- While I listen to The
Rock, the opening song on George Jones latest CD,
The Rock: Stone Cold Country (2001), I notice the lone sonority
of the acoustic guitar that introduces Jones weathered voice
singing about the complicated emotions drawn from the pleasures and
sorrows of adult love and sexuality: passion, loss, and hope. Though
I am submerged in my own painful memories of ending relationships
once dear to me, the underlying groove beckons my body to seek a partner
and dance the two-step in my living room to the musics gradual
eruption as each instrument enters the ensemble. As I euphorically
dance, releasing those overwhelming emotions of grief with my imagined
partner, Jones sings about simpler times, evoking sentiments of nostalgia.
Within the broad context of longing for an existence outside of urbanity,
the music portrays contrasting images of masculinity: the virile whiskey-drinking
womanizer and the vulnerable worker who longs for a beloved and an
escape from the entrapment of earning a wage. Jones philosophizing
about the conditions of life extends to the spiritual realm as I switch
CDs to It Dont Get Better Than This (1998) and listen
to the last track, I Can Live Forever. In the same fervent
style and pulsating rhythm of his honky-tonk songs, Jones depicts
the afterlifes heavenly place of escape, serenity, and
assurance of the continuity of ones existence even after death.
- Though George Jones is a legendcanonized by scholarship as
well as the music industry itselfhis music is not alone in evoking
conflicting images of reality and escapism. In
Dont Get Above Your Raisin: Country Music and the Southern
Working Class, Bill Malone deftly discusses the very layers of
tension prevalent throughout country music and rooted in southern
working-class culture. Malones work has been influential in
shaping the stories scholars tell about the industry and music since
the 1968 publication of his dissertation, Country Music, USA,
which established a canon within the general narrative of country
- In Dont Get Above Your Raisin, Malone situates
country music as looking backward to rural life that dissipated in
the wake of industrialization. Through his explorations, Malone relies
on W. J. Cashs theory about how the paradox of hedonism/piety
has been central to shaping the dynamics of southern culture from
the defeat of the Civil War to the homogenizing effects of middle-class
culture. While many working-class southerners may drink, dance, and
carouse on a Saturday night at a local barn dance or honky tonk, on
Sunday morning the same individuals may attend church and share a
family meal with extended relatives. Depicting the tension between
rurality and urbanity and the hedonism/piety paradox, Malone narrates
how the major realms of country musicwork, home, religion, rambling,
dance, humor, and politicsfunction within the culture and play
out in music.
- As a scholar and musician who grew up in the south, Malone artfully
draws his readers into a world with which he is intimately connected.
He offers an astute understanding of southern, working-class society,
specifically as it relates to country musics portrayal of masculinity.
His focus, however, at times does not critically address other aspects
of southern culture and music. Though he mentions the influence of
African American music in myriad ways, constructions of whiteness,
and music written and sung by women, Malone does not delve into
the complexities of racial and gendered identities with the same
historical specificity he devotes to the ambiguities of white masculinity.
Perhaps with the tools of social theory, Malone may have been able
to unravel further the racial tensions and ambivalences in the south
and examine the full participation of women in country music. Yet,
despite these ommissions, Malone admirably explicates many of the
cultural forces that have shaped country music in particular and American
music in general.
- The conflicts surrounding urbanization resounded in many ways for
both working-class southerners and in country music. Malone explains
that with tenantry and sharecropping fading from the burgeoning railroad,
coal, and oil industries, the south contained physical junctures where
industrialization fused with the rural. This discordant relationship
fostered a music that simultaneously voiced a longing for the autonomy
associated with farming and negotiated the regimented lifestyles of
oil field workers or coal miners. In Im a Small-Time Laboring
Man, his chapter on the realm of work, Malone elucidates the
long tradition that includes Fiddlin John Carson, who
sang movingly about the honest farmer, to Willie Nelson, who had devoted
much of his time and career to the crusade to save the family farmer
(37). Along with reinforcing the romanticism surrounding farming,
many songs depicted the conditions and poverty of the working class.
Merle Traviss Dark
as a Dungeon describes the perils of coal mining as well
as the company stores ambiguous ownership of the laborers
soul, whose dependency upon the industry was like a fiend for
his dope, and a drunkard his wine (43).
