In his new book, The Country Music Reader, Travis Stimeling takes readers through country music history using a host of primary sources as a guide. Assembling country music writing from newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals the book is a great look at many oft quoted articles in a format that makes them readily available and accessible. Stimeling provides in-depth intros to each article placing them in context and discussing offshoot subjects pertaining to the article. Readers of this blog will also love the further reading sections at the end of each article. Today Stimeling talks to us a bit about the project:
Music Tomes: The book is essentially a tour through the history of country music–from the early fiddler contests to a 2010 profile of Miranda Lambert–through the eyes of news reporters and music writers. How did you strike on the idea for the book?
Travis Stimeling: During my graduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I had the great fortune of working as a teaching assistant for Jocelyn Neal’s country music history class. As a consequence, I became very familiar with the available textbooks for such a course, which, at the time, were few. Moreover, I had taken a jazz history course with Chris Wilkinson at West Virginia University that used Robert Gottlieb’s Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now as a primary text. It was there that I had learned the value of encouraging students to engage with primary historical sources and teaching them how to make sense out of these rich, but sometimes confounding, documents. In the summer of 2008, I (with help of two research assistants, Will Frankenberger and Alyssa Callaghan) began collecting newspaper and magazine articles discussing country music in all of its forms with the ultimate goal of organizing them into an anthology that could be used in country music history courses. At the same time, as a country music historian, I also recognized that much of the best source material is tucked away in defunct publications, vertical files, and out-of-print memoirs. So it was my secondary goal to present some of the most interesting primary sources–including several that have been cited widely in the scholarly literature–for my colleagues in the field.
MT: How did you decide what articles to include?
TS: There were a number of factors that I considered when I decided what to include in the book. First, I wanted to make sure that the sources I selected engaged with some of the primary themes in country music studies: representations of country musicians and their audiences, the “Southernness” of country music, the mass media, gender and sexuality, and so on. Some of the sources I selected touched on more than one of these themes, while others reflected only one. Second, I wanted to choose sources that were written by people from diverse backgrounds, including not only musicians and journalists, but fans and industry insiders. It was my hope that this anthology would be as inclusive as possible. Third, I was concerned about accessibility, especially because I hope that the book will be of interest to students as well as the general reader.
MT: As you went on this tour of country music history, what impressions did you get about how the music was and is covered in the press?
TS: Country music has been the source of great fascination since long before the first “hillbilly” records in the 1920s, and it should be no surprise that the press has treated the genre differently at different times in its history. However, there is no doubt that certain themes emerge time and again. For instance, writers frequently discuss the “authenticity” of country music composition and performance. At various times throughout the genre’s history, country music is depicted as a connection to a pure–and ideally European American–musical past, a commercialized bastardization of that pure folk tradition, or a genuine representation of a particular group of people (rural, working-class, Southern, American, etc.).
Another subject of interest has been the business of country music. Whether documenting the fees that recording artists garnered at the Bristol Sessions, the formation of the Country Music Association, or the development of the arena concert, reporters seem to be fascinated by the ways that country musicians–who often play to hillbilly or redneck stereotypes–are able to capitalize on their talents and function as significant economic forces. One article that I found fascinating was an early report on singing cowboy star Gene Autry that discussed the ways that Autry licensed his likeness and created an additional revenue stream that supplemented his film, radio, and recording incomes. The author of the piece, Saturday Evening Post contributor Alva Johnson, seemed absolutely astonished by Autry’s business acumen, which, of course, would help him become a major business leader in Southern California during the 1950s and 1960s.
Finally, it was interesting to me that so much of the journalism around country music does not engage with the music as a sonic artifact. That is, they seldom talk about the sound of country music. Rather, many journalists–even those with astute critical ears–tend to focus on lyrics and iconography and only speak of music in the most general terms. This may be my own bias as a musicologist and musician, but I think there are lots of interesting things that we can learn from listening critically and trying to talk about the sounds we hear.
MT: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
TS: I imagine that most readers will have some working knowledge of country music history or have a great primer on hand as they read this book. With that in mind, it is my hope that The Country Music Reader challenges readers to engage critically with the established narratives around country music and to work to formulate their own understandings. I have offered brief critical introductions to each of the readings to present what I see as some of the interesting themes that emerge from each source, and I hope that readers will use those introductions as a way to frame their own reading. Finally, I have offered extensive reading lists to accompany each source. It would be great if this book led readers to pick up some of the other great writings on country music, as well.
MT: What are you currently working on?
TS: I’m currently working on a book tentatively titled Nashville Cats: Record Production in Nashville, 1955-1973, which explores the development of the so-called “Nashville Sound” through the eyes of the session musicians, arrangers, engineers, and producers who worked in the city’s recording studios. I’ve been conducting interviews with some of Nashville’s most recorded musicians, including several members of the legendary Nashville “A Team,” and I’ve also spent a great deal of time in the archives at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University, and the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?
TS: I’ve read a lot of really great books on music lately. Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music, edited by Diane Pecknold, is an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the complicated racial politics of country music culture. Clifford R. Murphy’s Yankee Twang: Country and Western Music in New England challenges us to consider the logic of local and regional country music communities. And Ryan Banagale’s Arranging Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and the Creation of an American Icon is a remarkable work of reception history that presents a treasure trove of new archival evidence to demonstrate how musicians have constantly arranged and rearranged Rhapsody in Blue to suit their specific musical, economic, and social purposes.