Hidden Country

The secret family tree of country music


Where Dead Voices Gather, by Nick Tosches, New York: Little, Brown, 330 pages, $24.95

Wrong's What I Do Best: Hard Country Music and Contemporary Culture, by Barbara Ching, New York: Oxford University Press, 186 pages, $22

The indigenous American art form of country music is frequently slandered, shunned, and mocked. It's routinely dismissed as either tacky nostalgia or the soundtrack for menacing rednecks. Often condemned by tastemakers and the tragically hip as one of the most conservative and stifling arenas of popular culture, country is bigger than its detractors imagine. More U.S. radio stations program country music than any other format, while country album sales netted a cool $1.5 billion in 2000. And in spite of the fact that most big city critics probably can't name one of his songs, Garth Brooks is the biggest selling solo act in history.

Two recent books, Nick Tosches' Where Dead Voices Gather and Barbara Ching's Wrong's What I Do Best: Hard Country Music and Contemporary Culture, help tell country's long, complex, and fascinating story. In the process, the authors map a busy intersection between culture and commerce that has produced not just a sound but a whole set of meanings that has helped delight—and define—millions of American lives.

Nick Tosches has written critically acclaimed biographies of Jerry Lee Lewis and Dean Martin and the indispensable histories Country (1977) and Unsung Heroes of Rock & Roll (1984). In Where Dead Voices Gather, he turns to the forgotten roots of country music. On the surface an account of the life and times of Emmett Miller, a largely unknown blackface minstrel singer, the book is in fact a treatise on the meaning and making of culture itself, laying bare the hidden origins and strange currents of popular entertainment. Tosches gladly tips over more than a few sacred cows, most notably the notion that pop music was stolen from black culture.

Born in Macon, Georgia, sometime around the turn of the 20th century (birth certificates weren't required there until 1919), Emmett Miller was, in Tosches' words, "the most singular emanation of that bizarre twilight fusion of blackface minstrelsy, Tin Pan Alley, and jazz—an emanation through which the forces of country music and the blues swirled as well." At his brief peak in the mid-to-late 1920s, this "yodeling blues singer" emerged as "one of the strangest and most stunning of stylists ever to record."

He transformed yodeling from a novelty into something "plaintive and disarming," a technique appropriated with great success by singers as different as Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bob Dylan. Merle Haggard, one of country music's greatest figures, declared his debt to this mysterious minstrel on his 1973 album I Love Dixie Blues, while Western swing legend (and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer) Bob Wills auditioned vocalist Tommy Duncan with Miller's "I Ain't Got Nobody." Tosches convincingly argues that Emmett Miller is "a Rosetta Stone to the understanding of the mixed and mongrel bloodlines of country and blues, of jazz and pop, of all that we know as American music."

Tosches illuminates the myriad ways country inspired contemporary pop culture. In one memorable passage he unearths the origins of black blues shouter Big Joe Turner's "I Got a Gal for Every Day in the Week" in "a ragtime coon song composed in 1900." In another he traces Bob Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell" back through Jimmie Rodgers' "Gambling Bar-Room Blues," Blind Willie McTell's "Dying Gambler," and Louis Armstrong's "St. James Infirmary" to an Irish ballad called "The Unfortunate Rake." And in a story central to the heart of the book, he reveals how Emmett Miller's 1928 version of "Lovesick Blues" became "the direct inspiration for the 1948 performance that 25-year-old Hank Williams rode to fame." These events and countless others like them are, Tosches writes, "the story of American music itself: the story of the black stealing from the black, the white from the white, and the one from the other."

Tosches presents Emmett Miller as a deep source for pop music, one whose influence rippled outward throughout the last century. Consider The Georgia Crackers, Miller's backing band from his 1928 sessions for New York's Okeh label. There is Eddie Lang, "the first great jazz guitarist," who performed with luminaries such as Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. Drummers Gene Krupa and Stan King both played in Benny Goodman's celebrated orchestra. The most notable Crackers were Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, on alto saxophone and trombone, respectively. The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra briefly featured rising superstar Bing Crosby, while Tommy Dorsey's big band introduced a young Frank Sinatra to a world waiting to swoon. In 1956 Elvis Presley made his national television debut on Stage Show, a CBS program hosted by the Dorsey Brothers.

