Country Music History and the Sounds of Home
Robert Christgau calls himself the Dean of American Rock Critics, but country music historian Bill C. Malone needs not arrogate such a title to himself in the same way. Generations of readers of country music history have cut their teeth on his groundbreaking Country Music, U.S.A. (Texas), and anyone who wants to know anything about the history of country music continues to turn to Malone’s book. His assiduous and detailed research is delivered in a warm and appealing voice that never talks down but echoes the curiosity of a fan of the music that’s shaped him since his childhood. Country Music, U.S.A. is now in its third revised edition, a nod to its enduring significance to our understanding of the history of country music, with a chapter by respected country music historian Jocelyn R. Neal on developments in country music after September 11, 2001. Next year, Country Music, U.S.A will turn 50; on its 40th anniversary, the Society of American Music recognized Malone’s achievement with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Malone helped blaze a trail in country music history by examining issues of class and the rooted regional character of country music in books such as Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’: Country Music and the Southern Working Class (Illinois) and Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers: Southern Culture and the Roots of Country Music (Georgia).
Sing Me Back Home: Southern Roots and Country Music (Oklahoma), a new collection of Malone’s essays and other writings, such as liner notes, serves as a fitting companion to Country Music U.S.A. As with all such collections, this one is a little uneven, with some pieces more revealing and more accessible than others, and a bit repetitious (though to his credit Malone acknowledges this in the introduction). But those are minor annoyances in a collection that reveals an inquisitive historian, who is also a musician, “loving, listening to, singing, writing, and thinking about country music.” As Malone points out in the introduction, his goal in these essays is to “explore many of country music’s historic styles and subgenres, evaluate some of its most compelling performers, and raise questions about its origins, defining myths, and relationship to other forms of music.”
The opening essay, “’Sing Me Back Home’: Growing Up in the South and Writing the History of Its Music,” is alone worth the price of admission, since Malone candidly shares the details of his coming-of-age in east Texas, his earliest memories of the power of and his affection for country music, and its enduring appeal to him. It’s the closest to a memoir we may have from Malone, and in this essay he reveals how the themes he’s since explored as a historian took hold of him. Malone was born at home in August 1934 in a “little four-room, tin-roofed ‘boxed’ house … . [A] porch … ran along the front of the house, about two feet off the ground, and just high enough that our dogs could find refuge there during rainstorms or the blazing heat of summer … . The floors had no rugs or linoleum, and the cracks were so wide in some areas that we could see the chickens scratching underneath the house.” The iron cook stove in the kitchen serves as a communal centerpiece, but a Philco battery radio that arrives in the house when Malone is 5 years old changes his life.
Music, Malone recalls, was his salvation, as well as his mother’s: “She sang to dispel her loneliness, to voice her frustrations, and to praise her God.” After they obtained the radio, “it fed the imaginative universe that I inhabited, adding to my already fertile storehouse of make-believe with its stories and professional sports. Above all, it brought me into the universe of hillbilly music.” The radio brought the Chuck Wagon Gang, the Shelton Brothers, Ernest Tubb, and the Carter Family, among others, into the Malone’s living room, where they became like members of his family, an illusion the artists fostered with their “homey patter, down-home humor, and moralistic messages.” Those early days of living with these performers propelled Malone to a life of writing about the transformative power of country music and the ways that it both derives its strength from and shapes the cultures in which the music offers salvation or assuages loneliness or feels like a family song. “I could not separate the music from memories of growing up poor on an East Texas cotton farm and finding escape and diversion in the sounds of hillbilly music,” writes Malone. “I could not forget the thrill of being awakened and energized early each morning by the radio sounds of a fiddle, steel guitar, and lonesome voice, or of hearing my mother express her loneliness through the words of a gospel song. Nor could I ever forget the importance that the music held for the working people whose sacrifices made it possible for me to attend college and to live a life of relative ease. Their story and that of country music were closely intertwined.”
Malone provides new introductions to each of these essays, indicating where the essays first appeared and, in some cases, how he’s now thinking differently about a certain topic. For example, he mentions that a careful revision and updating of his 1998 essay “The Rural South Moves North: Country Music since World War II” might find many of his conclusions “severely challenged,” since “the suburbanization of America has wrought significant changes in the identity and sound of the music that I loved. The reader can decide whether the music now heard on Top Forty country radio merits the description of ‘country’ or, indeed, whether it deserves to be listened to or not.” The wide-ranging essays in this collection traverse the country music landscape pondering such topics as “blacks and whites and music in the Old South,” “Elvis, country music, and the South,” and “Texas myth/Texas music,” as well as songwriters and musicians including Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Gimble, the Blue Sky Boys, Albert Brumley, the Chuck Wagon Gang, and William S. Hays.
The beauty of Malone’s collection shines through in his devotion to the music. Music is for listening—and he does that carefully and passionately, alerting us to its nuances and why singers and their music matter and the ways they color his life—and for singing. Malone certainly sings in these essays, and we do best to turn up his music loud.