“Of emotions, of love, of breakup, of love and hate and death and dying, mama, apple pie, and the whole thing. It covers a lot of territory, country music does.” -Johnny Cash
Ken Burns new series “Country Music” premiers this Sunday, September 15 on PBS. It is being promoted as “A sweeping series on the history and impact of country music.” This subject is ripe for the Ken Burns treatment. The genre is an integral part of America, in both obvious and subtle ways, but it is often narrowly defined and confined to a corner of our culture. Here’s a sampling of books that represent the variety and history encompassed by this true American art form.
One of the epicenters of the proliferation of country music is the Grand Ole Opry. “A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry” is an entertaining study that combines oral histories and research to tell the early story of the Opry, from 1925 to 1940.
Another influential hub of activity in country music was Bakersfield, California. From the 1950s through the 1970s musicians flocked there and developed a style of country music that was a stark contrast to the poppier sounds coming out of Nashville. “The Bakersfield Sound: How A Generation of Displaced Okies Revolutionized American Music” traces the development of this sound and it’s influence with rich descriptions of the musicians involved and the historical context the scene emerged from.
“Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris and the Renegades of Nashville” tells the story of a group of musicians that brought a different musical sensibility to Nashville in the ‘60 and ‘70s. America, Nashville and country music at large were in a bit of an identity crisis during those years. Waylon, Willie and others sudden rise to fame with outsiders’ takes on country in the capital of the country music industry reflects the cultural forces affecting the United States at that time.
Johnny Cash cultivated an outlaw image early in his career, and later turned that into a way to speak for outcasts and the downtrodden. He advocated for prison reform when he met President Nixon in 1972 and had been performing concerts in prisons since the 1950s. Two classic live recordings resulted from those concerts, “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison“and “Johnny Cash at San Quentin.“ Scrupulous research and unprecedented access make ”Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of A Masterpiece” an essential study of that recording and of that point in Cash’s career.
Many things stereotypically associated with country music tend to have a masculine tinge- cowboys, hard drinkin’, being an outlaw and, of course, trucks. But many of the most iconic voices in country are female: Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, June Carter and Wanda Jackson are just a few off the top of my head. “Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music” is a comprehensive history of women in country music starting with mountain women and folk songs in the 1890s through the twentieth century. “Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives” attempts to tell this sweeping history with a different approach. This book is a collection of personal essays by award winning female writers about women in country music and their songs.
Country music is not usually associated with African American culture. African American country singer Charley Pride, actually concealed his racial identity until his records became popular. The recent “Old Town Road” controversy shows that there is still a lot of tension over what defines country music. But just as there has been a lot of interplay between rock and pop with country, there has been an interplay between country and soul. “Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South” tells the fascinating story of cross-pollination between genres that occurred as musicians traveled between iconic recording studios in Memphis, Nashville and Muscle Shoals.
The provocative book “Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music,” by Nadine Hubbs looks at how class and gender identity play out in the world of country music. By dissecting the generally dismissive attitudes of many middle-class people towards this music, Hubbs examines why white working people have emerged as the face of American bigotry, and country music a symbol of them. She challenges this idea and exposes false assumptions through music criticism, cultural critique and sociological analyses. She argues that country music, and white working-class people, are more inclusive than the stereotypes lead people to believe.
If you want to explore Missouri’s place in country music, “Moonlight Serenade to City Lights” is a good place to start. It chronicles a time when dance halls were the main place to socialize for rural families, and chronicles the musicians that entertained them. You can also go to the books “Fiddler’s Dream,” “Now That’s a Good Tune” and “Play Me Something Quick and Devilish” by local writer and musician, Howard Marshall. They explore the history of old-time and bluegrass fiddlers in Missouri.
If you’re already a country music fan, hopefully the Ken Burns’ series and these books will expand your understanding of this music. If you’re not already a fan, hopefully they will encourage you to give the music a chance. To quote Charlie Pride, “I think there’s enough room in country music for everybody.”