Of course Miller was himself another node in a network of cross-influences that long predated him. He was one of the last popular "minstrels." Tosches provocatively describes minstrelsy as "the first emanation of a pervasive and purely American mass culture." A stage show where whites blackened their faces with cork, mimicked the alleged behavior of Southern blacks, and performed songs supposedly created by those blacks, minstrelsy was born and bred in the heart of the North. The first documented performance occurred in New York City in 1769. By the 1820s and 1830s, lower Manhattan was abuzz with performances such as George Washington Dixon's "Zip Coon" and Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice's song-and-dance routine "Jim Crow." In 1843 the Virginia Minstrels performed the first ever all-blackface program before a capacity crowd at the Bowery Amphitheatre. Soon all blackface performers were known as minstrels.

For some geographic as well as cultural perspective, consider this. The Bowery, a street in lower Manhattan, runs north for about a mile from Chatham Square to Cooper Square. Luc Sante, author of the remarkable urban history Low Life (1991), calls it "the proverbial den of all vices." From the early 19th until the turn of the 20th century, this street and its environs were synonymous with lowbrow entertainment. The area was lousy with saloons, dime museums, oyster bars, minstrel theaters, and establishments promising women in varying states of undress.

In 1875 Samuel F. O'Reilly invented the electric tattoo machine and helped found the modern tattoo profession in his shop at 11 Chatham Square. Before opening his famed American Museum, P.T. Barnum had great success at a coffeehouse at Bowery and Division, where he exhibited an elderly woman he claimed was George Washington's wet nurse. In 1859 Bryant's Minstrels debuted the song "Dixie" (written by Northerner Dan Emmett) at 472 Broadway, several blocks to the west. Abraham Lincoln, in New York City shortly before his election, heard "Dixie" at a minstrel show and called for an encore. Today the Bowery is perhaps best known for the punk club CBGB's (an acronym for "country, bluegrass, and blues," incidentally).

"Minstrelsy, coon songs, and blackface humor," Tosches notes, "were a staple of the recording industry since its birth." George Washington Johnson, a Northern black and the first recording star, hit the big time in 1891 with his Columbia label smash "The Whistling Coon." Stephen Foster, America's first professional songwriter, wrote many of minstrelsy's greatest hits. "Oh! Susanna," "Camptown Races," and "Massa's in de Cold, Cold Ground" all flowed from the pen of this lifelong Yankee, a man who had traveled no farther south than Cincinnati. "Foster's South," Tosches writes, "a South dreamt by the North, was a romance embraced by the South itself; for the greatest nostalgia is that for what has never truly been." (Think about that the next time Pat Buchanan gets moist about how good everybody had it in the 1950s.)

Irving Berlin, composer of "God Bless America" and "White Christmas," also wrote "coon songs" (the accepted term at the time), although he achieved greater acclaim with "Sweet Italian Love," a "wop song" (another once-accepted term) that inspired Dean Martin's 1953 hit "That's Amore." Al Jolson, the first true multimedia star, got his start as a blackface minstrel. Bessie Smith, "The Empress of the Blues," began in the Rabbit Foot minstrelsy troupe, as did jazz great Louis Jordan.

Strangely, blacks regularly performed in blackface. "As for the grotesquerie of minstrelsy," Tosches writes, "there were many, both black and white, who found it no more offensive than the comedy built upon any exaggerated ethnic stereotyping." Maybe that sounds insensitive. Well, as those homeboys in Limp Bizkit like to say, he's just "keepin' it real," or as Tony Soprano might counsel, "fuhgeddaboudit."

Tosches saves his deadliest barbs for those fans of blues and folk that "praise the primitive for its own sake," and therefore "embrace in arrogance…the 'beauty' of downtroddenness and misery." He laments the '60s revival of blues singers like Mississippi John Hurt at the hands of white folkies. "A few old and long-forgotten black guys made a few bucks by putting on the required act," he writes, while the sharp suits and snap-brim hats they had worn with such style were notably absent.

It was shameful, Tosches argues, that Hurt was "compelled to assume the persona of a backwoods cottonfield coon imposed upon him by a young white America that saw itself as a force for racial equality and brotherhood." Tosches has little patience for those that equate artistic "authenticity" with deprivation and suffering. "The simple and irrefutable truth," he writes, "is that no human being would rather break his back in the cotton field than take in good folding money by making records." As for the "raw truth" of the blues, "in the recording studio, the blues, like everything else, was…calculated to take the fancy of the marketplace."

Alas, the fancy of the marketplace did not stay long with Emmett Miller. By the late 1920s, when he recorded the politically incorrect songs that now comprise his massively influential yet largely forgotten legacy, the minstrel world he loved was already near death. Vaudeville had eclipsed it, while motion pictures and radio were on a meteoric rise. Had he been born a century earlier, Miller might have become one of minstrelsy's biggest stars. Instead, he performed before ever-dwindling crowds, reduced to an opening act for dancing girls and flickering images. In Tosches' memorable words, Miller "missed the boat, both coming and going."

