For the past year I have been absolutely fascinated by country music. It started when I went to visit my girlfriend’s family in Lubbock, Texas, in the winter. On the drive back to Houston all I wanted to listen to was country music. The idea that something so totally despised by everyone I knew back home on the East Coast could be the primary source of popular music in another city, in the south, was surreal. I was attracted by idealizations of cold beer on a Friday night, front porches, and Texas. It seemed like one of the last vestiges of popular radio that still valued solid songwriting and live musicianship. The working class music of racist conservative white southerners — how fucked up is that tradition?! But at the same time, it feels so quintessentially American! Beer and tractors and guns!
But also sometimes it results in this:
This summer I decided to give myself an education on country music. I bought this six part documentary, America’s Music: Roots of Country on Amazon, from 1998, which is only available on VHS and features an extensive array of mullets. Also this awesome four part BBC documentary on the history of country music also from 1998 (which I would recommend watching ALL of):
You guys country music is so weird I can’t stop! I feel like it’s this totally off the radar thing. There are so many narratives that have been just barely explored: honkytonk vs. wholesome, nashville vs. outlaw, mainstream vs. alternative, women in country music, Mexican/chicano crossover, blues crossover, the development of bluegrass.
While studying for grad school music history diagnostic exams I came across this gem in my music history textbook, in a chapter on early English music (think like 1400s and earlier):
Little did I know that the roots of country music ballads come primarily from the ancient English carol (strophic song for one to three voices, all of which were newly composed, featuring a refrain which is repeated after each stanza, resulting in a form called strophe plus refrain), and the ancient English tradition of discant (adding two improvised voices upon a chant so as to increase its sonority)! The discant thing particularly reminds me of early 20th century brother bands, like The Louvin Brothers.
Another fantastic resource for country, particularly alternative country, news and information is the magazine No Depression. I found a copy of their book, also from 1998 (apparently a good year for country music history literature), No Depression: An Introduction to Alternative Country Music (Whatever That Is). It’s a collection of articles and interviews with alt country bands from the late 80s and 90s. At the end of the book they have a fantastic list of 101 important country albums/artists/general things to be aware of. Here it is for your viewing pleasure. I’m slowly working my way through it. Maybe once I have a better grasp on country music I’ll blog about it again.