For 50 years now, Bill C. Malone’s tome of country music history called Country Music USA has been an authoritative and detailed history lesson and reference manual for country music, paralleled in quality and scope by few other works. It’s country music’s biography, starting with country’s very beginnings in primitive folk, and ranging all the way to the present day in the book’s nearly 700 pages.
Coinciding with the 50th Anniversary of the book, the University of Texas Press has commissioned a new edition. The latest volume also comes as the precursor to the country music documentary world famous filmmaker Ken Burns has been working on for the past few years, and is expected to finally release in 2019 via PBS. Ken Burns and fellow filmmaker Dayton Duncan used Bill Malone’s Country Music USA as the basis for the documentary, so people who’ve either read the book before or want to know what they may expect from the film can use the book as a precursor, or as a tour guide during its airing.
The newest edition of Country Music USA also includes a new 13th chapter called “A New Century.” Tracey E. W. Laird, whose written histories of Austin City Limits and The Louisiana Hayride and is a professor of music at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, was seminal in composting the new chapter. The chapter before called “Tradition and Change” covers country music from 1985 to 2000. But instead of picking up where the book left off in the year 2000, this new chapter feels more like an essay on the current affairs of country, and specifically how the genre should be viewed in today’s polarized political environment, and during a time where genre lines have never been more blurred.
Tracey Laird seems to understand and articulate the significance of how political polarization has become caustic to the environment of country music. Early in the chapter she states, ” ‘Us’ versus ‘them’ plays out in media discussions of country music as much as it does in politics. The result is a kind of hardening of ideological arteries, a political senility that threatens the processes of compromise that have grounded US democracy since its inception.”
However the new chapter as a whole works to frame country music in a political context and emphasize contentious talking points as opposed to attempting to override them and focus on the music itself, with any political developments handled as asides and addendums as they normally would be in a historical music work unless it was expressly about the politics of music.
Explaining what has happened in country music over the last 18 years seems to never cross the author’s minds. Kenny Chesney’s rise to a stadium act is not mentioned. Taylor Swift is simply a footnote. Aside from delving into the Dixie Chicks debacle—and even that is referenced more in the present tense as opposed to its natural order in the country music timeline—the new chapter zeroes in on just the last few years in country music, and specifically how it fits into today’s polarized society.
During the last few years, the most significant event in country music was unarguably Chris Stapleton’s 2015 CMA Awards where he shocked the country music world by winning New Artist of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year, and Album of the Year, along with launching himself into unequivocal superstardom via his performance with Justin Timberlake. Here 3 1/2 years later, Stapleton’s Traveller is still the mainstay record on the country music album’s chart and one of the best selling in any genre. Chris Stapleton is selling out amphitheaters and arenas left and right, and has become the most decorated present-day performer when it comes to awards and RIAA certifications. He’s even now landed a #1 single on radio with “Broken Halos,” which was his final realm to conquer.
But instead of framing modern country in Stapleton’s moment, the newest chapter of Country Music USA chooses Beyonce’s performance with the Dixie Chicks the following year at the 50th Annual CMA Awards to set the narrative and bookend the entire chapter on country’s latest era, expressly for the rich narratives involving race, gender, and genre this new chapter desires to broach.
The new chapter once again attempts to frame Beyonce as being snubbed by country industry awards for her supposed country song “Daddy Lessons” from 2016. Though the song was never sent to country radio, making it ineligible for certain awards, and includes very questionable country music attributes to begin with, the insinuation is if Beyonce wasn’t nominated, let alone allowed to win country music awards for a non-charting album cut on a hip-hop record, the only explanation for such an egregious act would be the inherent distaste for a black female performer pervasive throughout the country music culture and industry.
