The Ghetto of Genre

by Bob Proehl

2 August 2009


Trawling through the bins at my local record store last week, I came across what could only be classified as a find. For those unfamiliar with the parlance of record store haunting, finds fall into two basic categories: something you’ve had an eye out for priced incredibly cheap (a $4 copy of Camper Van Beethoven’s Key Lime Pie with the call letters of a local radio station scrawled on the front in Sharpie, a $2 Mama Tried by Merle Haggard & the Strangers with a minor skip on “Teach Me to Forget”), or something you’d never known even existed until you came across it, hopefully also incredibly cheap (say, Shel Silverstein’s Freakin’ At the Freaker’s Ball for whatever cash is left in your front pocket from lunch).

Last week’s discovery fell firmly into the latter category and has been so much on my mind that for the second month, my plans to use this column to argue for Kris Kristofferson’s Jesus Was a Capricorn as the ultimate summer album have been derailed.

cover art

The Supremes

The Supremes Sing Country Western & Pop

US: 22 Feb 1965

The find in question was a copy of The Supremes Sing Country Western & Pop, a Japanese import on red vinyl, in less than ideal shape and in a rather flimsy and faded plastic sleeve. Originally released by Motown records in 1965, the record was intended partially to cash in on the success of Ray Charles’ landmark albums Modern Sounds in Country and Western and Country and Western Meets Rhythm and Blues, and to expand the image of the Supremes as a bubble-gum style girl group into a more versatile and dynamic entity, differentiating them from groups like the Ronettes. Although the album ultimately wanders back into pop songs penned by the Motown stable of songwriters, it does allow the Supremes to put their spin on such tracks as Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” and Bob Nolan’s “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”.

Plenty has been written about rock musicians who combine elements of other musical styles into their music. Country and soul fall into an odd position in that they are two of the genres most commonly fused into the efforts of rock musicians, while musicians who are tagged as country or soul artists are rarely allowed (whether by critics, labels or audiences) to leave the genres they start out in.

In attempting to break through the boundaries of soul music by appropriating the sounds of country, the Supremes not only produced an album that opened up what soul could sound like, they demonstrated how country could break out of its own boundaries (which, arguably, modern country is doing even as we speak). This raises the question of why those boundaries, so permeable when it comes to rock music, have been so concrete around the edges of other genres like country and soul.

It’s long been the tendency of music writers, particularly rock critics (and I’m clearly not excepting myself on this one) to return to the genres of country and soul as “real music”. When you tire of the pretension of yet another experimental noise rock album or extolling the virtues of Can, you can always reestablish your musical credibility by citing your preference for real American music like Hank Williams or Otis Redding. One might imagine that before Ken Burns’ monstro-mentary on the subject, jazz held a similar position, but in the decade since, hipster credibility can be obtained only by professing love for the orphans of Burns and Wynton Marsalis’s canon building: Fela Kuti, Roland Kirk, Miles Davis from Bitches Brew on.

This move by music cognoscenti is grounded at least partially in a muddling of the idea of the musician as auteur and the idea of the musician as part of a process of production. Country and soul have the peculiar qualities of providing the critic with musicians whose perceived authenticity comes precisely from the meeting of their particular genius and the forces of the market.  Both crave the “authentic” music of the musician and at the same time pigeonhole him or her into that genre the market has deemed the true expression of their genius.

Patsy Cline, to take one example, will always be considered not primarily but entirely a country performer, despite the fact her style draws from pop and gospel standards and her vocal phrasing demonstrates a nuanced understanding of jazz. But because she has always been packaged (which is to say both recorded and marketed) as a country musician, these other threads in her work are overshadowed by that categorization.

Moreover, it would have been difficult—economically although not artistically—for Cline to release an album that was not steeped in country music, since to the labels that released her work, she was valuable as a commodity on the country music market. As a counter example, Eric Clapton, for better or worse (often worse) is thought of and treated by the market as a rock musician who also works with blues, country and reggae. The idea of Eric Clapton as an artist, in the mind of the public and the marketing plans of his label, incorporates all of these aspects at once.

This acceptance of external market forces as internal to the artist’s work in the cases of soul and country also allows for the movement away from the idea of the country or soul artist as an individual creative force towards a view of the artist as a consequence of social forces, a sort of bearer or conduit of a musical tradition. Very little attention is paid to what types of music, say, John Lennon or Lou Reed grew up listening to, because whatever music they’ve taken in becomes a tool of their talent.

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