Slightly further on down the river of American culture was Hank Williams (1923?1953), Miller's heir, the father of modern country music, and a major influence on rock 'n' roll both as a musician and as a role model. Williams is also at the heart of Barbara Ching's Wrong's What I Do Best: Hard Country Music and Contemporary Culture, an engaging account of country's most colorful characters and the acts of self-invention that made them that way.

Ching, an assistant professor of English at the University of Memphis, picks up the tale that Tosches began. She warns readers up front that her "training is in literary criticism and cultural theory," and that "country music offers an important perspective on the bewildering cultural situation, often called postmodernism, in which we find ourselves." But despite a tendency to flaunt her credentials and play loose with the facts, Ching tells her story well.

As she makes clear, Hank Williams not only successfully gathered many dead voices, he inspired many live ones. She is fiercely (if ultimately unconvincingly) wedded to the idea that "hard country music"—a style she calls "self-consciously low, and self-consciously hard, a deliberate display of burlesque abjection"—champions the "resentment and resilience of those whose pursuit [of the American dream] has been arduous." To her, Williams, a man who literally lived fast (pills and booze), died young (at 29), and left a pretty corpse (his funeral was attended by thousands, while tens of thousands stood outside), is a martyr for the Average Joe. "The rigors of his job failed him," Ching writes, "and its solaces failed him just as they would so many in postwar urban America."

Certainly, Hank Williams set standards—both musical and behavioral—that popular singers are still struggling to meet today. His voracious appetite for self-destruction is the stuff of legend, while his intimate lyrics and rollicking melodies continue to define hardcore country. His long list of admirers includes Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and just about every country singer since the early 1950s. Even Tony Bennett was a fan, transforming Williams' high-lonesome lament "Cold, Cold Heart" into a No. 1 pop hit. "A great song from a great artist," Bennett declared.

Williams' voluminous catalog of hits (including "Lovesick Blues," "Move It On Over," and "Honky Tonkin'") still fills jukeboxes from coast to coast, while tribute albums and cover songs abound among punks, rockers, and honky-tonkers. Ching rightly calls him "the hard act to follow," and does a great job describing a few artists who tried, all of whom ended up invigorating country music in new and exciting ways.

During the late 1950s, the country music industry began consolidating its publishing and recording empire in Nashville, Tennessee. Facing the commercial threat of rock 'n' roll, a fearful country music establishment embraced a strict new hierarchy, with label executives and studio producers wielding an enormous amount of creative control. Executives dictated when and where an artist would record and perform, while producers decided on which session musicians to use and what songs to record. The resulting "Nashville Sound" leaned heavily toward pop, with songs regularly drenched in backing vocals and string arrangements.

By the early 1970s, the stage was set for an old-fashioned rebellion. Enter the Outlaws, a fiercely independent bunch of singer-songwriters who had become increasingly dissatisfied with Nashville's authoritarian power structure.

Influenced by the counterculture and led by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, the Outlaws began openly challenging Nashville's rules and carefully striking out on their own. Nelson recorded his breakthrough album The Red Headed Stranger in Texas, while Jennings renegotiated his RCA contract to allow greater control in the studio and on the road. Once they freed themselves from Nashville's power brokers, the Outlaws quickly achieved commercial and critical success. The 1976 compilation Wanted! The Outlaws, featuring Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser, and Jessi Coulter, became the first country album to sell over 1 million copies.

These rebels revered Hank Williams. They claimed his tough yet tender songs and uncompromising lifestyle were the marks of a real rugged individualist, and they sang about him often. Waylon Jennings pointedly asked Nashville, "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?," and Kris Kristofferson famously declared, "If You Don't Like Hank Williams (You Can Kiss My Ass)." Ex-con and real-life outlaw David Allan Coe would later describe a supernatural hitchhike with his hero in "The Ride."

Even when they ventured far from Williams' original sound, including when their use of rock guitars, leather jackets, and drugs expanded the country audience to include Hell's Angels and hippies, the Outlaws remained quintessentially country. Their sparsely accompanied songs and intimate, narrative lyrics struck an immediate chord with country fans, and their colorful antics (onstage and off) evoked Hank's unruly spirit. Never mind that the whole Outlaw thing was basically a marketing ploy crafted by some business-savvy singers. Willie and Waylon didn't exactly earn their fortunes by robbing banks, after all; they just wrote great songs and created exciting identities. In the end, the Outlaws' mid-'70s success proved one of the most innovative and lucrative periods in country music, while their inspiring example of individual achievement over a powerful status quo made them lasting cultural heroes.

