Nashville’s Unwritten Rules / Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity
If a good ol’ boy such as Garth Brooks can fill Central Park, clearly the world needs a book (or two) that dismantles the machinery of Nashville, pokes around and finds out exactly how it operates. With his Unwritten Rules, Billboard scribe Dan Daley ponders the schizophrenia of Music City: Just how does it balance “a small, feudal society with the financial power of a major industry”?
“Country music is a product,” Daley explains simply, “designed to sell and to make its makers money.” Yet the “m” word is never discussed in polite company, especially around Nashville. While his mission is to correct this oversight, Daley has also written a guidebook to Music City do’s and don’ts. It’s a little top-heavy with business jargon and statistics, but it’s bursting with insiders’ tales from Nashville princes such as Tony Brown and Chet Atkins.
When not pondering bottom lines, the savvy Daley considers the future of the long-established Music City hierarchy of songwriters, publishers, musicians and producers. Nashville is morphing, slowly, from a warm and fuzzy community into a dollar-driven society. With the corporatization of the music business (meetings are now held in boardrooms, not barrooms), the invasion of people and practices from rock mecca L.A., plus the accessibility of Mr. Gates’ DIY technology, can the old methods survive?
To Daley’s astute way of thinking, so long as Nashville remains country’s mission control, the ages-old “apprenticeship scenario” will continue to matter far more than the size of your hard drive. Yet it’s still a business, as he constantly reminds us, so some modernization is inevitable. Damn progress.
Country commercialization also intrigues Richard A. Peterson, a professor from Nashville’s Vanderbilt University. His water-tight theory is that your singing cowboys and baccy-chewin’ hillbillies were marketing inventions, aimed to pigeonhole and package raw, untrained players who came out of the hills, fiddles at the ready, in the 1920s.
As Peterson explains, searchers such as Henry Ford and Opry founder George Hay, hungry for misplaced nostalgia, filthy lucre, or the hope of a big hit, have asked: “What do people want from country music?” Believability and originality were the common answers, so the A&R folks set to work molding an image, inspiring Peterson’s buzz-phrase “fabricating of authenticity.”
The prof’s sometimes rigid, academic-styled study plots a course from the time Fiddlin’ John Carson sold out his first pressing in 1923 to Hank Williams’ demise in 1953. Yet his book only comes to life when he answers such teasers as how country found its base in Nashville, where the heck the term “country” came from, and just how Joe McCarthy and Al Capone got caught up in the form’s evolution.
But the array of old-time photos that dot its pages are fascinating time capsules, as are profiles of mystery men such as Polk Brockman, an Atlantan with money in mind who during the 1920s developed and exploited the five key areas that still rule commercial music-making: recording, radio, touring, publishing and songwriting. These five standards just so happen to coincide with the roles of Nashville’s hierarchy in Dan Daley’s Unwritten Rules. Funny, that.
OK, so studies of Nashville’s business and cultural evolution mightn’t quicken the pulse of most music fans. Yet these meticulously researched tomes explain, albeit obliquely and sometimes a little stiffly, just how Garth inspired 250,000 city folks to wear the boots and the hat on that night in Central Park. The answer lies at the heart of Unwritten Rules and Fabricating Authenticity: It’s all about marketing, music and myth. Along with a little magic, of course.