Jeremy Hill’s Country Comes to Town traces the rise of country music in its various sounds and styles and how the idea of what country is and was transformed with various cultural, historical and even financial revolutions. Hill’s tone and knack for cultural and historical context help create a narrative that is illuminating and rich in detail. He dispels some long-held myths about country, but also shows how country music has at times worked to uphold those myths.
In his introduction, Hill cites the often repeated Hank Williams line that “You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly”, a statement meant to reinforce country’s authenticity but quickly points out that Williams’ statement doesn’t necessarily ring true. Hill adds a quote from Richard Nixon, uttered some years later, that country music was more than just a place but in fact a state of mind. Both these notions underline the difficulty that many have in defining this music and the sense of authenticity as music lovers see it.
The argument may also be made of country’s cousin, the blues. In that genre, the image of a poor sharecropper banging out chords on an opened-tune guitar somewhere in the American South dominates. But that image, like the image of the hillbilly strumming chords in the bed of his pickup truck has long been outmoded. Both genres found purchase in urban climates and were and continue to be performed by artists whose roots need not be deep in the rich southern dirt. One might argue that to assume that one’s geography, heritage or the time in which they live has something to do with the authenticity of the music or art they create, would then render any performance of classical music inauthentic.
In order for country music itself to proliferate it required modernity. Bill Monroe and country performers needed electricity to record the music they loved and to reach those who adhered to the values expressed in the music and lyrics they played. The early myth that the Grand Ole Opry radio program provided “Nothing but realism” quickly fades as Hill writes that performances there were not taking places at a rural barn dance but instead were “an urban representation of a rural barn dance” that could be appreciated by listeners in both settings.
That it borrowed from vaudeville and that many of its performers were well-educated and playing into popular ideals about hillbillies suggests that there was a chasm between the realm and the imagined. Though a chasm it may have been, there could be no mistaking that plenty of people bought into the image of country rubes who could play guitar and sing well despite having little or no education. Moreover, whether the image was authentic or inauthentic could not rob listeners of the sheer enjoyment they felt in the music.
By the ’40s many of the performers were eager to counter prevailing stereotypes, including one that suggested the music was “natural” and played by musicians who did not need the conservatory or an appreciation of the classical cannon to perform. There is, of course, no license needed to become a working musician and the debate between schooled and unschooled players permeates discussions of virtually every genre.
Roy Acuff capitalized on the rural image, creating big business around the music and its origins, building entertainment complexes and a lucrative publishing business that also suggested that one did not need a Harvard education to become a success in the world of commerce. Minnie Pearl, despite coming from a refined background and attempting to distance herself from the image of the rube was never allowed to stray too far from that image. Decades later, the dominant image of Garth Brooks was that of a good ol’ country boy from Oklahoma, despite his college education and marketing degree and incredible acumen in that field.
By the ’60s, the climate had changed and the book’s titular chapter chronicles how the Nashville sound homogenized the music, treating it as a commodity that could be brokered for tourism and branding. Pop music, with its sophisticated orchestrations and urbane images, cornered Nashville, in a way, and many industry leaders scrambled to find a way to suggest that the rural roots were appreciated but no longer necessary.
Hill points to the formation of the Country Music Association and its need to develop a real rather than imagined sense of leadership. Tex Ritter would suggest that country music had “grown up” and become the “big time entertainer” who was on par with the stars of Hollywood. With concerted effort, the music and the CMA favored the idea of the urban over the rural. As this happened, instrumentation changed. The banjo and fiddle were no longer the most prominent instruments in the country sound and some might have struggled to tell the difference in some cases between country and pop.
There were dissenting voices, of course, but the march of time and style persisted even when image remained of utmost importance. In the ’70s, Willie Nelson had great difficulty finding acceptance in the Nashville community and so retreated to Austin, where his “outlaw” ways were embraced and gave rise to a genre that no doubt reinvigorated interest in what some had come to see as music for squares.
The city itself struggled with urban renewal and rebranded itself as a safe place, moving the physical location of the Opry to heavily-acred land where music lovers could dine and enjoy performances without concern about some of the more unsavory elements in town. Country had not just gone from rural to urban, it had gone from urban to suburban.
Hill tells of this progression in masterfully paced chapters that are well-researched and thought-provoking. He also delves into country music’s longstanding issues with race, it’s belittling of African American performers in both intended and unintended ways. The currency of “You sound like us but look like them” carried a painfully thin veneer of racism, as did the industry’s rejection of Ray Charles’ now classic foray into the sounds of country and western.
Nashville is not unique in many of these regards. One can point to Los Angeles and New York or any major metropolitan area that has sought to reimagine itself and/or struggle with race, but Nashville’s marriage to the music industry and the specific image the industry crafted offers the difference. The city would go through its own period of remaking, as those who once flocked away from the city found reason to come back to its center, embracing a remade Ryman Auditorium and the rich history the place held.
By the ’90s the idea of the country rube had largely faded, or was beginning too. Meteoric sales and the arrival of the likes of Brooks helped move the city and its music forward. Some feared that the rise of Lower Broad in the city, the creation of district where tourists could flock and where foot traffic would remain heavy would somehow sully the town’s past. In many areas around the nation such districts trade on the image of the past becoming modern. Chain restaurants are housed in old warehouses and exposed brick becomes the chief aesthetic choice.
Hill points out that the fears many people had have, in many ways, not come to pass. There’s some sense of the old Nashville still there, and there’s an appreciation for its origins. It has become a city that was built on fiddles and banjos, instruments that remain central to its mythology. Universities and complex healthcare systems have moved in alongside the music industry and each year aging rockers relocate there from Boston, London and L.A. But who and what are there now can’t dampen the glimmer of history that remains. At least for the time being.
That Hill can capture these various twists and turns in the plot of a city and the genre that has long called that city home is praiseworthy. That he can do so in a way that makes the reader want to read and experience more about the subject goes beyond what one might typically ask of such a volume.