Fake Twang: How White Conservatism Stole Country Music

Nick ShouldersMarch 21, 2020

Country singer Toby Keith performs on Jan. 19, 2017 in Washington, D.C. during the Make America Great Again Welcome Celebration before Donald Trump's inauguration. The commodification of country music has whitewashed the music's diverse and complicated history, argues Nick Shoulders, and the consequences of this whitewashing can still be heard in the radio country of today.

If coun­try music is real­ly music from the country”―as in rur­al spaces any­where between Port­land, Ore­gon and Port­land, Maine―why does near­ly every coun­try per­former, liv­ing or dead, sing with a south­ern accent, regard­less of where they came from? 

Since we’re hav­ing a yee­haw moment” as a nation, thanks to the new Ken Burns doc­u­men­tary Coun­try Music,” let’s dig into this question―because the answer might change how we think about coun­try music, where it comes from, and who, so to speak, owns it.

The south­ern accent itself has, puz­zling­ly, tak­en on a sec­ond life as the voice of uni­ver­sal rural­i­ty. Why? Rural­i­ty clung on longer in the South than oth­er places because of poverty―a pover­ty that was the result of the evils of slav­ery, the destruc­tion of total war, and an ensu­ing era of bru­tal white suprema­cy and eco­nom­ic strife. The des­ti­tu­tion of the for­mer Con­fed­er­a­cy served to pre­serve the use of instru­ments and melodies that were com­mon in every cor­ner of this coun­try, until the tide of indus­tri­al­iza­tion swept over these old­er music forms almost every­where else, inad­ver­tent­ly iso­lat­ing and enshrin­ing the haunt­ing songs of yes­ter­year in old Dixie. 

The for­got­ten cor­ners of the south­east har­bored peo­ple singing and play­ing songs from dis­tant cen­turies and even more dis­tant con­ti­nents. The seem­ing­ly incon­gru­ent tra­di­tions of Gael­ic Europe, Native Amer­i­ca, West Africa, Hawaii, Latin Amer­i­ca and French Cana­da col­lid­ed to cre­ate a kalei­do­scope of ver­nac­u­lar music forms that coa­lesced into what we know today as blues, jazz, rag­time, Cajun, zyde­co, blue­grass and, yes, coun­try. By the time this music reached the ears of the rest of Amer­i­ca in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, crack­ling from prim­i­tive phono­graph records and fledg­ling radio sta­tions, these acci­den­tal­ly pre­served rem­nants of speech pat­terns and musi­cal tra­di­tions seemed archa­ic and novel. 

This is an over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of a com­pli­cat­ed exchange but it lays out at least the bones of the sto­ry. The far-flung south­ern diaspora―refugees from Jim Crow along with the occa­sion­al waves of dis­placed peo­ple dri­ven out­ward by crop fail­ures and dust bowls―carried with them a nos­tal­gic desire for the music of the region they had escaped. As detailed in the Ken Burns film, record com­pa­nies and radio sta­tions broad­ened their audi­ence by pur­pose­ful­ly rebrand­ing the ver­nac­u­lar musi­cal tra­di­tions of the south­east as the sound­track to every rur­al space of this coun­try. The com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of this cul­tur­al nos­tal­gia for a rur­al way of life is plain as day in the very phrase Coun­try Music.” What were once called hill­bil­ly” records were re-mar­ket­ed as Coun­try and West­ern.” (Though the rebrand­ing wasn’t seamless―Hank Williams, the patron saint of coun­try music” insist­ed that he was a folk singer.”) In pop­u­lar cul­ture, the south­ern accent―the accent of a region that his­tor­i­cal­ly per­pet­u­at­ed racial vio­lence and oppression―became under­stood as the uni­ver­sal accent of rural­i­ty. Rather than acknowl­edge the diverse and com­pli­cat­ed ori­gin of these unique­ly Amer­i­can musi­cal forms, the audi­ence was guid­ed toward the illu­sion of a shared nation­al iden­ti­ty in rur­al white­ness. The con­se­quences of this white­wash­ing can still be heard and felt in the radio coun­try of today.

