The Ghetto of Genre

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.

Album: The Supremes Sing Country Western & Pop

Artist: The Supremes

Label: Motown

US Release Date: 1965-02-22

Image: 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.

A Way Out of the Ghetto of Genre

A Way Out of the Ghetto of Genre

Funny that as modern country broadens its scope to embrace the myriad genres that have long laid outside of its borders, it finds not only derision from rock critics as being no longer “real country”, but an audience and market expanding faster than that champion of musical appropriation, rock music.

Gallons of ink has been spilled on how the mariachi horns that open “Ring of Fire” grow directly out of the Mexican music Johnny Cash might have heard on the radio as a child or how Otis Redding’s (or insert the name of your favorite soul singer here) vocal style was a direct outgrowth of their church upbringing. This role as part of an ongoing musical tradition further robs the musician of agency, of the ability to break out of that tradition without seeming to betray the authenticity that is part of their perceived artistic value.

The trouble here lies somewhere in the always unpleasant idea of appropriation. With Clapton (or take other genre-jumpers if you’d like: Blondie, the Rollng Stones, Randy Newman, Stephin Merritt, noting that most if not all of them fall into the corner of the music market known as “rock”), the artist has before him all available genres like aisles in a supermarket, and part of their art includes this aspect of appropriation or pastiche. The results of this kind of cherry picking can be emotionally or artistically compelling, can even arguably revolutionize the genre they appropriate, but they are always somehow removed from the real roots of the music and lack the sort of reverence afforded genres like country and soul.

Appropriation by the rock artist elevates their music critically into the sphere of art, but only because the critical definition of music as art includes the idea of appropriation. It’s when appropriation works the other way that the real trouble starts.

While there’s plenty of respect given to that strain of rock musician who simultaneously appropriates country and soul (since I’ve written a book on the Flying Burrito Brothers , you might be able to guess who I’m talking about), there’s precious little treatment of musicians who attempt to break out of the genre ghettoes of country or soul to experiment with other sounds. Part of this comes from the fact that somehow, Willie Nelson is just supposed to sing country songs, just as Ray Charles is supposed to sing soul music.

To bring us back to Ken Burns (just for a second), while his monolithic documentary grows up from the damp soil of New Orleans and expands to include the early tonal experiments of Coltrane and Davis, both performers drop off the sonic map for Burns as soon as they begin to appropriate what he (and his muse, Wynton Marsalis) consider non-jazz sounds: African tonalities in the case of Coltrane and rock in the case of Davis. Once Miles plugs in, he drops out, since Burns’ vision of the genre cannot include a type of jazz that opens for Neil Young & Crazy Horse at the Fillmore East.

Similarly, when an artist like Willie Nelson puts out an album of jazz standards or reggae songs, critics have difficulty filing it, since clearly it can no longer be considered “country” because country doesn’t include reggae or jazz. Even when the reggae or jazz is performed by one of country’s living legends.

I’ve written previously on the careful excision of Hank Williams’ gospel material from his body of work by his record label to “protect” his rowdy image (see

“Hank’s Other Side: Religion, Radio, and the Roots of Country Music”). I made the case that the trend in the country music industry’s current trend of appropriating all possible genres of music into itself — from the crafted teen pop with twang of Taylor Swift to Kenny Chesney’s cover of “Three Little Birds” backed by members of the original Wailers at the Country Music Awards — might signal the end of country as a genre. Or, it might signal the first steps by country musicians to fully embrace the ideas of stylistic borrowing that have long been the domain of rock musicians.

These and earlier efforts to make the concept of country music more expansive are, in a way, a reaction to external constraints put on the genre. That’s done often by critics; constraints rarely applied to rock.

The mid-‘60s country efforts of the Supremes and the better-known country albums by Ray Charles (Modern Sounds in Country and Western beat out Shania Twain and Johnny Cash on Country Music Television’s list of the all-time greatest country albums) perform several tasks at once. Like the best rock and experimental music that partakes of genres other than itself, they reconnect the listener with what is vital about the original genre by translating it into a new and vibrant form.

Charles in particular illustrates the emotive power of the country songs he interprets in a manner that might be more immediately palatable for a listener unaccustomed to country music. In doing so, he gives that new listener a key to unlocking country music, a kind of introductory course, in the same way the Rolling Stones may have (hopefully) introduced a whole lot of middle class white kids to the blues.

These albums also highlight the affinities between the two genres, drawing the listener’s attention to the similarities that lie deep beneath the surface trappings. But finally, and perhaps most importantly as it relates to country music today, these albums point a way out of the ghetto of genre, past the strictures of market pressures that encourage the successful “artist as product” to churn out more of the same for consumers the market suspects will not accept novelty.

By crossing the boundary between soul and country — a transgression critics could potentially decry as “inauthentic”, even though it comes from a love of music more authentic than the artificial idea of genre — these artists reassert their own identity as artists. They are no longer of a single, particular genre, but have become part of a creative force, savvy to all the musical tools at their disposal and unwilling to limit themselves to an endless string of repetition.

Funny then, that as modern country broadens its scope to embrace the myriad genres that have long laid outside of its borders, it finds not only derision from rock critics as being no longer “real country”, but an audience and market expanding faster than that champion of musical appropriation, rock music. Rock seems to have already stolen everyone else’s tricks and now finds itself stuck trying to find new tricks of its own. Maybe a trip to the local record store would help.