Fryd 256

Mecca for the Country Music Scholar / Ronnie Pugh 286

Country Music, Seriously: An Interview with Bill C. Malone / Cecelia Tichi 290

Reading the Row / Christine Kreyling 307

The Metric Makings of a Country Hit / Jocelyn Neal 322

"The Voice of Woe": Willie Nelson and Evangelical Spirituality / T. Walter Herbert 338

"I'll Reap My Harvest in Heaven": Fred Rose's Acquaintance with Country Music / John W. Rumble 350

Jim Crow and the Pale Maiden: Gender, Color, and Class in Stephen Foster's "Hard Times" / Amy Schrager Lang 378

Selected Discography 389

Notes on Contributors 395

Index 399

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