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Culture

The drawl and twang

1.

In a bar in Adelaide, I got into an argument about country music.

It was my own fault. I should have known better than to raise the subject, but I had just spent two months in the bush and the experience was still pretty raw. ‘I used to hate it,’ I said. ‘Country music. I used to think it was so vapid, but I think I understand it now.’

‘What is there to understand?’ my friend James spat, and before I could answer, he launched into a tirade. ‘It’s backwards. It’s musically restrictive. There’s so little you can do with it. It’s the most monotonous, simplistic musical style there is. Ugh.’

‘It’s not about that,’ I said. I tried to explain how the simple chord progressions allowed lyrics and harmonies to take precedence, how those lyrics mapped life in small communities, the struggle of living and loving when divided by distance, dirt and hard work, and an undeniable proximity to death.

He didn’t care. The apparent lack of musical complexity offended him, he found the lyrics childish and silly, and thus the genre was dismissed.

 

2.

Developing out of folk songs and dances imported into North America by Anglo-Celtic immigrants, the roots of country music are undeniably white and socially conservative. Until around the 1940s, it was called ‘hillbilly music’, made and primarily enjoyed by white lower-class workers on stations, plantations, and farming districts of the American South.

Australian country music (sometimes called ‘bush music’) has a similarly white history – its own distinct styles and influences can be traced back to convicts and colonial confrontations. That’s not to say African-American and Australian Indigenous people haven’t had influences on the styles respectively – they have, as both consumers and musicians themselves. Nevertheless, country music’s history, and its present, seems inextricable from questions of race and class, if only because of its widespread cultural clout in the parts of Australia where these tensions are, in many ways, most pronounced.

 
3.

In a sideways series of thoughts, triggered in part by Jeff’s recent articles about atheism, I recently found myself thinking again about Ghassan Hage’s White Nation. In particular, I was reminded of his discussion of the rise of Hansonism and neo-fascism in Australia in the 1990s, and his criticism of the response of many academics. In attempting to find new and different ways to call Hanson’s supporters ‘racist’, sneering at their complaints and protestations without attempting to craft much of a response that went beyond ‘sophisticated abuse’, they hardened resentment against the Left and reinforced negative perceptions about a multiculturalist and out-of-touch academic elite that looked down on ‘ordinary people’.

At the very root of that problem, I remember thinking, was a dismissal of Hanson’s supporters as people – a refusal to take them and their experiences seriously. To accept as a general premise that they, as Hage writes, ‘really do not want to be associated with any form of racism’ does not require an acceptance of that racism. Rather, understanding that ‘such people see racism as something ugly and bad, and they do not perceive themselves as ugly and bad’ suggests the need for a more sophisticated response than simply trying to insist that they are ugly and bad. Because there is an assumption in such a response that people who hold such beliefs have no internal justification for them, that there are actually no concrete circumstances that have encouraged such logic, however much we think they have come to the wrong conclusions. There is an assumption, in other words, that people who hold such beliefs are essentially idiots. There’s no point trying to understand their concerns because there’s nothing to understand. Easy, right?

 
4.

I was working at Kalala, a cattle station in the Northern Territory, putting up fences in one of the paddocks. There were six of us – three women and three men, one of whom was the station owner’s son. We were too far out from the station headquarters to go back for ‘smoko’ (a full dinner served at 10am, after which there would be nothing until 7pm except nine long hours of hard work) so Ol’ Girl (the matriarch of the station), her daughter-in-law Amanda and Amanda’s young kids brought the food out in the ute so everyone could eat together. Someone turned on the ute stereo and Tim McGraw burst through the speakers. I can’t remember the song that was playing, but I heard jaunty, jangly music and lyrics about someone getting into strife and I laughed.

I was the only one laughing.

When we ran out of wire for the fence a few hours later, the men left us women with the tractor while they took the truck back to headquarters for more. It wasn’t until we were lying under the tractor for a nap (it was the only shade for half a kilometre and we were exhausted) that Kaycie said, ‘Do you find our music funny?’

‘Sometimes,’ I admitted, and the conversation ended there. But the question stuck with me, tugging at my sleeve for the rest of the day. Our music. Do you find it funny? Why?

Less about the sound than it is about the people, what country music most retains of its folk origins it is that perceived relationship to a shared experience. To reduce it to a sequence of chords, to drawl and harmony and twang, is to strip from it the very things that bring it meaning and draw so many people to it. To laugh at it, to sneer at it, to condemn it for being almost universally embraced by the people who live in such places and have such experiences is to sneer at them.