Con­sid­er this: The ori­gins and for­ma­tive musi­cians of what we now call the blues are entire­ly as rur­al and South­ern as any­thing that’s ever come out of Nashville, yet because of the lega­cy of the race records” of the 1920’s and 1930’s, ear­ly black per­form­ers and what became coun­try music” were segregated―presented and mar­ket­ed as entire­ly sep­a­rate and whol­ly incom­pat­i­ble par­al­lel gen­res rather than over­lap­ping and com­pli­cat­ed tra­di­tions that bor­rowed heav­i­ly from one anoth­er. The com­fort with which white record­ing inter­ests have his­tor­i­cal­ly stolen cre­ative prop­er­ty from black Amer­i­ca is well doc­u­ment­ed. Elvis’s unac­knowl­edged pla­gia­rism of Hound Dog” from Big Mama Thor­ton is mir­rored by the radio coun­try of today, which increas­ing­ly resem­bles con­tem­po­rary hip-hop and pop-music in both style and pro­duc­tion, pre­sum­ably as an effort to gar­ner rel­e­vance in an Amer­i­ca that is increas­ing­ly less white. The cher­ished steel gui­tar audi­ble in every hit coun­try song is the descen­dant of a Hawai­in instru­ment. The gui­tar itself is a rel­a­tive new­com­er, enter­ing the sto­ry of Amer­i­can music by way of cities and the Latin South­west. What­ev­er way you cut it, white Amer­i­ca did not cre­ate coun­try music―and yet that’s exact­ly what we’re led to believe. 

Fid­dler Howard Arm­strong, sec­ond from right, was one of many black string band musi­cians and coun­try-music fore­bears who played for both black and white audi­ences in the 1920s and 1930s. Record com­pa­nies, how­ev­er, chose to seg­re­gate black music” (the blues) from white music” (coun­try).

This reflects a larg­er prob­lem: The sto­ry we tell of Rur­al Amer­i­ca” in this coun­try is a large­ly white sto­ry, and the rebrand­ing and pro­lif­er­a­tion of coun­try music to fit a uni­ver­sal rur­al audi­ence inevitably white­washed its diverse his­to­ry and ignored the fact that much of the rur­al south is any­thing but white. Take, for exam­ple, the life-sto­ry of the most Amer­i­can of instru­ments. What we call a ban­jo today is an amal­ga­ma­tion of West African gourd instru­ments that made their way here in the hands of forcibly enslaved peo­ple brought to the U.S. in its colo­nial infan­cy. Once an instru­ment of the most oppressed rung of Amer­i­can soci­ety, the ban­jo gained nation­al expo­sure when racial­ly demean­ing black-face min­strel shows toured the coun­try, singing and play­ing music from the south­ern can­non by way of par­o­dy, inad­ver­tent­ly cre­at­ing a nation­al craze for the instru­ment. Decades after this fad had waned, the major­i­ty of ban­jo play­ers that were doc­u­ment­ed by the folk­lorists of the 1930’s and on were white play­ers in the upland South, where rugged iso­la­tion and pover­ty had pre­served aspects of ver­nac­u­lar ban­jo tra­di­tions root­ed in their dis­tant African ori­gin. This selec­tive doc­u­men­ta­tion cre­at­ed the last­ing and base­less con­no­ta­tion of the ban­jo with rur­al white­ness, ignor­ing the nuance and real­i­ty of the actu­al meet­ing between Euro­pean melod­ic struc­tures and the rhythms and mechan­ics of West African music. 

