During the first incarnation of this blog, I asked the same closing question in every interview that I do now: “Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?” In the interviews with two writers I greatly respect, they recommended, highly, a book that had just come out at the time, among some of the classics they listed. That book, The Selling Sound, was Diane Pecknold’s first, and those writers were correct, it was, and is, a fantastic book. Now she serves as editor of another great book,Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music. Two weeks ago we talked with Charles Hughes, one of the contributors to the book, and today Diane tells us a little more about the project and her chapter in the book.
Diane Pecknold: While I was writing my dissertation, I spent a lot of time huddled in my basement listening to music while I wrote. I ended up listening to a lot of country soul and one song that got a lot of airtime was “That’s How I Feel” by the Soul Clan, with Joe Tex, and then I read Buddy Killen’s autobiography By the Seat of My Pants. Once I put that song together with the story Killen tells about Tex’s career, I just started to see all of these institutional and stylistic connections that the popular music history I had read, particularly about country music, hadn’t brought to the fore. (This is just one reason I’m so glad to have Charles Hughes’s excellent essay in the collection).
At that point, I thought I’d like to write a book on Black artists and country music in the 1960s and early 1970s. I realized that I couldn’t do that very effectively without being able to point readers to the larger context of African American old-time and country music performance over the twentieth century, but that book kind of didn’t exist — the bits and pieces were scattered all over — and I sure didn’t have the expertise to write it on my own, so I thought crowd-sourcing it would be a good solution.
MT: How did you go about picking the contributors? Did you have specific topics in mind and then find writers to present them, or did you have writers in mind and then work with them to flesh out their contribution?
DP: I had initially hoped that the book could serve as a kind of preliminary outline of the history of African American old-time and country, but it became apparent pretty quickly that that was just too vast a terrain to usefully cover in a single volume. (Though when I described the project to people outside of my own field I often got jokes like “Wow, that’s gonna be a short book.”)
So then I started thinking more from the standpoint of work I knew was out there or underway that might at least represent the state of inquiry. Adam Gussow told me early on that he was working on a piece about Cowboy Troy, so I asked whether he would contribute. I had been hugely impressed with Michael Awkward’s discussion of country repertoire by Aretha Franklin and Al Green in his book Soul Covers, and hoped he could follow up on that. I thought Barbara Ching’s brief discussion of Black hard country artists in Wrong’s What I Do Best was very astute and wondered if she had more to say (though of course she ended up doing something very different in the collection with her essay on songwriter Alice Randall). Kip Lornell’s pioneering work, many of the primary sources for which are available in the Digital Library of Appalachia, of course needed to be represented. A conversation with Aaron Fox about the St. Lucian country scene in New York led me to Jerry Wever’s fascinating research. I saw Jeff Keith give a conference paper on Bill Livers and collared him. And then in some cases — the late David Sanjek, Patrick Huber, Erika Brady — people whose work I admired but who I didn’t know were working in this area just popped up with great ideas for essays.
Even thinking about it from the perspective of contributors rather than topics, though, there was so much more I wanted to include and couldn’t. There were several people who make their living from writing that I would have tried to get if I could have made it a paying gig, most notably Barry Mazor, Elijah Wald and Kandia Crazy Horse. I would have also loved to reprint Christopher Waterman’s essay on Bo Chatmon from Music and the Racial Imagination, or Jocelyn Neal’s essay on race in country dance hall culture from Musical Quarterly, or Paul Wells’s essay on fiddling as a from of cross-racial interchange from the Black Music Research Journal.
You can see why I backed off the initial idea of trying to be comprehensive!
MT: The chapter you did is on Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Why did you pick that particular album/artist/event?