Out west in California, Dust Bowl migrants Buck Owens and Merle Haggard mixed Hank-style hard-luck lyrics with muscular rock rhythms and some honky-tonk twang to create the Bakersfield sound. With their "revved-up percussion" and driving electric riffs on top of fiddles and steel guitars, "they sounded nothing like those coming out of Nashville…in its mellow mid-'60s string-section, backup singer phase," Ching writes. Rising out of Bakersfield's tough, beer-soaked honky-tonks, Haggard scored a string of No. 1 hits, including "Mama Tried" and "Okie From Muskogee," while Owens achieved pop culture immortality on the syndicated TV hit Hee Haw.

In the 1980s, self-styled Bakersfield heir Dwight Yoakam left Columbus, Ohio, for Los Angeles, where he helped kick off the highly successful "new traditionalist" movement that laid the foundation for the commercial juggernaut of Garth Brooks. Country fans didn't much care where Yoakam, with his stylish good looks and raw, guitar-driven sound, went to high school. As with those Northerners who wrote nostalgic songs about a South they never knew, Yoakam's "authenticity" lies in his audience's response. Since he could walk the walk, talk the talk, and sing lots of Buck Owens songs, his credibility was never in question.

Nobody found Williams a harder act to follow, however, than his son Randall, better known to the world as Hank Williams Jr. This unfortunate son, Ching notes, got his professional start as a prepubescent Hank impersonator, dressed in miniature cowboy hat, boots, and "Nudie suit" (the famous rhinestone-studded variety, named after the Los Angeles tailor Nudie Cohen). At age 11 Hank Jr. made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry with (what else?) "Lovesick Blues." As he matured, however, he became increasingly anxious to find his own voice, to create his own brand of country. "His career as an imitator was morbidly centered on sustaining sorrow and loss," Ching writes, "a nostalgia act that by definition had no future except as a well-publicized death wish."

By the mid-1970s Hank Jr. had defined himself as the rowdy country-rocker Bocephus (a nickname originally given by his father). Like the Outlaws, he abandoned Nashville, in this case for the woods of Alabama, where "his music is homegrown—as are his other pleasures, wine and marijuana."

His artistic horizons expanded as well. The 1975 album Hank Williams Jr. and Friends featured members of the Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker bands, two of the biggest names in Southern rock. "I'm gonna quit singin' all these sad songs, cause I can't stand the pain," Bocephus declared on the album's last track, "Living Proof." His specialties became wild anthems ("Whisky Bent and Hell Bound") and Southern pride ("A Country Boy Can Survive").

In 1989 he became a cultural icon as the rowdy voice of Monday Night Football. These days, Hank Jr. sings his father's sad songs, declares himself the master of "X-Treme Country," and records and performs with his (spiritual, not biological) "rebel son" Kid Rock, the hillbilly hip-hopper whom Spin recently dubbed "the first man ever to cross over from rap to country."

By both banking on his famous name and drastically altering his father's formula, Hank Williams Jr. has expanded both the definition and fan base of country music. Party-loving Southern rockers and old-fashioned fiddlers now have an equal stake in the enterprise. "As a Williams," Ching argues, "Bocephus can make definitive statements about the meaning of country music itself, [and] he can make it mean nearly anything he wants."

Judging by the recent success of both traditional bluegrass (the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou?) and country-pop (Garth Brooks, Faith Hill), Bocephus isn't the only one who can make country mean whatever he wants it to. From Emmett Miller and the dying embers of minstrelsy to the commercial explosion of Hank Williams and his vast influence on both country and the birth of rock 'n' roll, these books help explain how cultural forms migrate, mix, and recombine, often in invisible and unpredictable ways.

Ironically, today's country music is largely seen as a refuge for whites from so-called black music, in spite of country's roots in minstrelsy and deep ties with the blues. Nashville's reputation as a bastion of family values is equally strange, given Johnny Cash's murder songs ("I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die") and the alcohol-fueled antics of George "No Show" Jones.

Ultimately, however, these interpretations will themselves give way to others, further expanding the wealth of identities and affiliations available on the American scene. From Christian fundamentalists to longhaired freaks, cowpunks to good ol' boys, every new face makes country bigger than it was before. And there is always room for more unexpected arrivals.