Thanks to critics as wide-ranging as Elijah Wald and Richard Middleton, recognizing the blues—even in its most down-home varieties—as a strain of modernism is a familiar move by now. But old-time country music is still frequently imagined as a primitive product springing from folkloric, face-to-face encounters, even when delivered through commercial recordings. Taking a cue from a line in Bill Malone’s standard on the subject, “Country Music USA”, Patrick Huber’s Linthead Stomp seeks to situate Piedmont country music within the highly modernized matrix of the region’s industrial textile mills and cities.
Huber shows how this music, released under the 1923 commercial designation “old-time”, participated in the same rush of popular culture that offered Valentino movies, Ford cars, vaudeville, and Coca-Cola. And it is, he convincingly argues, “as thoroughly modern in its origins and evolution as its quintessentially modern counterpart, jazz”. These are bold claims but feel surprisingly natural when coupled with the richly-detailed sociological contexts Huber provides.
Linthead Stomp is subdivided into four lengthy chapters, each devoted to a performer who typifies a variation on the theme of Piedmont modernization: Fiddlin’ John Carson, with his carefully-groomed rustic persona and sound; Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, whose “meticulous, tightly knit stringband music… bore the deep imprint of Tin Pan Alley sheet music, phonograph records, and Hollywood films”; Dave McCarn, with his pointed proto-protest songs that incisively reflect the social tensions of uneven industrial development; and the Dixon Brothers, whose songs and personal drama made them living emblems of the conflict between evangelical enthusiasm and modernization. So while this is mostly a history of these few figures, Huber describes these performers so broadly that we can constantly catch glimpses of a wider musical culture.
One of Huber’s recurring claims is that Piedmont country music is, in its way, as modern as any popular music from the 1910s and ‘20s. And he nicely proves his case as far as sociological conditions, attitudes, technologies, and even lyrical content are concerned. But he might bolster his argument with a sustained musicological critique of the idiom exploring how the music might actually sound modern, how its nominally traditional structures and harmonies were themselves an expression of modernism.
Still, Huber brings together academic rigor and an accessible prose style to present a case that unfolds with ease. There are spots within the narrative, however, where he’s so adept at proving his thesis that he repeats it with a frequency that edges towards redundancy. This is unfortunate since, once he sets his frame, it’s nearly impossible to understand these performers as anything other than modern artists skirting the margins of the industrial South.
In 1930, one of Piedmont country’s peak years of productivity, a bit to the south and west of these textile mills, the Nashville Agrarians were prepping their seminal defense of rural southern practices and attitude I’ll Take My Stand. Although they approach the problem from different angles, the artists Huber highlights in Linthead Stomp perform a similar function: they embody a peculiar strain of modernist nostalgia and model a collision of traditional and modern cultures happening at industrial speed and scales.
By troubling common assumptions about old-time music, Huber examines just how rich and varied the traditions of American music are. His meticulous research, careful presentation of the material, and generous appendixes prove that this counter-narrative of Piedmont country music’s complicated origins and characteristics deserves to be the dominant one.