What is real country music?: It's often whatever the latest musical generation says it is
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 13 May 2003)

Everybody acknowledged Bill Monroe as the father of bluegrass music, but he always assumed another role as well. He was the self-appointed chief of the bluegrass police, the ranking authority on how it should be played. When someone else's music sounded false to him, he condemned it with six harsh words: "That ain't no part uh nuthin."

Aside from being a triple negative that would flutter the heart of a dedicated anti-grammarian, Monroe's dictum nails an elusive but fascinating theme that runs beneath the BBC's absorbing TV series Lost Highway: The History of American Country, which is now halfway through its run of four Friday-night hours on the CMT channel.

The story of any specialized popular music -- folk, blues, jazz, rock, klezmer -- unfolds as a struggle over authenticity. Fans booed Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 because he played electric guitar, an instrument then alien to folk. In the 1950s, when British musicians were reviving New Orleans jazz, they doggedly copied every note on records from the 1920s (their critics claimed they even copied the mistakes). So when the BBC arrives in America to explain country music, authenticity of course becomes a central issue.

Monroe was a brooding mandolin player who possessed perhaps the highest-pitched voice in popular music, a rather alarming sound called "the high lonesome." He was authentic as all get-out, but as a leader of men he had his flaws -- "a hard case," someone on Lost Highway calls him. He expected his musicians to do farm work when the band wasn't on the road, a level of authenticity that few of them found appealing. Not surprisingly, he had trouble keeping a band together.

Two stars who left him were Lester Flatt, the guitarist, and Earl Scruggs, the virtuoso banjo player. In 1948, out on their own as Flatt & Scruggs, the Foggy Mountain Boys, they turned into the purest-sounding bluegrass players alive. The astonishing banjo playing of Scruggs pulled the rug of authenticity from beneath Monroe's feet, dislodging him in an Oedipal drama that other country musicians have frequently replayed since.

Each new generation routinely overthrows its predecessors by claiming to rediscover the roots of the music and its ancient purity. Richard A. Peterson, a Vanderbilt University sociologist, appears occasionally on the BBC series, and the script echoes his ground-breaking 1997 book Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity (University of Chicago Press).

Good-hearted and amiable, never a harsh critic of the musicians, Peterson nevertheless suggests there's something bogus (a word he's too kind to use) in the "authenticity" that so many of them self-consciously claim.

The idea of genuine, unadulterated, traditional music holds such wide appeal that musicians try to build it into their commercially fabricated product. Since there's no clear standard of purity from the past, a reputation for authenticity usually rests on how shrewdly a singer chooses which old-time performers to emulate. Over the years Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson and Dwight Yoakam have established their legitimacy by borrowing from the past.

"What is taken to be authentic is continually changing," Peterson explains. And: "Authenticity is a renewable resource." Country players used to imply that they were natural and unaffected, but "this unaffectedness was itself an affectation." Of course, nothing requires more artifice than naturalism.

Lost Highway's first two hours describe the progress of country music from its beginnings in Appalachia through the national success of bluegrass and the radical change from Hank Williams-style honky-tonk to the treacly Nashville Sound. A third hour this Friday covers the re-emergence of a maverick streak in performers like Haggard, a dope-addicted ex-con who became (much to his amusement) a hero of conservative America in the late 1960s, before he died of an overdose. The BBC notes that the category called Alt.Country offers a "back-to-basics" approach, yet another revolution.

The fourth hour, unfortunately titled Sweethearts of the Rodeo, concerns the rise of women from bit players and accompanists to the high-intensity stardom of Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Loretta (Don't Come Home-a-Drinkin' With Lovin' On Your Mind) Lynn and, more recently, stars like k.d. lang and Shania Twain.

Emmylou Harris, one of several singer-commentators in the series, reminds us that country music deals with timeless issues ("birth, death, longing, loss, salvation, joy," not to mention cheatin' hearts) and presents "life laid right out on a plate for you." She acknowledges a major recent event in this community, the surging popularity of country (and especially bluegrass) after its extensive and beautiful use in the film O Brother Where Art Thou a couple of years ago. The CD from the film sold six million copies and renewed the reputations of several key personalities, notably Ralph Stanley, a venerable singer whom the business had pretty well forgotten.

The consequences of O Brother Where Art Thou provide one excuse for making this history now. Another is that it was 50 years ago last New Year's that Hank Williams died, aged 29, from a heart attack abetted by drugs and alcohol. He died silently in the back seat of a car, his hired driver unaware till hours later that Williams had expired as they roared down the highway.

Williams was the most impressive and successful of all country singers, but Lost Highway reminds us that at the time of his death he was in decline, even banned from the Grand Ole Opry programs for drunken unreliability. The BBC suggests that country music made a tragic error when it turned away from his style after he died, so rattled by falling sales that it replaced steel guitars with soupy violins. Was Williams authentic? Absolutely, says the BBC -- though Peterson's book implies that his legend was as concocted as any.

Williams once said, "You have to plough a lot of ground and look at the backside of a mule for a lot of years to sing a country song," a real country sort of thing to say. As it happens, Williams did not live on a farm, learned music from a black street singer, and was so sickly he couldn't have ploughed even if there had been ploughing to do. He meant it in the figurative sense, knowing that country could always use another touch of poetry. He also knew, by instinct, that there's not much difference between authenticity and mythology.

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