Stephanie Convery is a writer and arts worker in Melbourne. She writes fiction, non-fiction, criticism, commentary and review. She is a regular contributor to Overland online and keeps her own blog at http://gingerandhoney.com. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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Comments

  1. This makes me think about how the assumptions that we often have about ‘white’ and ‘black’ musical styles are often way too simplistic.
    Everyone talks about Elvis imitating black singers but it’s less often noted that those singers were themselves often imitating white singers, in a much more complicated pattern of relationships.
    The other good examples is to do with the development of skinhead culture out of white working class kids trying to imitate the dress of Jamaican youths, thus then developing a market for Jamaican singers who consciously pitched lyrics at those white skinheads.
    Interestingly, country music has always been both very popular and influential in Jamaican culture. There’s an interesting explanation here.

    Proof of Jamaica’s love for country music is all over reggae history. Many classic reggae tunes are in fact country covers. The 1961 country hit by Claude Gray, “I’ll Just Have Another Cup of Coffee,” became Bob Marley’s second single.

    This new compilation of country covers was co-produced in Nashville by John Rich, of Big & Rich. He says the Jamaican artists were “blown away” by music city.

    “I could really see they were country music fans,” he says. “They were taking pictures of everything; they wanted to go downtown.”

    Jamaica’s passion for country music began with the advent of the first commercial radio station on the island, in 1950. Jamaican writer Colin Channer explains that songs by artists like Skeeter Davis and Patsy Cline were on the playlist.

    “When I was growing up in Jamaica there were only two radio stations, and we grew up thinking of music as being either local or foreign,” he says. “The different genres of foreign music didn’t matter that much — it was simply music that was not from there. So we didn’t grow up with that segmented understanding of what music was, or what kind of music you were allowed to listen to, in the way that people in the U.S. did.”

    Country’s popularity was boosted by the birth, around the same time, of cinema in Jamaica. Westerns were a big draw. “A lot of Westerns are essentially morality plays,” Channer says. “And if you look at the way the church is so important in Jamaica, you can see how the way in which stories with moral themes, stories of revenge, stories of comeuppance would be popular there.”

    Westerns and country tunes also appealed to Jamaica’s love of the outlaw — the so-called “badman” figure famously played by Jimmy Cliff in the 1973 film The Harder They Come. Years later, dancehall deejays Josey Wales and Clint Eastwood took their names from a western and its star. Spaghetti westerns like A Fistful of Dollars are beloved in the over-the-top dancehall scene.

    Which, of course, is just an excuse to post this.

    • It’s interesting, isn’t it?

      One of the articles I was reading while researching this post talked about how in the early stages of commercialisation of country music in the 1930s and 1940s, the recording companies deliberately decided to market to African-American and white American audiences separately. I do wonder how much of our preconceptions of the idea of country music as still essentially ‘white’ – despite its reinventions and mutations over the last 100 years – is influenced by this.

  2. Yes Jeff – one of my first thoughts as well. Australian country music has a big support base amongst Indigenous Australians, and of course there are a number of indigenous performers as well.

    I do know what you mean about the sneering though, Stephanie. I once DJed with the better half of Left Flank at a friends ‘wedding’, presided over by a Greens member of parliament who ‘married’ the gorgeous gay couple. One of the grooms was indigenous, and said the main thing he wanted to hear was country music. We played a bunch, mainly US country, but innumerable people came up and asked us what ‘the hell’ we were doing. There were many genres played over the night (over about 6 hours I guess) and many people would have not liked some or all of it. Yet it was only when playing country music that people were motivated to come up and sneer a little. Even when I hear Dolly Parton’s ‘9-5’, or have played it at other parties, I have the feeling it is only ‘acceptable’ because of its political emphasis — but even then that it is all still a bit of a laugh for many.

    • That was my immediate thought too Elizabeth the connection between country music and indigenous australia’s.

      In part I wonder whether it has something to do with the connection to place that is more prevelant in country music than in pop. That and an articulation of a life on the land that Indigenous Australians have I think carries some of the appeal.

      I think also the further you move from the cultural capitals of Australia the more you begin to appreciate country music. When I was attending punk and diy shows in Melbourne country music- bar Johnny Cash who because Minor Threat covered him had a little bit of coolness about him- was the last type of music I wanted to listen too.

      Having lived in the territory I don’t have such an attitude toward it. Sure the lyrics and the chords maybe simplistic but the songs themselves have a connection to place that other styles of music miss.

  3. I would have wanted to ask your inquisitor James what country and western music was restrictive in comparison too. Just about all modern pop musics have a similar style – limited chord progressions, brief melodic themes, a basic verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure, and a drum/guitar/voice combo. (Rap and related styles are a little different admittedly.)