- Yet not all songs focused on how industrialism situated working
class men in subjugated positions or expressed a longing for an idealized
past steeped in an agrarian existence. The prevalence of the rambling
theme in country music reflects the cultural significance of the railroad
industry, offering, for many southerners, notions of freedom to live
outside of societal constraints from the drudgery of tenant farming
and the subservience enforced in the mill or factory. With railroads
reaching the most remote areas of southern Appalachia by 1912, the
industry required the labor of southern men and represented a mobile
force, enabling one to leave or escape ones surroundings (24).
Merle Haggard, 1995.
Photographer, Loyal Jones.
- While Malone delves into the complexity of white masculinity through
the personas of Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, and
others, he does not approach other aspects of southern culture with
the same degree of detailed research and insight. Malone only briefly
mentions the role that the train played in black southern culture,
and states that Jimmie Rodgerss famous blue verses, in
some cases, may have been absorbed from direct experience with black
railroad workers (127). Considering the work of Charles Wolfe
on the musical interchange of black and white musicians performing
the blues, Malones assessment of the influence of
African American culture on the music and self-fashioning of Rodgers
is an understatement of the complex and rich cultural exchange between
black and white southerners. I do not want to give the impression
that Malone omits the participation of African Americans music
on country music. In his explanation of the national attraction to
the sounds of southern string bands in the beginning of his book,
for example, Malone points to how a rhythmic drive drawn from black
music placed the grooves of string bands apart from other forms of
rural music heard in the north (14). Malones
investment in southern culture, however, pertains to explaining the
cultural enactments of white masculinity while neglecting the full
context the full context of the interwoven history of white and black
- As Malone discusses
the function of humor and delineates a narrative of comedians
and comediennes from Minnie Pearl to Jeff Foxworthy, he
does not thoroughly explain the cultural forces behind the prevalence
of forms drawing on black minstrelsy and the country rube.
Rod Brasfield and Minnie Pearl
at the Grand Ole Opry (1940s).
Photographer, Les Leverett
- Along with his discussion of the role of self parody in the function
of humor, Malone finally addresses country musics portrayal
of gender. He positions the cultural need for humor as the catalyst
for revitalizing the age-old theme of the war of the sexes,
heard in the female and male duets of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn
as well as Porter Wagner and Dolly Parton (183). Malone finds this
genre one of the few phases of modern country music, at least
until the late eighties, in which the woman unqualifiedly asserted
her own prerogatives and challenged the supremacy of the male
(183). The feisty woman is an image of only modern country
music, evidenced in Loretta Lynns Dont
Come Home A-Drinkin (With Lovin' on Your Mind) (1966) which
combines sexuality and amusement in a challenge to patriarchal hierarchies
- Again, in his chapter devoted to politics, Malone pointedly mentions
the presence of women singers in tandem with their articulation of
womens rights. He positions the music of Loretta Lynn
and Dolly Parton of the 1960s and 1970s as precursors to contemporary
feminist voices. Lagging behind the second wave of feminism by at
least a decade or two are such artists of the 1980s and 1990s including
Kathy Mattea, the Dixie Chicks, Deanna Carter and k.d. lang (248249).
Though Malone points to the vast influence of Sara and Maybelle Carter
and the omnipresence of Minnie Pearl within the industry, Malone only
addresses womens general involvement in country music in relation
to a heightened social consciousness (248). Before the
1980s, womens musical activities seem to be located in more
pious spheresthe home and church.
- As I read the introduction of Malones book, in which he explores
his own personal relationship to country music, I am aware of an implicit
gendered relationship that maps the hedonistic/piety paradox onto
a male/female dichotomy. In a recollection of his youth in the rural
South, Malone describes his mother singing fervently in the church
while his father waited outside with the other men from the community,
and drank and socialized without daring to step a foot into a place
of devotion (34). With this frame in place, he approches
the major realms of country music through a gendered lens. In his
discussion about rambling, for instance, he relegates Emma Bell Miles
to the traditional sphere of piety before he launches into his explanation
of the rambler as a masculine figure (122). Not only does Malone omit
a feminine response to the rambler, he also does not acknowledge the
manifestations of this identity as a form of female autonomy during
such times as the Depression and World War II. For me, the most striking
effacement is the image of the assertive cowgirl, including Patsy
Montana in the 1930s, Rose Maddox in the 1940s, Patsy Cline in the
1950s, and the contemporary singer Terri Clark, who is rarely seen
without her black cowgirl hat.