Along with other misnomers with this train of thought, it also remains an incorrect assertion that Beyonce was snubbed by country music at all, since the CMAs gave Beyonce the longest performance slot on the organization’s 50th Anniversary presentation, and paired her up with the Dixie Chicks, which also erodes arguments against the CMA and country music for discriminating against women and artists of left-leaning politics. At their biggest presentation in a half century, the CMA Awards made a African American hip-hop performer and a once-rebuked female trio their centerpiece. Nonetheless, the new chapter of Country Music USA works to make the moment a wedge issue and an illustration of country music’s “whiteness” instead of the moment of unity it was meant to be.
“What did it mean the the new century’s most sensational pop music performer, an African American woman, to appear on the CMA Awards, a context still so closely associated with whiteness?” the book asks. “Despite historical, artistic evidence of the deeply tangled roots of ‘hillbilly’ and ‘race’ music, as it was christened in the beginning, whiteness continues to define country music. Still, black artists challenge that organically with their oeuvre and repertoire … Nevertheless, whiteness continues to remain a defining trait at the center of twenty-first-century country music identity.”
Though none of this is untrue, it comes across like an accusation. Country music has always been an art form predominately performed and enjoyed by Caucasians. That doesn’t make it inherently racist, any more than hip-hop, jazz, and R&B would be considered racist because they’re predominately black forms of art. Nonetheless, country music’s “whiteness” most certainly is presented as an issue that must be resolved in this new Country Music USA chapter.
Of course country music owes some of its roots to black entertainers and art forms, and in the annals of history, including this Country Music USA book, perhaps this wasn’t underscored sufficiently. But this doesn’t call for an overcompensation by portraying Beyonce as an important figure in 21st Century country music, or in some way a victim of the genre’s intrinsic whiteness. Beyonce never had any business in country music to begin with. The idea that she did was a media construct built by Beyonce Stans integrated into the journalism pool of entertainment media.
Six months before the CMA Awards, a writer for the Associated Press asserted, “The song could even qualify for CMA’s song of the year or single of the year awards if it charts in the top 50 of a Billboard country singles chart by the end of June, which it hasn’t yet. And there’s no requirement for being known as a country artist for Beyonce to be nominated for female vocalist of the year.” This set the table for Beyonce fans to feel slighted if the CMAs did not nominate or award the hip-hop superstar with country music’s highest accolades of a given year.
Even Tracey Laird in this new chapter uses words like “sensational” to describe Beyonce, and called her appearance on the CMA Awards a “striking performance” as opposed to the more austere language most of the other musical subjects of the chapter are described in.
Beyonce released a song that some portrayed as country, and the country industry graced her with an opportunity and invitation to their premier awards show, and built their performance schedule around her. That is the alpha and the omega of the issue. Any slights upon Beyonce are built around unrealistic expectations for “Daddy Lessons.” Even if you shelve the argument of whether the song was country or not, it still had to face fair competition with every other song and artist for consideration of country industry awards, and from songs and artists who were actually native to the genre.
Aside from Beyonce—who isn’t even a country artist—and The Dixie Chicks—who haven’t released a record in 12 years—the other artist the new chapter of Country Music USA seems to quizzically focus upon is Brad Paisley. Though Paisley is certainly a relevant character in modern country music, and does make a somewhat decent test case for the warring of the classic and contemporary in the modern context, his influence on the genre in the present tense is minuscule compared to artists such as Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt, Chris Stapleton, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, even newcomers like Kane Brown and Luke Combs, or even more independent artists like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson.
Sturgill Simpson is broached in the new chapter as well, and to a fair degree in unison with his influence in the last few years. But a fourth focus of the chapter that comes out of left field is foul-mouthed country music comedian Wheeler Walker Jr., who by the grace of a #9 debut on the Billboard Country Albums chart—a regular occurrence these days for mild east Nashville Americana acts in this singles driven market—is given undue credit as a worthy test specimen of where country music is today in regards to independent stars.