  4. Yes, it’s hard to be a woman / Giving all your love to just one man… is funny when sung by John Belushi in the Blues Brothers film. And what’s the famous line from that film re the subject of this blog: “We got both kinds of music here, Country & Western.” Genres invariably get mixed, whether you want them to or not, and of the two, musically, country music, taking in as it does everything from Accadian to West Texas Swing, Blue Grass to Swamp Rock, and more, is surely the more complex. Country and Western is the more pure strain, and seems to be what is being referred here as the type of music that gets a dissing (rightly or not), just like yacht rock. I’m no musicologist, but it seems to me that a hell of a lot more hollerin’ needs doin’ to set this record straight. Oddly enough, as I write, I am travelling through south-west WA. I switched off the local C&W station and put on Alabama Shakes, fresh from their South by Southwest Texas triumph. Apparently the members of Alabama Shakes grew up just down from Muscle Shoals in Alabama, where the famous studio of the same name recorded Aretha, Allman Bros, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin etc, yet the Alabama Shakes knew nothing of it and were totally unaware of its fame. Try drawing a line through and pegging that lot in terms of the arguments here.

  5. Well, the man in black lives in country, and it’s only a wee step across from country to Gram Parsons’ cosmic American music and Gillian Welch, and to folk music (which maybe Stephanie’s friend also dislikes). All music of our world.

    The thing that impresses me most about any well-regarded Australian country players is how tight their recordings are. I bought Lee Kernaghan for my son to listen to quite a few years back, mainly because it sounded like cheerful, bright stuff – and the songs stand up to repeated playing just for the production values and fine guitar work. That, plus the fact that many of the songs tell stories – it can grow on anyone.

    And the musicians don’t ponce around the cities, either, they take the music to the people, which is one of many reasons it’s so well loved in the bush.

  6. Country is, like most things, homogenised only from the outside. There are a whole range of “Countries”, from the capitalist commercial to the hillbilly left and everything in-between. Countries and Westerns.

    From here I think it’s almost impossible to fathom the complexities of the evolution of American music, especially during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. We recently had Peggy Seeger over for dinner while she completed her hopefully not-last tour of Australia, and she told us an amazing story of her parents in the 1920s (Charles, and Ruth Crawford — a slightly neglected but extraordinary modernist composer) packing up and leaving town to play avant-garde compositions from the back of a cart through the deep south… so who knows, I later mused, perhaps some forms of Country, in their early Harry Smith-esque cross-over phases via Louisiana et al have echoes of a modernist dada bouncing round, too, somewhere.

    • I like the idea of ‘countries and westerns’!
      It’s odd how folk has always had a cachet that country lacked.
      Wild speculation but I wonder if that’s connected to the way the communist parties embraced folk as inherently progressive, even as they railed against American commercialism (cf the CPA’s war against US comics). From my very thin knowledge of it, the Australian folk scene, like the Australian jazz scene’ owes a huge debt to the CPA and the Eureka Youth League. I wonder if that background still contributes to the disdain for country relative to the sense of folk as somehow more sophisticated, even if musically the distinction between them is pretty hard to sustain.

  7. Thanks for this Stephanie.

    I grew up on a lot of Australian bush folk (and traditional Irish music and that kind of similar music). I can’t remember why specifically I stopped listening to it as a young person except a deep shame that I can’t quite explain.

    When I started listening to it again when I left high school and after I’d been at uni for a bit I was pretty creeped out by it – by the thinly veiled nationalism of it, especially. But there’s something in a lot of this music I love – the way it animates the past; anti-authoritarian narratives; union subtexts; the way it borrows styles from around the world (when you stretch your imagination); the way it archives knowledge about the past.

    Still, I feel a strange shame about it still (and is why I feel a need to justify my strange interest) and I feel sure it has something to do with the kind of social and cultural capital – that others have mentioned here – and the ways in which “taste” operates.

    Here is a great RN doco on John Manifold who went around collecting many of these songs: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/hindsight/john-manifold-and-the-australian-folk-revival/3292992

    “Manifold was one of the pioneering figures of the Australian folk revival of the 1950s — a movement which believed folksongs carried within them an alternative, subversive version of our history.

    In many ways he was an unlikely champion of the people’s music — born into a family of wealthy pastoralists in Victoria, he went to Cambridge, became a communist and worked for British intelligence in WW2 — and was kept under surveillance by ASIO in the 50s.”

    Incidentally, this is one of my favourite songs since I was a youngen (from a warped record, but you see my point)

    • I find the nationalism of country (and folk music) quite interesting actually.

      There seems to have been a resurgence of Australian cultural patriotism in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and we inherit a lot of that cultural response today.

      One of the ways in which this nationalist sentiment got formulated and expressed was through music – musicians ‘rediscovered’ and in some cases reinterpreted archaic items of music according to popular styles they knew.

