Actually, It *Is* About Race: Country Music and Whiteness
A few weeks ago I published a review of an album by a young band that kicked off with the sentence “X is joining a new wave of Southern bands and artists that are re-examining their white Southern identity.” In the review I then proceeded to compare the band favorably to Jason Isbell and Lee Bains III, noting that the song “Blood Money” confronts the post-Reconstruction oppression of freed blacks to favor small white-owned farms. While you’d think one would be elated to be compared to those two artists, the publicist asked me to change it. The album, she wrote, was “just about growing up in a Southern town.” She didn’t want to “make it about race.” I shot back, “I’m pretty sure they’re the same thing!” but begrudgingly changed it — why make bad blood?
But here’s the thing: they are the same thing. Asking me to change the sentence and my acquiescence is one of the small everyday acts that continue to uphold our society’s power structure: one that is rooted in white supremacy.
Okay. Let’s start with this album. For one thing, the band is too smart for them not to see this connection between race and growing up white and blue collar in the South: in addition to “Blood Money” there are several songs about the government buying farmland and turning it into factories and dispossessed white kids working factory jobs in the city. But even if those songs hadn’t been on the album, anything about the white experience — north or south — is predicated on race.
I know that there are different schools of thought when it comes to literature about the extent to which an artist’s socio-cultural context should be taken into account when critiquing their work. But I was a history major so fuck that. How could any form of human expression be regarded outside of its cultural context? We can read and identify with Shakespeare and Greek tragedies now, but I promise Shakespeare is even more interesting and nuanced when you study his context; he certainly was.
So in the context of someone roughly my age (late 20s/early 30s) writing about their grandparents and great-grandparents farming in the South, race is inescapable even if the artist doesn’t realize it. Most teachers and history books readily discuss the failures of Reconstruction, the post-Civil War policies the federal government instituted after the Civil War to re-incorporate the South into the Union and, most significantly, to ensure that newly freed black people were incorporated into institutions they had been barred from for centuries. This time period saw the rebirth of the KKK, whose existence has not been interrupted since. It also saw the rise in minstrel shows, which of course paved the way for rock’n’roll and other “race music.” (We’ll get back to that.)
As we know, Reconstruction failed in its promise to create an equitable society in the South (and certainly there was and is a lot to improve on North of the Mason-Dixon line.) The end result was that much of the land that had formerly been plantation land was rented or sold off to poor white farmers who benefitted from a regime that de jure and de facto disenfranchised black people through gerrymandering, packing juries, bogus literacy tests as a requirement to vote, underfunding public schools (introduced to the South during Reconstruction and, therefore, a symbol of government “intervention”) and other legislation that is today known as Jim Crow. White people continue to benefit from this legacy today. To sing the praises of your forebears — who certainly did work hard and make sacrifices on the farm or the coal mine or the factory — without acknowledging that black people were systematically excluded from the same opportunities is to turn a blind eye to history. And some white people are starting to confront that in their music. That’s what I meant in my opening sentence. And even if you ignore this legacy — as many have and continue to do — the rewards reaped from the backs of those who are oppressed reverberates throughout this nation, particularly in country music.
That country music exists because of race-based classifications hardly qualifies as an open secret. It is discussed. It’s just that nobody’s interested in discussing what it actually means.
Laura Pochodylo at Runout Numbers beautifully elucidates the music industry’s troubled history with music produced by black artists.
When popular recorded music was first able to be distributed and marketed in the 1920s, a decision had to be made. This is the South– do we keep all of the blues-based music together? That would mean white and black in one category. It was an easy answer at the time: no. This created two, in Hubbs’ words, “racially distinct marketing categories:” hillbilly and race.
The disbelief over Billboard actually publishing a chart called “Race Records” through the 1940s was a big part of rock history, which has its own racial separation issues, although less formal. I never knew, however, that the “Hillbilly” chart was its direct counterpart.
To listeners today, country music is the sound of whiteness as much as hip hop is the sound of blackness. The music industry deciders of the 1920s would be very impressed by this, that their legacy has lived this long. The inequality inherent in our society has fostered these two genres to be sounds of two different groups who have distinct cultures all their own, music included: black Americans and working class white Americans.
But Pochodylo didn’t need to look as hard as Nadine Hubbs’ Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (which is FYI going straight to the top of my reading list.) The Country Music Hall of fame discusses this schism quite openly. If they wind their way through the whole musuem (which is well worth doing if you haven’t. Also as far as this jaded New Yorker is concerned there is literally nothing else to do in Nashville during the day) the very first exhibit they’ll be confronted with is an early film of a minstrel show.
It’s no coincidence that minstrel shows — in which white performers sang black folk songs, or cruel imitations of them, in blackface — exploded in popularity in Reconstruction. In other words, as black people gained legal rights such as property ownership and the right to vote, white popular culture across the country set to work to reducing black men and women into bumbling, simple-minded comedic characters, a trope that continues in our popular culture today to everyone’s detriment.