Blackberry Smoke and Aaron Watson would have made much better examples of country music independents rising up to buck the system by scoring surprising debuts on the Billboard country albums charts. Both earned #1’s instead of a #9, and were the first and second independent acts to do so in the modern era. But broaching the subject of Wheeler Walker Jr. in Country Music USA seems more tied to wanting to deliver a line third person from a live review in No Depression.
Writing a review of a Wheeler performance in Seattle during summer 2016 for ‘No Depression,’ Mike Seely once again asks the implacable question: “What is ‘real’ country music? The question itself is worth mocking, and I actually think that’s what Walker’s doing.”
This dovetails with the underlying theme of Country Music USA‘s new chapter, which instead of filling us in upon the doings of country for the last two decades, actively looks to question the integrity of the institution as a whole, attempts to get the reader to interrogate what country music really is, asserts the opinion that all the cross genre collaborating and the erosion of authenticity is natural if not healthy, and frames the genre as being inequitable if not downright racist against African Americans, without offering any substantial counterpoints to the idea Beyonce deserved CMA and Grammy Awards in the country genre.
The new chapter starts off by saying, “In the twenty-first century, the question of ‘what’s real’ in country hovers over general trends, like the one critics of contemporary stars like Luke Bryan or Sam Hunt dub ‘bro country.'”
Then at the end, the chapter concludes, “…the Recording Academy nor any other media entity gets to decide what is and what is not country music. No gatekeeper guards the center because there is no center.“
Such rhetoric is commonplace in entertainment media these days, and not shocking or unhealthy unto itself. It is a fair to question what should be considered “real country,” especially in the modern context. And yes, no single institution should get to decide what is or isn’t country. Also, any institution should constantly be evaluating if it is equitable to all people, regardless of race, gender, political affiliation, or sexual orientation, especially given country music’s history.
But a book whose express purpose is to convey the history of country music and place its importance in the greater cultural fabric of America arguing that you can’t define what is real in country music, while also saying country music “has no center,” is an affront on the genre itself. It’s the purpose of books like Country Music USA to help define the center of country music, not to argue that it has none, rendering the genre a shell.
And every institution, whether it’s an awards show or a website like No Depression or Saving Country Music has a right, if not an obligation to assert their opinions of what country music truly is to the marketplace of ideas. It’s up to the marketplace itself to decide what is true or not, and not up to a country music history book to render such healthy discussions meaningless because there will never be a right answer in an author’s estimation.
This new final chapter to Country Music USA feels like an intrusion of academia, and a polarizing act of political action. It seems part of a greater movement at the moment to integrate country music in a manner in which forces outside the genre see fit, like accepting Beyonce to the point where she should hopscotch actual country artists committed to the genre for awards consideration because she releases one song some people consider country. And if country music is unwilling to accept pop stars winning its top awards, it should be chastised as an artifice of white America. But if country music succumbs to this integration from other genres, this is what would render it meaningless or without definition, aka the “no center” argument. That is why it is so important to argue what real country music is, regardless of the outcome.
This is all especially concerning since Country Music USA is the basis of the new Ken Burns film on country music, which will reach a much wider audience than this final chapter, and like all Ken Burns films, be referenced by many generations to come as a master work of country music history.
Hopefully Ken Burns labors to help define what country music is as opposed to asserting it has no definition, or even worse, agreeing it has no center. Because of course country music has a center and definition, even if what they are is up for debate, or open for interpretation. Otherwise country music wouldn’t be the cornerstone of American culture it is, which is the reason an important figure like Ken Burns would labor to make a multi-part documentary about it, or a 700-page history of it would be commissioned for it.
Furthermore, to millions of people, country music is how they define themselves, their families, their roots and personal histories, and their communities. And without that knowledge and strength of identity, these people would do like all living things do when their roots are severed—they would wilt and shrivel. Then we have much bigger problems than just a bunch of bad country music to listen to.
Of course country music has a center. The center is the people of the country. They may shift, and their tastes and styles may change, but country music is their story. And it’s important it’s told properly.