Katie Letcher Lyle

Books & Articles:

Southern Country Music: A Brief Eulogy

The American South

from The American South: Portrait of a Culture; ed. Louis Rubin, LSU, 1980 & Voice of America Forum Series, 1979


Until recently, nobody took country music very seriously. A lot of people have listened to the Grand Ole Opry over the radio on Saturday nights since 1926, and there have always undoubtedly been some cultural highbrows who liked the Southern country sounds even though they knew they were listening to trash. To its detractors, the music was and still is monotonous, sentimental, obvious, musically inferior, and lyrically substandard. And the people who were inclined to cherish it were not usually inclined to be analytical about it.

Recordings of country music have only burgeoned in the last two decades. In 1928 Victor Records held its first recording session in Nashville, Tennessee, but that was a false start. Only about one half of the cuttings were released. No further country music records of any importance were made in Nashville until well after World War II, when a modern recording industry began there in earnest. But starting at about the end of the folk renaissance in American music in the early 1960s, the bigger world began to take notice of Nashville, and a lot of things about the country music industry began to change. Elvis Presley helped with his “rockabilly” sound. Glamour and glitter came to country music, and old-timers Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper began to look shabby next to newcomers Dolly Parton and Marty Robbins with their fancy hairdos and sequined suits. Roy Acuff, once dubbed the “King of the Hillbillies,” changed his title to the “King of Country Music.” Electrified instruments made the older Dobros* look positively primitive, and echo chambers replaced or enhanced the harmonious part singing of the Jordanaires, a quartet of gospel singers. A suspicious number of women began to appear on the Opry stage where previously a typical Saturday night saw only Kitty Wells and Minnie Pearl, modestly—even dowdily—clad, performing beside all the men. Even Bob Dylan, a singer of protest songs, cut a record in Nashville.

And yet I submit that the changes have been largely superficial. Country music, like the South that it represents, is conservative; and more significant by far than gold guitars and big-band back-ups is the fact that country music, underneath, is much the same now as it has been for half a century.

To write an essay about country music is to face the problem of definition, and even the problem of naming the music. For it goes by many names, none connoting precisely the same thing, all overlapping in meaning. When I was a kid, we called it all hillbilly, even when Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Wakely sang “Slippin’ Around.” Today this seems pejorative, condescending; the term hillbilly now implies backward, feuding, moonshine-dazed Southern mountaineers singing about their “darling Cory’ in deliberately nasal tones. Bluegrass denotes a rather specific area within a larger whole, a mandolin accompaniment, a Kentucky origin, and a certain kind of close harmony. It also implies a somewhat narrower set of themes than country music in general: specifically, bluegrass consists largely of homesick songs of rural Southerners who have moved to the city. The confusion proliferates. Country-Western lumps together two unlike types, the cowboy and the rural Southerner, whose costumes may be similar, but whose themes and concerns and life-styles are a world apart, the cowboy being, from “Home on the Range” to “Desperado,” strong, silent, without parents, democratic, reverent but never conventionally religious, a killer, valuing male companionship, eschewing woman as sweethearts or wives, avoiding urban existence and pressing ever beyond the borders of civilization. The rural Southerner, as we shall see, is nearly his precise opposite. Nashville music covers everything produced today in that city: “pop country,” “mellow country,” folk, and gospel, as well as the more traditional bluegrass and country. Today, Nashville music obviously is no longer confined to the traditional instruments of country music or its themes: social protest music, popular music, and country Iyrics in front of big-band instrumental accompaniments roll off the record presses at a confusing rate. It’s hard to tell what’s what anymore: Country Charlie Pride is black; Chet Atkins has gone classical after years of playing back-up guitar for country music, and Freddy Fender sings parts of his songs in, of all things, Spanish. Probably the terms country music suits best the purposes of this essay. By it I will mean that music of the rural Southern Bible belt, evolved generally from the folk music of the English speaking settlers in the area, that celebrates the land, the values, and the people of the area.

American popular music in general portrays romantic relationships between unmarried people, who are for the most part young, and it celebrates the concerns of the young: sex, love, yearning. Yet country music stands in sharp contrast to the other sorts of popular music in the United States. We may wonder to what extent country music today reflects the actual lives of rural white Southerners. Is the music wish-fulfillment for boring lives? A reflection of reality? A mere convention, like courtly love, or sonnet-writing in the 16th and 17th centuries? Is its conservatism justified?

As early as 1939, the state of Georgia was concerned about the migration out of the state because of “boll-weevils, reduction of cotton uses, mechanization of farms, and better opportunities in the North.” In the 1940s alone, the farm population in the South declined by one-fourth; in the last quarter-century two and a half million farms disappeared, and three million people in the South left the land. During the years between 1942 and 1962 the South lost another 20 percent of her farm population. Not surprisingly one of the most prevalent themes of country music is the farmboy leaving the farm to go to the city to improve his opportunities.

In Billboard Magazine’s top hundred country songs for one week in the early months of 1977, a quick rundown shows conservatism: twelve of the hundred and, more importantly, five of the top 14, are songs ten years old or more. Twenty-nine of the songs are sung by women, or women with men, from which we may infer that the field is today roughly three-fourths male. One song has a religious theme, and of the remaining 99, only 15 are about something other than love. That leaves 84. Thirty-six of those, or about 43 percent, are openly about marital infidelity. Adultery is referred to with less delicacy than it used to be, and more explicitness (from “Slippin’ Around to Have Your Company“ to “Slide off of Your Satin Sheets . . . cause I know what you're crying for”), but infidelity still leads to unhappiness, as it always has in country music, and is not generally portrayed as fulfilling.

Country songs Iyrically portray, and always have, a very consistent sort of man. He is vocal, self-pitying, true to the memory of mother, childhood, and home. He is sober, conventional, married, and monogamous, dreams of life in the big city and its successes, is self-righteous and religiously fundamental, but weak when abandoned by the person who molds him, makes him, breaks him—a woman gone wrong. He is the extreme opposite of the cowboy hero. They pass each other somewhere on their journeys, as the cowboys leaves the city to seek new wide-open spaces and the hero of the country music heads for the glamour and glitter of the city, leaving behind him his unromantic and unproductive rural past.

The hero of country music is a Puritan-descended American of paltry means: white, Southern, Protestant, conservative, undemocratic, uncomplicated, agrarian rather than metropolitan, uneducated and unsophisticated, and proud of it. He sentimentalizes children. Large families were virtuous in a rural society a generation or two ago; in general they still are in country music. The rural Southerner has much thought in common with the Nashville Agrarians of the 1930s, and perhaps it is not entirely coincidence that the capital of country music was also the city of the Agrarians. Traditional in his social outlook, the Southerner is by-and-large fundamentalist in religion. Eighty percent of Southern rural adults are affiliated with some church, and Baptist and Methodist groups predominate. And religious songs—rare elsewhere in popular music—make up one of the largest categories of country music.

The names of the singers and those names that appear in the songs suggest an exclusive Anglo-Saxon heritage for the music. (A single exception is Country Charlie Pride, the only successful black hillbilly singer to date. He has a “white,” country voice, and there is nothing singularly black in his “sound” or in his themes.)

*The Dobro is a kind of guitar invented in 1925 by the Dopyera Brothers—hence the name—which became popular in the 1930s with country music performers.

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