The Nashville Sound: Authenticity, Commercialization, And Country Music
Nobody wants to be lied to. We who take our music seriously — be it country, punk, rap, or any other subgenre — are particularly petulant about this matter. That music with which we so closely identify, which speaks to our lives, had best not too obviously be a commercial product.
Richard A. Peterson’s 1997 study, Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity (University of Chicago Press), does a fine job tracing these pressures through country music’s first 30 years. Joli Jensen, a communication professor at the University of Tulsa, picks up the story in the 1950s, at the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, the arrival of television, and the creation of what came to be known as the Nashville Sound.
Jensen’s premise seems to be that the Nashville Sound was not — as is often said and written — a particular response to rock’s sudden prominence, but is a natural evolution driven by changes in radio (the inception of formats and charts) and the desire to expand market share.
Some of that may be true, but Jensen does a poor job proving her case. She writes a particularly stilted form of academese, is prone to broad and unsubstantiated summary statements, and offers virtually no primary research (with the exception of her discussion of Patsy Cline).
Begin with one of Jensen’s basic assumptions, that her experience in a Champaign, Illinois, bar in the late ’70s is directly analogous to a 1950s Southern honky tonk. Please. This is presented as a bald assertion, buttressed by the fact that touring country singers said it was so.
And by what logic are we to accept the premise that Patsy Cline’s career, to the exclusion of all others, is an accurate representation of the development of the Nashville Sound? (And without even mentioning Ray Price?) Even if that were true, Jensen demonstrates no grasp of the creative process and seems particularly ill-suited to make sense of the process through which Cline’s style evolved.
Further, if everybody in Nashville thought rock was killing country — and had for evidence declining crowds and fewer radio outlets — why discount that as a motivation for change? Jensen makes the case that other forces played a part in that transformation, and is doubtless correct. But why on earth would you disbelieve the people making the music?
On and on and on. Altogether it is an unsatisfactory read. The margins of my reader’s copy are filled with notes of disagreement and frustration. Yes, Jensen has some good ideas, but they are poorly developed. Being provoked into argument is rarely a recommendation.