- Yet Malone includes the masculine responses to feminized
spheres of home and religion. For example, he expounds upon how the
yearning for the symbolic home manifested during Southerners
urban migration in the 1950s and Americas changing gender relationships
during and after World War II. Eddy Arnolds Mommy
Please Stay Home with Me reveals a desire for a return to
a supposed simpler time, in which the mothers image ensures
the sanctity of the home for her family (74). Malone does not,
however, mention Kitty Wellss replies in It
Wasnt God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels or I Heard
The Jukebox Playing to the misplaced anxietiesstemming
from the cultural shifts of the 50sthat resulted in the accusation
that women caused traditionalisms disintegration.
- Though Malone points in passing to the music of Loretta Lynn, Hazel
Dickens, Dolly Parton, and Iris Dement throughout his explorations
of the major realms of country music, Malones focus is masculinity.
Malones gendering of the hedonistic/piety paradox eliminates
the involvement of women in hedonistic realms until the 1980s and
contains their earlier musical expressions in the home and church.
The complicated gendered dynamics rooted in working-class southern
culture cannot so easily be explained through middle-class constructions
- Despite my critical comments pertaining to race and gender, Malones
unraveling of the tensions surrounding country music unfolds admirably
in areas that have received little scholarly attention thus far. In
his chapter devoted to politics, Malone offers a narrative about country
musics vast and contradictory political alignments with the
labor movement of the 1930s, Farm Aid, Populism, and past presidents
Jimmie Carter and George H.W. Bush. Likewise, he explores the centrality
of dance with unprecedented research and thought. After he traces
the popularity of rural dances in England and France and their immigration
to America, he demonstrates the cultural role of escapism in square
dancing or two-stepping and the migration of dance to urban areas
through the genre of honky tonk. In response to middle-class Americas
contemporary infatuation with rural life, the movements of line dancing
accompanied by the sounds of new country have graced the
images of many music videos, including Billy Ray Cyruss Achy
Breaky Heart, the song that launched this singers ascendance
to international fame. Malone brilliantly concludes that this
fusion of dance and song has taken the music into the farthest reaches
of suburbia, [and] contributed to the greatest commercial growth that
country music has ever experienced (170).
- Malones welcomed insights constitute a significant contribution to a burgeoning field of scholarship, which he was instrumental in shaping so many years ago with his Country Music, USA. In Dont Get Above Your Raisin, Malone makes sense of a world pulled in contradictory directions of hedonism and piety, escapism and reality, rural culture and urban life. Within the sounds of steel guitars and fiddles of honky tonk, the improvisational sonorities of Texas swing, the acoustic instrumentation of bluegrass, or the harmony singing of the Carter Family, Malone admirably juxtaposes the qualities of escapism of gospel music to the dance movements of the two-step while addressing the portrayals of work, home, reverence, and carousing. I find Malones astute explorations most pertinent to the musics constructions of white masculinity in genres deemed authentic or, rather, those that express the desires and experiences of working-class southerners. The tensions surrounding masculinity constitute a yearning for a past autonomy, while negotiating the uncertainties of societal changes, spurred by industrialization and urbanization. Through the sounds of vulnerability and machismo, Malone presents an understanding of southern masculinity that will reverberate throughout country music scholarship.
Stephanie Vander Wel
University of California, Los Angeles
1. See Tony Russells argument about how the musical traditions of blacks and whites cannot be approached independently of the other: the races lived too close together, and relied upon the others support too much for any real cultural separation (148).
Malone, Bill. Country Music, USA. 1968. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.
Russell, Tony. Blacks, Whites, and Blues. New York: Stein and Day, 1970.
Wolfe, Charles. A Lighter Shade of Blues: White Country Blues. Nothing But the Blues. Ed., Lawrence Cohn, 233264. New York: Abbeville Press.