DP: When I was writing my dissertation (what became The Selling Sound), I was reading a lot of music and broadcasting trade publications, and I kept coming across stories about Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. It was just everywhere. I had always loved the album, but I had no idea how important it was in the development of the country industry, or even how enormously commercially successful it had been. (This was before the Country Music Hall of Fame mounted its terrific exhibit on Charles.) I felt like it was indicative of the whole conundrum of African American country performance: country historians hadn’t written much about it because it wasn’t “really” a country record in terms of its institutional provenance or marketing, and historians of soul hadn’t written much about it because it didn’t easily fit into the narrative that reads soul as a cultural corollary to the freedom struggle. So I thought it was a really good way to talk about how genre distinctions, and our historical memory of musical canons, are racialized in a way that obscures what Waterman calls “the excluded middle.”
And I’m secretly hoping that someday the record-keepers will count Modern Sounds as the first million-selling country record (no offense to Waylon and Willie).
MT: It seems the conversation on race and Country Music has had renewed interest in the last few years. What do you hope Hidden in the Mix can add to the conversation?
DP: Part if me is living in terror that the book will be perceived as the academic equivalent of “Accidental Racist” — a well-meaning but ultimately inept attempt to start a conversation on the racial politics of country music that ends up feeling like a really uncomfortable apologia. (Actually, if it weren’t too late, I’d be writing a coda on what we can learn about race and country music by comparing the content and reception of “Accidental Racist,” Darius Rucker’s version of “Wagon Wheel,” and the remix of “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line and Nelly, all of which have been released to widespread attention of one kind or another in the last two months.)
Of course, the advantage of a book is that you have an opportunity to be a little more nuanced than a pop song, and hopefully this is. I think the book makes a number of contributions. Obviously there’s more than I can cover here (that would take, er, a book), but just by way of illustration, I’m a huge fan of Karl Hagstrom Miller’s Segregating Sound, but I think Patrick Huber’s essay points us to a more complex understanding of A&R practice that is often accused of separating conjoined musical performance styles on the basis of race alone. (I don’t think this is what Hagstrom Miller is arguing, by the way, but he often gets incorrectly glossed that way.) I think Tony Thomas, Michael Awkward, and Kip Lornell all point to the need for more work that considers African American old-time/country performance less in relation to “country music” and more in relation to African American music as a whole. And I see Erika Brady’s essay on Arnold Shultz as a really useful opening foray into talking about what it means to talk/write about the history of race and country for us fans and critics and practitioners in the present day.
I guess my hope is that it will draw attention to the need for more work on all of the things that didn’t make it into the collection. And I’d like to make it nonsensical for anyone to make that “short book” joke.
MT: What are you currently working on?
DP: I’m still wrestling with the idea of going back to the book I originally wanted to write. That would bring together an expanded discussion of Charles; an expanded version of an essay I wrote on Isaac Hayes’s country covers (in Pop When the World Falls Apart, ed. Eric Weisbard); a chapter I’ve written on Linda Martell, Jeannie C. Riley, and Shelby Singleton; and a new chapter on Solomon Burke.
But what I’m really working on is a new book on tween pop that I’m writing with Sarah Dougher. It might not seem like it on the surface, but there are a lot of continuities between country and tween pop in terms of institutional history and position, and of course both have often been seen as “bad.” We’re looking at the historical development of the tween music market and the relationship between the commercial genre and efforts like the girls rock movement that hope to give girls a public voice through music.
MT: Can you recommend a few of your favorite music tomes?
DP: There’s so much and my favorites are always shifting, so this is more a passing snapshot than a canonical list. In relation to Hidden in the Mix, I’d say, in addition to the books I’ve already mentioned, Ronald Radano’s Lying Up a Nation, Josh Kun’s Audiotopia, Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta, Barry Mazor’s Meeting Jimmie Rodgers. Most of what I’m reading these days is about girls/children and music. I especially love Jacqueline Warwick’s Girl Groups, Girl Culture, the collection When We Were Free to Be, and, if we can expand to include phonograph culture generally, Jacob Smith’s Spoken Word. For just a hugely enjoyable read, I heartily recommend Ed Comentale’s new book Sweet Air, which not only presents a really engaging argument about modernism in twentieth-century popular music, but also in its form and prose kind of embodies the argument he’s making (and recounts some utterly fascinating stories along the way).
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