I first ran across the writing of Charles Hughes several years ago on his now-defunct blog Shot of Rhythm, where his writing on Country and Soul, with a little rap thrown here, were always insightful. From there he joined forces with another favorite of mine, David Cantwell, on the fantastic Living in Stereo. Being familiar with his work I was very pleased to see Charles name in Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music, where he writes about the relationship between Soul and Country. Today he takes a few minutes to discuss that essay and other related matters.
Charles Hughes: I’ve been interested in the issue of race and country music for a long time. Beyond being a big country fan, as well as a fan of its hybrids with other genres, I’m fascinated by the way in which country has become so central to our understandings of racial identity in the United States. The music is, of course, closely associated with whiteness – particularly southern, conservative whiteness – and I’m intrigued by the history behind that association and the way that musicians themselves have negotiated this complex terrain. The story of African-Americans in country is one of the richest veins of this important history. I’m so excited to be a part of this book, but I think I’m even more excited to read the other essays!
MT: Your chapter in Hidden in the Mix talks about the relationship between soul and country, which has been a particular interest for you. How do you see, or not see, that relationship playing out today?
CH: The relationship between country and soul plays out in numerous ways today, both musically and in broader cultural terms. Musically, there continues to be a deep stylistic overlap between country and soul. Some of the biggest country stars of today continue to utilize the sounds and songs of R&B, while many contemporary soul and hip-hop artists (particularly in the South) bring the characteristics of country onto their records. Then there are the folks in the middle – from Alabama Shakes to Jason Isbell to Buddy Miller and beyond – who draw from both traditions and blend them together in new and interesting ways. Many of my favorite artists – from Nashville, Memphis, Muscle Shoals or elsewhere – are the skilled explorers of that shared territory. It remains one of the deepest wells of American music.
Culturally, the country-soul relationship plays a major role in the way that we think about race and racial history. On one hand, the two genres are presented as polar opposites that represent two totally different identities and symbolize the U.S.’s racial divisions. So, the rich tradition of overlaps between country and soul – and the black and white musicians who make them – are a crucial part in complicating that idea and demonstrating its limitations. I think my essay, and this book, are part of that larger project. On the other hand, our culture has made the connections between country and soul – and, again, between the white and black musicians who make them – into a central story of racial reconciliation and healing in the post-Civil Rights era. This is certainly worth celebrating, but it also needs to be understood as a historical phenomenon that wasn’t always well-intentioned and didn’t have equal benefits for both races. That, too, is something that my essay – and this book more generally – is trying to do. In a very real way, the country-soul relationship doesn’t have an entirely happy ending, and I’d say the same is true for the larger issues we’re all grappling with.
MT: Do you think a misstep like “Accidental Racist” allows people who don’t want to talk about the issue of race and country music an excuse to drop the conversation, something they can point to and say, “Well, we tried…”?
CH: Ah, “Accidental Racist.” I think there are several of us who wish that we could go back to our essays and add in some material about that tune. I think the fact that “Accidental Racist” didn’t work could give people an excuse to say “we tried” and move on, especially because mainstream country (and hip-hop, for that matter) are relatively skittish about having such deep historical/political discussions. And that, of course, is a symptom of a larger problem about how we talk about race in the United States. But, even though the record wasn’t very good, it *was*, at the very least, an attempt to have a real discussion about racial identity and U.S. racial history in the context of a mainstream country song. That doesn’t happen very often, and I think Paisley and LL Cool J deserve real credit for that, even if the contents of the song were so lackluster and even problematic. I hope that “Accidental Racist” encourages other folks – musicians, journalists, scholars, and especially listeners – to talk and think more about these issues and how they play out through the music. I was definitely disappointed by “Accidental Racist,” for a variety of reasons, but I hope it doesn’t shut down the larger discussion that it’s trying to provoke.
CH: I’m currently working on a book about the relationship between country and soul music – and black and white musicians – in the southern recording industry in the 1960s and 1970s. This essay is drawn from that research, and I’m looking forward to seeing how people react to this part of the larger story. I’m also working on some articles, both for scholarly journals and general-audience publications. I’m trying to figure out what my next big project is, but I’ve been kicking around a few ideas.
MT: Can you recommend a few of your favorite music tomes?
CH: Wow, that’s the toughest question you could ask! There are too many great books, so I’m sure to leave some out. A few thoughts:
I’ve been revisiting some of the foundational stuff, particularly in country and R&B, and I find that a lot of the classics – Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music, Bill Malone’s Country Music U.S.A., Nelson George’s Death of Rhythm and Blues, Charlie Gillett’s Sound of the City – still hold up really well. The book that made the single biggest impact on me as a listener, writer and thinker was Craig Werner’s A Change Is Gonna Come, which totally reshaped my understanding of how to hear music and understand it. I find myself returning to it regularly, as I also return to Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, which is one of the best works of American history (music or otherwise) in recent memory.
Three books that came out in the past 5 years have completely changed the game, at least for me, on the way I understand the recording industry and its historical contexts: Karl Hagstrom Miller’s Segregating Sound, Diane Pecknold’s The Selling Sound and David Suisman’s Selling Sounds. The fact that they have similar titles is appropriate, because they are all mind-blowing and compelling.
Finally, there are a couple new and upcoming books that I’m really excited about. Mark Anthony Neal’s Looking For Leroy just arrived on my doorstep, and I’m always excited to see what Neal has to say. And David Cantwell’s biography of Merle Haggard, The Running Kind, is coming in September and I can’t wait.
There are so many others, and I’m already regretting some that I left out, but those are what came to mind right off the bat.