03/14/06 - country music

In today's excerpt - country music was an oral history of the urban poor from California to New England, argues author Dana Jennings, not just the South, especially in the pivotal period from 1950 to 1970. These were the years of Hank Williams Sr., Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, and many more now legendary performers:

"Country music for decades was poor-people music, made by poor people, and bought by poor people. It sprang from the heart and the gut, and like R&B and soul, it was the music of exile, meant to make being banished to the margins, if not a matter of pride, then at least more tolerable. It never surprised no one that the original Carter Family came from Poor Valley. In a sense, that's where we all came from. ... People forget, or never knew, the poverty that once suffused country music. There are the songs that are explicitly about being poor, like [Merle] Haggard's 'Hungry Eyes' and Harlan Howard's 'Busted', but poverty is also the silent pillar of lots of other country songs. In America, it's poor boys who most often wind up in prison, and it's among the poor that alcoholism is an epidemic. When you're poor, cheatin' isn't just adultery, it's stealin'. ...

"Which brings me to 'The Myth.' The myth perpetuated these days by Nashville music executives who probably believe that Garth Brooks represents 'classic country,' is that country music is purely a white, rural, and Southern art. ... There's no question that the South is vital to country music and its history. But the scholar D.K. Wilgus reminds us that while country music's manifestation was Southern, 'its essence was of rural America.' ... Country musicians come from all over: Hank Snow, one of the music's biggest postwar stars, was from Nova Scotia; Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, who owned the charts in the 1960s, defined the Bakersfield, California sound; Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings?—Texans through and through; and heck, Dick ('A Tombstone Every Mile') Curless hailed from Fort Fairfield, Maine.

"And the African-American influence runs strong and deep in musicians as diverse as Bill Monroe, Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Elvis Presley, whose first hits came on the country charts. Hank's breakthrough 'Lovesick Blues' (1949) was written by a vaudeville piano player and a Russian-born Jew and popularized in the 1920s by the blackface minstrel Emmitt Miller. So much for regional purity."


Dana Jennings


Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death, and Country Music


Faber and Faber, Inc.


Copyright 2008 by Dana Jennings


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