In the Country of Country

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

More people tuned into country music in the 1990’s than ever before, but as Nicholas Dawidoff argues convincingly, millions of those fans were usually listening to a pale, ephemeral echo of authentic American country sounds. Most of the music that passes for “country” on radio and in concerts is really “pop rock music for a prospering, mostly conservative white middle class. It’s kempt, comfortable music.” Dawidoff wants to uncover this musical fraud and turn more listeners on to the authentic country sound.

In the Country of Country is not a history of country music; it is, as its subtitle implies, an anecdotal collection of stories about some of its pioneers and major practitioners, from Jimmie Rodgers and Bill Monroe, the fathers of country’s two distinct traditions, through Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, Kitty Wells, and Patsy Cline, to Emmylou Harris and Jimmie Dale Gilmore and The Flatlanders, musicians who have kept true country alive. A history of a kind, however, does emerge from these narratives: the stories of people whose music reflected their experience of life as a hardscrabble struggle; tales of places in Tennessee, Kentucky, and bordering states where they grew up and first learned to play and sing; and analyses of a hybrid musical form with roots in many American soils.

The first record of what was then known as “hillbilly music” was produced in 1923. Yet the songs for which Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family first became famous—“T.B. Blues” or “Let the Circle Be Unbroken”—had deeper roots and longer-lasting influence than the term “hillbilly” could ever convey. Rodgers’s career, like that of so many of these musicians, was tragically brief (1927-1933), but his imprint was monumental. Rodgers wrote songs that drew from a wide spectrum of musical forms—folk songs and work songs, blues and jazz—and he thus created not only a truly American music but also an eclectic model that a number of the most influential figures in country musical history could later follow. The Carter Family—creating “straightforward music filled with honest feeling; a template for what would be called country”—had a similar impact. Rodgers and the Carters became America’s first great country music recording stars because they “both sang, with sincerity and feeling, simply worded songs about common people—a reasonable barebones description of country music.”

This country music would broaden and expand through the Depression and World War II to include, on the one hand, bluegrass or “mountain” music, and what, on the other, can be called progressive country, but its hybrid musical form was there from the start. Black musical styles such as gospel and the blues had a tremendous influence on country music, but the hard life many poor southerners experienced after World War I also had its effect. A history of the music would thus have to include the musical forms that were carried by early immigrants from England, Ireland, and Scotland to Appalachia and other southern locales. Yet the music was developed even more “by the dislocation and rural nostalgia working-class Southern Americans felt as industrial jobs called them to booming cities” such as Birmingham, Chicago, and Detroit in the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Country music, in short, was notable not only for its distinct and mixed musical styles but also for its reflection of life as suffering—“the white man’s blues,” as someone has called it. What has bound traditional country music together during the twentieth century, Dawidoff writes, “is that it is simply worded, string-driven, melodic music concerned with subjects that are both quotidian and universal: faith, love, family, work, heartbreak, pleasure, sin, joy, and suffering.” It has also created fans the world over, people devoted to the many forms it has taken. The best definition of a true country music lover, as Dawidoff quotes one informant, is “a man who, if he hears a woman singing in the shower, puts his ear to the keyhole.”

The inside covers of Dawidoff’s book contain a map of the United States, and inset in the Southeast is a rectangular box running roughly 500 by 250 miles. This area is the setting for much of In the Country of Country: all of the state of Tennessee, much of Kentucky, and pieces of Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, and West Virginia. It is in this relatively small area where country music began, and where much of it continues: from Maces Springs, Virginia (where the Carter Family lived), through Nashville, Tennessee (the commercial recording center of the country music industry for...

(The entire section is 1926 words.)