Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’: Country Music And The Southern Working Class
“The passionate predilections of the fan contend with the wary skepticism of the scholar,” Bill C. Malone notes near the end of his important new volume, Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’: Country Music And The Southern Working Class. That tension between heart and mind has inspired the most compelling articulation yet of the thesis that’s driven Malone’s scholarship since his groundbreaking and still definitive history, Country Music, U.S.A., was published in 1968.
Country music, Malone contends, is a product of the “plain folk” of the South. As the country tradition enters a new century, this argument, and the questions it raises, are more pressing than ever, and Malone’s book should re-initiate a necessary dialogue about the state of country music.
The book mostly belongs to Malone the scholar. He devotes two initial chapters to establishing, respectively, the music’s Southern and working-class identities. He spends most of the remainder detailing how these ties have manifested themselves in songs of home, work and faith, as well as in the music’s sense of humor and its politics. On these last subjects, Malone is especially good. I wish Malone would write an entire book on the complex yet down-home comedy of Homer & Jethro, Stringbean, and Whitey Ford. Similarly, Malone’s chapter on country music’s conflicted populist politics, and their at once liberating and oppressive results, is essential reading that leaves one wanting more.
Indeed, if the book has a weakness, it’s that there’s not enough of it. What’s slighted, though, is revealing. For example, while Malone talks at length about the country music of the Vietnam era, he doesn’t mention many of the period’s most popular responses to the conflict. Johnny Wright’s “Hello Vietnam”, a jingoistic 1965 hit, goes unexamined, as does Loretta Lynn’s more personal — and more representatively country — response to war’s costs, “Dear Uncle Sam”, a country chart-topper from 1966. Glen Campbell’s countrypolitan “Galveston”, a 1969 country #1 and pop #4 about a soldier who fears he won’t make it home, is absent as well.
These omissions make sense for several reasons. First off, Malone, despite his Texas origins, remains most interested in the country music of the Southeast — old-time string band music is a particular passion, as is bluegrass — and the result is that other styles, even those as key to the country tradition as cowboy music and western swing, are mentioned far less often.
Malone also spends most of his time discussing the country music that appeared before rock ‘n’ roll. This means there’s little space devoted to the country music of the 1960s, for example, much of which Malone clearly adores, and virtually no room for later styles, such as countrypolitan and Hot New Country, which he does not.
This is where Malone the lifelong fan comes into play, providing Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’ with its most passionate prose and most provocative claims. “The sounds of country music suffused the world into which I was born in 1934, on our little cotton tenant farm…in East Texas,” he writes in a moving and largely biographical introduction. Indeed, his childhood encounter with the South’s feuding cultural realms of faith and excess — Malone and his mother sang hymns in church while his father passed around a bottle outside — stands as the most poignant passage of his career.
Malone is refreshingly candid that his raising influences his conclusions. “Once we admit that our assessments are often shaped by our personal histories,” he stresses in the preface, “then we will understand the roles we play in shaping the definitions and acceptance of the musical forms about which we write.” And so it is, in part, Malone’s own history and aesthetic “predilections” that fuel the questions hanging over the book. As working-class Southerners have migrated from rural areas to cities and, increasingly, to suburbs — indeed, as the rural experience has diminished in American life generally — is the country music played on the radio today “still linked to ‘working-class’ people” and to the South? Is it even fair to call it “country”? Malone isn’t so sure.
Frustratingly, he offers answers to these questions only in a ten-page conclusion. There, he strongly suggests that a newly suburban fan base cancels out the possibility of the music maintaining its historically working-class status. But is that true?
In many ways, this comes down to what “working class” means in the 21st century. The employment opportunities offered by the so-called service and information economies to many suburban country music fans — call-center jobs, computer assembly, data entry, fast-food work, elder care, retail jobs, temp gigs, convenience store clerks, and so on — are no longer primarily blue-collar. But that doesn’t mean the conditions of these new jobs — hourly wages; repetitive, low-skilled, closely supervised work; poor benefits; little chance of advancement or job security — don’t remain working-class, their significant differences notwithstanding. It’s this modern working class that singer Darryl Worley addressed in one recent radio hit: “My baby’s been working as a cashier/She didn’t get a vacation this past year.”
Malone nails the problem when he “grouse[s] about the lack of soul” in today’s mainstream country. But soulless country music isn’t necessarily attributable to the diminished or evolving importance of regional and class identification — after all, country isn’t the only empty mainstream format nowadays. Soulless country isn’t even attributable to the genre’s pop influences, which, as Malone rightly notes, have been with the music since its beginnings.
The trappings of a tradition, after all, may change considerably with time; indeed, it’s certain they will. But if a faith’s key tenets, its soul, remain strong — learning from and paying the respect due your forebears, for example, no matter how different your life may be — then the tradition may yet survive. Underscoring that essential country verity is the role Bill Malone has played for nearly 40 years now. If country is to remain vital in the new century, it would do well, no matter how much it may change, to heed Malone’s advice: Stay in touch with your past and never forget where you came from.