As a result of this white­wash­ing, our cul­ture has large­ly sur­ren­dered coun­try music to the domain of white con­ser­vatism. This asso­ci­a­tion cre­ates an under­stand­able view of coun­try music fans as right wing mil­i­tants, blind patri­ots and adamant racists or, more gen­er­al­ly, cel­e­bra­tors of nos­tal­gia and rigid whiteness―in short, an image that gar­ners sus­pi­cion and mis­trust from coastal con­tem­po­raries and right­ful­ly wary minorities.

The band Flori­da Geor­gia Line per­forms dur­ing the 2017 Coun­try Music Awards Music Fes­ti­val in Nashville, Ten­nessee in June, 2017. (Pho­to by Richard Gabriel Ford/​Getty Images)

What we think of as tra­di­tion­al coun­try” did not orig­i­nate with white con­ser­v­a­tive men — far from it. And yet, as a con­se­quence of mar­ket­ing, that is the dom­i­nant per­cep­tion peo­ple have of the genre: That it’s not made for every­one and that it stands not for com­bat­ing dis­en­fran­chise­ment but for pre­serv­ing it. 

The accent of the for­mer con­fed­er­a­cy, as spo­ken both by black and white south­ern­ers, is born in part of past vio­lence and iso­la­tion, and so it is prob­lem­at­ic when those from out­side the region try to adopt it, no mat­ter how benign or per­for­ma­tive the inten­tion. Fak­ing what we refer to as the south­ern dialect” isn’t just a form of pover­ty drag; the racial and class impli­ca­tions are over­looked by most peo­ple involved in the genre today, regard­less of polit­i­cal lean­ing. Long per­pet­u­at­ed clas­sist stereo­types about the region are root­ed in a real­i­ty cre­at­ed by fan­tas­ti­cal­ly trag­ic cir­cum­stances, dark his­to­ries that were ever present to those who grew up con­fronting every day both the mod­ern rur­al south and the tense real­i­ty of its sin­ful past.

The basic impres­sion I want to leave is this: Amer­i­can tra­di­tion­al music doesn’t belong to any­one exclu­sive­ly and nev­er will, least of all white male south­ern­ers like myself. 

That being said, this music and its region of ori­gin deserve more than stale nos­tal­gia and con­de­scen­sion from acad­e­mia. It needs to be weaponized against the dis­en­fran­chise­ment it was born from and wield­ed con­scious­ly by peo­ple who care about his­to­ry over mock­ery. I see it hap­pen­ing by the hands of my con­tem­po­raries every day. There’s a pletho­ra of young per­form­ers reimag­ing old­er music forms to fit a chang­ing world, and among these, a wave of con­tem­po­rary black per­form­ers that have cho­sen to reclaim the ban­jo and fid­dle from the clutch­es of revi­sion­ist his­to­ry and make the instru­ments’ use more than nov­el and aca­d­e­m­ic, but a part of the nation­al con­ver­sa­tion about coun­try music. The def­i­n­i­tion of Amer­i­can tra­di­tion­al music” is grow­ing to include the voic­es of more than white Appalachiaphiles and to more accu­rate­ly intro­duce Native and immi­grant his­to­ries into the con­scious­ness of tra­di­tion­al­ist cir­cles. In New Orleans, I’m priv­i­leged enough to two-step and yodel in the most vibrant and least white coun­try-music scene in the Unit­ed States, and it makes me proud to love this genre, despite the dark­ness. There’s a ton of work left to do to make this unique music form more acces­si­ble and more wel­com­ing to peo­ple out­side of the white rur­al expe­ri­ence, but we’ve come a long way.

I’ve cho­sen to own and car­ry on this tra­di­tion in my own music out of oblig­a­tion to its ele­va­tion, not alle­giance to a false mythol­o­gy. But I don’t expect this lev­el of aware­ness from any­one who ever want­ed to sing a sad coun­try song. 

That’s my own absurd effort to rec­on­cile. You’re wel­come to write songs about trac­tors, just don’t buy the bull­shit: It’s the echoes that are worth keep­ing, not the rocks they bounce off of.

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