Books

The Selling Sound by Diane Pecknold

Understanding the 'hillbilly' image of country music: how the industry created a glamorous ideal the larger music community could identify with -- and finance.


The Selling Sound

Publisher: Duke University Press
Subtitle: The Rise of the Country Music Industry (Refiguring American Music)
Author: Diane Pecknold
Price: $22.95
Length: 294
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0822340801
US publication date: 2007-11
Amazon

Diane Pecknold's The Selling Sound makes an important and lively foray in the field of country music studies. It offers a smart, historicized account of how complex the dynamics of commercialism and audience reception were in the formative decades of the country music industry. Her book is engaging because it gives a vivid account of country music fans who have always had complicated, deeply emotional connections to the genre.

It also fleshes out the role of industry professionals, from deejays to song publishers, who were all fighting for control of the industry's products, profits and cultural meanings. Covering the period from the 1920s to the 1970s, her book not only illuminates the evolution of country music but also sheds new light on the degree to which production and consumption forces can be deeply nuanced and often surprising in their effects on popular music and popular culture.

Pecknold's real innovation is her analysis of both production and consumption in a way other scholars have not fully done. Critics have traditionally pointed out that country music's construction of authenticity involves a perceived tension between art and the market, the music's anti-modern nostalgia for rural agrarianism versus modernity and the commercialization of the mass media marketplace. In such commentary, those narratives of authenticity are viewed as constructed ones, stories different cultural actors (from singers and songwriters to record producers and radio programmers) wish to tell about a popular music genre at a particular socio-historical moment. Pecknold's book complicates that picture.

Pecknold goes back and uncovers what performers, fans, and producers were thinking about this perceived tension between art and commerce at any given time. What she finds is revelatory. Over the course of this time period, the industry used commercialism to advance itself, often by creating images of professional musicians and respectable "affluent" working class fans (even though the genre started out with broader audience appeals), which it used to counterbalance negative stereotypes of "hillbillies" or backwoods country bumpkins.

Meanwhile, the fans used what they understood to be self-consciously theatrical representations of a rural past in order to create an identity for themselves (since many of these fans were rural to urban migrants from the South in the 1920s through 1960s). Always aware of country music's commercial level, the fans sometimes embraced commercialism in the music and sometimes resisted it.

Digging deeply into fan accounts from fan publications and archival records from the Country Music Foundation at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville (and about the founding of the Hall of Fame), Pecknold provides an especially important analysis of fandom. While traditional histories suggest that country fans were resistant to commercialism in their embrace of traditional, even past-obsessed culture, Pecknold demonstrates that it would be more accurate to say that fans were aware of commercialism and often embraced it because the mass media (especially radio) is precisely what would allow them to engage with a national imagined community formed through appreciation of this music. That paradoxical merger of tradition with modernity is what defines the genre.

Pecknold demonstrates audience savvy, showing that the genre's earliest fans, from country music's first commercialization as what was then called "hillbilly" music in the 1920s, were aware of commercialism and did not perceive it as a contaminating agent. Her evidence shifts our understanding of the history of the genre, from the rural performers in the 1920s who knew their music was both things -- their cultural heritage and a way to make a buck -- to industry insiders in the 1950s trying to consolidate country music, specifically as a business, in Nashville even before rock 'n' roll forced them to compete for listeners.

Pecknold explicates different audience trends in various historical moments and contexts. One 1960s trend has fans embracing the commercialism because it validated their own class aspirations, allowing them to see their entrance into US consumer culture as empowering for them. Fans who celebrated commercialism saw a consumer democracy in which they could choose what tastes to purchase and thus validate. For fans who objected to commercialism, Pecknold demonstrates that the dynamic there is not simple rejection or some high brow dismissal of inauthentic commodity culture but rather a sense that fans had the right to have agency within the industry and when commercial imperatives blocked them from having active roles (beyond being consumers), they were angry.

For example, one especially strong chapter on fan clubs examines how over the course of the 1960s, as the country industry kept professionalizing and the major industry organization, the Country Music Association (founded in 1958), began the annual Fan Fair meeting (separating out the fans from the annual industry meeting), women fan club presidents, who formerly performed unpaid public relations work for stars, were marginalized within the industry and tried to retain some agency for themselves. Such careful research should delight media studies scholars invested in active audience models, or anyone else interested in fan club history and activities, for that matter.

The audience itself, she convincingly details, became the product sold by industry organizations such as the Country Music Association. The CMA's marketing campaigns, such as "The Selling Sound" speech from which Pecknold takes her title, tried to frame country audiences as loyal respectable working class consumers who were a unique market niche liable to listen only to country music radio and were unreachable through other advertising means.

Tracing the formative developments in the genre, Pecknold excavates how people were framing issues of class, taste, and the mass media in relation to country music at each moment. She provides deep context, for example, for how early fan cultures during the period from 1920 to the late 1940s saw "hillbilly" music as cultural validation for folk traditions that were otherwise stereotyped as 'backwards,' and that this dynamic contributed to them framing commercialism as a positive aspect of the music. Her chapter on the 1950s is particularly astute, providing detailed historical accounts of how country music became a way for people to think about the nation's rural past (with ambivalence) as well as the effects of the mass media and a consumer society on the present, popping up as a lightning rod in on-going music industry struggles, such BMI and ASCAP's clash of the titans over licensing fees.

Likewise, in the 1960s and 1970s, country music was perceived as a symbol of the right-wing working class masses (with different groups interpreting working class politics differently). From the high brow versus low brow culture wars of the 1950s to the urban folk revival of the 1960s to the 1970s efforts of Republican conservative politicians, like Nixon, to court a country audience, Pecknold illustrates how class and cultural politics around country music were always shifting and complex. For example, she shows that rather than being inherently conservative in its politics, country became stereotypically associated with Right-wing politics because the politicians tried to solicit that audience, adapting their efforts to that group.

One of the most compelling pay-offs of her quite convincing argument is that Pecknold is able to account for how audiences were responding to obvious artifice in the genre. As performers and promoters offered stylized versions of rural history, the stylization was evident to both producers and consumers of those images.

For example, studying early country broadcasts, advertising, and fan club and industry publications, Pecknold finds evidence of "a frank display of the threatricality and fabrication of the hillbilly image." Fans consumed a stylized image of the rural past the country had been leaving behind during rural to urban migration patterns in the 20th century, and they shaped a sense of identity from their self-conscious collective consumption of those purposely fabricated images, inspiring deep attachment to the genre.

Pecknold tells a vibrant and exciting story of the fans and the industry. Such a full account of both consumers and producers fills in the gaps in scholarly narratives of country music history. Her book is an important and welcome addition to the field.

8

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image