      Is that style of popular nationalism still relevant? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s also interesting to wonder why they responded in this way. For instance, why see music, song, poetry as the true expression of ‘the Australian people’ and the ‘Australian spirit’?

      In general I think this musical patriotism is a good thing actually. These days it’s quite common for a certain class of people to instantly deride all expressions of Australian nationalism. I think that’s unfortunate, and one effective counter to that is, I think, the cultural patriotism in the country and folk music, and poetry, of the 60s/70s/80s.

  8. My D-I-V-O-R-C-E / Became final today… At the moment I’m travelling through south-east WA, north of Esperance, and moving in an easterly direction, with a lot of Sandy Pozey and Co on the local c&w station (as well as some Lee Kernaghan, Troy Cassar Daly, Ann Kirkpartick etc), and where a man (usually it’s a he) can own thousands of hectares, more than he knows what to do with or use or look after sustainably. Here’s a thought, and diss me if it’s c&w banal. I’m not suggesting there is a link between blues and country & western (doubtless links exist), or between African-American blues men and women / slaves and Australian Aboriginal c&w players and lovers / cattle station “slaves” (Mudrooroo, aka Colin Johnson excepted – and what a beat up that was), but could it be that the desire for freedom, heard often in blues songs and in country and western (Sandy Pozey included), is in inverse proportion to the lack of freedom for African Americans and Australian Aboriginals (and women in general), once, when and where freedom became inseparable from private property laws?

  9. Nice piece. I’m a bit of a country tragic so I welcome the discussion.

    My understanding is that the musicological links between “country” music and Australian “folk” music are not straightforward. The Anglo-Celtic origins of Australian “bush” music are indeed similar to those of American country music. However, in the US the music of the Appalachians, with its associations with coal mining and the mountain life, has a direct line to bluegrass and all the various hybrids of popular country music from Ralph Stanley to Jimmy Rogers to Hank Williams to Bob Wills to Loretta Lynn to Gram and Emmylou and new-ol’-timey revivlaists like Gillian Welch and David Rawlins etc etc.

    The cocktail is made more complex by European continental influences (think of zydeco and cajun) and, importantly, the coalescence of the music of balladeer tradition (Woody Guthrie, Jack Eliot, Bob Dylan) with melodic and lyrical themes of the Christian church. As black music traveled along the Mississippi, the blues became a further influence in country music.

    In Australia, the line between “folk” and “country” is quite different and perhaps less organic. Australian country music (of the Tamworth variety) can be traced most easily to the importation of 78 rpm records from the USA during the 1930s. It was these recordings that influenced the early greats of Australian country music, most notably Buddy Williams, Tex Moreton (who was a Kiwi by birth) and, later, Slim Dusty. There was relatively little association or collaboration between traditional folk musicians (Anglo-Celtic) and the emerging country artists. In fact, the turf wars between the two genres demonstrate an academic protectionism on the part of the folkies.

    The affection many indigenous people hold for country music is a result, in no small part, of the popular tent shows that traveled through the rural areas of Australia. Those live shows combined with heavy radio play has led to the indigenous country scene we have today. The great, late Jimmy Little being one prominent example.

    I think notions of class and race in all this are as complex as the musicological journey. It’s full of paradoxes and nuance too rich to reduce. As you so rightly say:
    “Less about the sound than it is about the people, what country music most retains of its folk origins it is that perceived relationship to a shared experience. To reduce it to a sequence of chords, to drawl and harmony and twang, is to strip from it the very things that bring it meaning and draw so many people to it.”

    The socio-poltical origins of Irish music is a topic well worth exploring, too. Another day maybe.

    Thanks Stephanie.

    • would be interested if you had the time/inclination if you expanded on this Boris: “In fact, the turf wars between the two genres demonstrate an academic protectionism on the part of the folkies.”

      thanks this info, fascinating stuff

      cheers

      • I reckon Jack’s an autoharp kinda girl.

        I forgot to mention that it’s worth a look at Buddy Williams’ lyrics because he transposed the US romanticism of the prairie and the cowboy to an Australian landscape and the life of the drover (a thematic crossover with bush/folk). This is a strange conjunction because it echoes a certain strain of nationalism (possibly reflected in some of the myth clustered around Hansonism and, to a lesser extent so far, Katterism). And yet the music held a strong appeal to indigenous people. Whether the initial attraction was melodic, lyrical or both, I don’t know. Country music exists in indigenous communities as a kind of adjunct to traditional culture, which is kind of counter-intuitive when compared to overtly poltical genres like rap which is alive among younger generations of the indigenous community.

        I’m just raving now so I’ll stop wasting your time.

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