It’s no secret that we approach contemporary music with a certain cynical distance—we’re wary of the fakeness of it all. Popular music is a capitalist construct, we rightly suspect at times, one that can be enjoyed and critically inspected, no doubt, but a construct nonetheless, ultimately designed to push product and fill nightclubs and make pretty charts in the boardrooms of major corporations.
We also tend to believe that there was some fabled time when popular music wasn’t merely a means to a commercial end, that it used to be something that transcended commerce, or didn’t even know commerce from Adam. We use words like “pure” and “authentic” to describe these so-called innocent days when music was all about satisfying a listener emotionally, not providing him or her with some embedded service. Country, blues, and bluegrass typically represent this ostensibly antiquated innocence, impervious to the will of for-profit interests. Perhaps you’d even point to the phenomenon of barn dance radio, a popular program that brought rural country music to the urban masses between World Wars I and II, as evidence of popularity earning such merits through the existence of good music alone.
You’d actually be wrong, to a degree, and this is one of the more fascinating things that Kristine M. McCusker’s book, Lonesome Cowgirls and Honky-Tonk Angels: The Women of Barn Dance Radio, explores: the idea that radio has always been the agent of a product, and that radio’s right-hand accomplice, naturally, is the music it delivers. McCusker’s book isn’t exactly focused on this very subject. Rather, Lonesome Cowgirls and Honky-Tonk Angels documents the programs and performers who made barn dance radio a popular source of national image-making. Seven female performers are profiled—Jeanne Muenich, Lul Belle Wiseman, the Girls of the Golden West, Lily May Ledford, Sarah Colley Cannon (aka Minnie Pearl), and Rose Lee Maphis—as is the system that systematically crafted a radio show to appeal to country folk, transplanted to jobs in the city and anxious about issues like the economy and the war. Barn dance radio, then, was the American Idol of its time—something to take the population’s focus off more important and potentially distressing topics, all under the guise of entertainment with no strings attached.
Though it is interesting to read about this one-time cultural institution that, with the exception of semi-ironic progeny like A Prairie Home Companion, has largely gone the route of obscurity (Minnie Pearl remains the sole performer of the bunch who is still recognizable to a contemporary audience), McCusker’s writing tends to be rather academic and dry, so the stories don’t exactly jump off the page at you like you want them to at times. Regardless, the potentially enlightening insight remains: Barn dance was its own construct, even if, upon superficial re-inspection, it appears to represent a bygone era of non-cynical musical appreciation. Barn dance radio manufactured sentimentality; the biographies and backstories of its performers were altered to evoke homesickness and act as a “counter to modernity”. Performers like Muenich, who was remade from an “incorrigible youth from Indiana” into a “former Southerner who had migrated with her family to industrial Hammond, Indiana”, were all essentially constructs developed to appeal to listeners’ sense of traditional paradigms and false sense of stasis in a forward-moving world. McCusker writes how these women “always appeared in the past, never the present”, how they represented familiarity and comfort.
McCusker quotes one listener who wrote in about Lulu Belle’s show, “There is so much tragedy in human life, most folks seek in radio a way of escape.” And so it goes, then and now—any given thing is serving some alternate purpose elsewhere.