As the stage lights dimmed on minstrel shows and radio and recorded music reached ascendancy, country music exploded. The Hall of Fame plainly states that country music was created by the record industry to appeal to homesick farm kids who had gone to the city looking for work at the turn of the century. The music was intentionally designed to create an amalgam of Southern, Appalachian, and Western music to market it to white audiences nostalgic for a Golden Age that never existed, when farms were green and harvests plentiful and there was enough to eat — a time when people didn’t have to move to cities to earn a livelihood. And, of course, these genres borrowed or stole from African cultures as a result of the racialized chattel slavery that is unique in all of world history to the United States of America.
Fast forward a few decades, to what we all think of as that classic Nashville sound: the big orchestration, the soaring harmonies, the pedal steel guitar. Again, the Country Music Hall of Fame bluntly observes that the Everly Brothers, products of the Nashville music scene, made record execs nervous because of their more than passing fascination with rock’n’roll, then known as “race music.” And thus the Nashville Sound was born: an intentional recommitment to white culture and identity as separate from any influence by black culture. As Pochodylo notes above, creating these divisions in art both reflects and reifies the same divisions in political, social, and cultural life.
Recently Steve Earle accused modern country of being “hip hop for people who are afraid of black people.” While there are points about the substance of the comments I disagree with (if Earle thinks hip hop is only about getting wasted and if he thinks country music isn’t, then he’s conveniently forgotten both Outlaw Country and is missing out on a lot of incredible hip hop) I agree with the sentiment. Personally I’m very uncomfortable with people who claim that people like Sam Hunt aren’t “real” country because they’re heavily influenced by hip hop. To me that statement demands a certain…purity, shall we say. Racial purity, even. But Earle got it on the nose. If even the Country Music Hall of Fame is asserting that country music was created by and for people who are scared of acknowledging the cultural impact of black people in their lives, then Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line are as country as everybody else.
In her foundational work Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Beverly Daniel Tatum compares racism to standing on an escalator. You can be mad about the escalator while you’re riding it, but unless you do something to stop the escalator, it’s going to take you to the top and your feelings are worthless when it comes to actually solving the problem.
In other words, you can watch news reports about people getting killed by the police or deported by ICE and be sad about it, but being sad and not engaging in protests or at the very least calling your local representatives makes you a part of the problem. It doesn’t stop the escalator.
Or, to put a fine point on it, demanding an obscure hobbyist blogger who isn’t getting paid to write about your indie country rock band to change a sentence that commends a band for tackling a risky subject and pulling it off because you’re scared of an iota of flack (*inhale*) doesn’t stop the escalator. In fact it hinders other people’s attempts to stop the escalator.
The escalator is well-greased. The news alone and documentaries like 13th illustrate the fundamental inequalities that this country is built to thrive on. Neo-Nazis and the KKK have become emboldened under Trump’s dog-whistles. The murder rate of transgender women (almost always women of color), already alarmingly high, is skyrocketing compared to this time last year. There are lots of obvious factors contributing to the forward motion of the escalator. But it has smaller gears, too. They’re often too small to see. The fact that talking about race often sends people into a blind panic (dare I say…we get triggered?) is one example of such. On the one hand, it comes from a very sincere desire to avoid offending someone by “saying the wrong thing.” On the other hand, we all know those people who like to avoid “controversy.” Except while we’re making polite conversation our silence is leading to misery and death in our backyards and streets, especially if it’s not “ours” — however you choose to define that. It begs the question: how come nobody taught us how to say the right thing?
Could it be that frank conversations about race and how racism impacts all of us — from murder to music — is intentionally suppressed? What if our silence was instead turned into discussions of outrage, guilt, acknowledging complicity and, most importantly, how to upend racism?
This fear of controversy is what led the publicist to ask me to change what I had written. My own fear of controversy led me to change it. But I felt sick when I did it, because I did not see any issue myself — it’s my opinion, isn’t it? And if someone doesn’t like it, they can start their own blog. It is 100% free and you can even put it on the Internet.
It is, of course, ridiculous to think that anything about that review is going to change the world one way or another. I know that we Millenials are also criticized for our inexhaustible wells of outrage. Who cares about my article and editorial positions? Honestly, about a half-dozen people: me, the publicist, maybe the band though they probably don’t even know that any of this happened.
But if we really want to see meaningful, lasting justice — not simply change, which is amorphous — we need to teach ourselves how to find and throw sand in the gears, no matter how great or small.
A last note — while I may be a professional complainer, I won’t leave you stranded without solutions. If you are white, check out White Accomplices for examples of small, everyday actions you can take in addition to the bigger ones.
Rachel is Adobe & Teardrops