The Selling Sound: The Rise Of The Country Music Industry
It wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate just to strike “Industry” from this book’s subtitle. That’s because Diane Pecknold’s The Selling Sound argues that “the rise of country music” and “the rise of the country music industry” are, if not identical phenomena, at least entwined so inextricably that to imagine we can easily pinpoint where the former ends and the latter begins is a major hindrance to understanding the music in the first place.
No doubt many readers will strenuously resist such a thesis. They’ll argue that the contrived and especially the commercial are not only injurious to art but its sworn enemy. Art is an expression of the real, the spontaneous, and the authentic — and such requirements are trebly important, it’s said, within the purportedly hidebound and down-home genre of country music.
Well, those are the folks who need to read this book.
For her part, Pecknold (who teaches at the University of Louisville) is a historian, not an aesthetician. Her book doesn’t look at country as an art form. Indeed, you could probably count on your fingers the number of specific songs she mentions. But the very nature of her project reveals just how unhelpful it is to view the country tradition and its surrounding commercial culture as oppositional forces.
Pecknold never quite proves her opening claim that country is more entwined with commerce than other genres, but that’s a minor point. What matters, she writes, is that country, contrary to popular wisdom, is a modern music — and one not only influenced by “its structural connections to new technologies and to the early twentieth century extension of consumer capitalism into the hinterland,” but one that wouldn’t exist without those connections.
Pecknold looks at country music’s origins in the barn dance tradition and radio advertising, and its fight to gain professional respect via the Billboard charts. She is especially strong at explaining the importance to the genre of the protracted battle over publishing rights between ASCAP and BMI, and at the role song publishing firm Acuff-Rose played in the centralization of country music production — including rockabilly — in Nashville. She also examines the subsequent creation of the Country Music Association, a kind of chamber of commerce for country music, and of its Hall of Fame.
None of this is to suggest that the relationship between country music and the country music industry hasn’t always been fraught with tensions, nor ever been benign. But Pecknold makes plain that what we call the country music tradition has been dependent upon those tensions every note of the way.