Commercial hillbilly music has always meant more to its fans than mere entertainment. Descended from such indigenous Southern forms as ballads, topical folk songs, black blues, and gospel music, country music today remains much of the spirit of those earlier singers who embodied community values, history, preoccupations, and problems in their tunes. In spite of years of commercialization by the entertainment industry, there is still in country music “a shared sense of place that links musicians and audience before the first note is played. The music is part of the landscape, tangible as Georgia red clay and pervasive as Smoky Mountain mists.” In Watermelon Wine, Frye Gaillard examines the impact of national popularity and commercial success on a musical tradition that “has always served a function larger than simple entertainment” in terms of a “crucial struggle” between “commercialism and creativity.”
A chapter in the history of American popular culture closed on March 15, 1974, when the Grand Ole Opry ended its historic thirty year run on the stage of the decrepit Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville to move to the slick new multimillion dollar amusement park and entertainment complex called Opryland. The Nashville recording industry and business community welcomed the move for its economic implications, but to others it represented a migration to the cultural suburbs symbolizing the absorption of the country tradition into the homogenized and bland aesthetic characteristic of mass-produced popular music. As musician Tom T. Hall put it, “as soon as we moved to the new place, I immediately and instinctively did not like it. The Ryman was different.”
A modern hybrid, country music has been characterized from the first by conflicts between pressures for innovation and change and counter forces determined to preserve a conservative tradition. In spite of nostalgia for the older, simpler music of the past, it has almost always been the innovators who have kept country music a vital and creative form. Against the Nashville music establishment which has “a history of timidity about change or expansion beyond a polishing of yesterday’s rough edges” Gaillard finds arrayed a generation of writers determined to modernize the music and lyrics to their more contemporary taste. Yet these writers too—including those who come from roots far removed from the rural South—have a strong sense of their connections with a musical past encompassing not only mainstream country tradition, but also including black music, rock and roll, folk protest, and other musical traditions popular during the past quarter century.
But even while innovation and change occur in country music, the essential relationship between performers and audiences, and the music itself—which gives Nashville a special place in Southern culture—is maintained. For Gaillard this relationship is reflected in the extent to which changes in the music parallel radical upheavals in Southern social life. In line with this argument, “It is no accident,” say the proponents of Southern rock—one of the most innovative of contemporary country forms,that all of this is happening at a time of peculiar goings-on in the South. For Southern music . . . has always been a remarkable barometer of the society in which it thrives. And so it is today, as the South emerges from twenty years of turmoil, and the young people who were estranged from their region and heritage during the years of upheaval begin to realize that once a few key sins are purged, theirs will not . . . be a place to be ashamed of.
Gaillard develops his argument about musical innovation and social change in a rich chapter on “Blacks, Blues, and Country,” which documents in various ways the close relationships between southern black and white musical traditions—a long ignored cultural exchange which has increasingly come to the fore as the two races merge into the culture of the New South. In Southern race relations, Gaillard suggests, one of the “influences that worked its quiet and unobtrusive effect on the mind set of country music fans was the appearance” of black country singer Charlie...
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