Country music has often been labeled as the favored music genre of the rural working class. With roots leading back to the Southern Appalachian Mountains, country music has a proud lower class heritage. However, this culture has not been preserved, as country music has become more and more gentrified in order to be more enjoyable for mainstream consumers. There are many reasons for this gentrification. However, through grassroots efforts, we can all strive to preserve the working class tradition of country music.
Country music began as a genre in the Southern Appalachian Mountains in the early 1900s (Dooley, n.d.). Jimmie Rodgers, who performed from the late 1920s to early 1930s and often referred to as "the Father of Country Music," was the first popular country recording artist. Rodgers was born in Meridian, Mississippi to a railroad foreman and was raised in various family homes after the death of his mother ("Jimmie Rodgers," 2015). The struggles he faced during his upbringing would later serve as inspiration for his music, which often included yodeling. The Carter Family members were also early country artists. Hailing from the Clinch Valley area of Virginia, they performed from the 1920s to 1943 and were as important as Jimmie Rodgers in helping develop of the sound of the country genre ("Carter Family," n.d.). The early days of country music were crucial to developing an iconic sound and representing the economically disadvantaged in American culture. It came from a place of class struggle, and the sound and lyrics reflected that feeling. It was later when honky-tonk music became popularized that country music lost its class focus.
The origins of the term "honky-tonk" have been disputed over time, but the genre has had a lasting impact on country music as a whole. In terms of content, however, honky-tonk focused more on topics such as love and drinking, as opposed to all country music before, which was more focused on rural life and family (McPherson, 2000). Honky-tonk music was often performed in bars and was used for purposes of entertainment and conveying personal struggles as opposed to struggles with class. One of the most iconic honky-tonk musicians was Hank Williams (1923-1953), who made honky-tonk a popular genre in the late 1940s (Dooley, n.d.). Though his music may not have focused on class struggles per se, there was still a tone of melancholy in his music. This may be a reflection of his struggles with spina bifida and alcoholism (Silva, n.d.). The honky-tonk era also saw the rise of female solo artists on the country music scene, with Kitty Wells being at the forefront. Songs such as "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels" brought attention to the female perspective. Honky-tonk music generated the shift in country music from a glance at rural lower and working class life to stories of lovesick melancholy that were more universal in terms of experience. It paved the way to the beginnings of Nashville Sound and the development of country music as we know it today.
Nashville Sound was one of the biggest driving forces in the gentrification of country music. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, after Nashville started to become a major recording hub, music producers (such as Chet Atkins) started to eliminate instruments like the fiddle "in favor of strings and a basic rhythm section of piano, guitar, bass, and drums" in order to accomplish a smoother sound in country music (Cusic, 2009). This was in response to the rougher Bakersfield Sound that originated in California. Nashville Sound was the foundation upon which modern pop country was built. Prominent Nashville Sound performers included George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Brenda Lee ("Nashville Sound/Countrypolitan," n.d.). Another term used to describe Nashville Sound would be "Countrypolitan," a term which has its own musical and social connotations. The rise of Nashville Sound marked the biggest departure of country music from its original roots and sound. The sound was smoother and more pop-like in order to appeal to a wider audience.
As mentioned before, another term for Nashville Sound is “Countrypolitan.” The term "countrypolitan" refers to the pop country sound that we are most familiar with today. Many fans of earlier country music criticize countrypolitan style for having gentrified country music, favoring popularity over authenticity. William Hogeland of the New York Times writes "Country purists have long thundered against countrypolitan as a shocking betrayal of country's supposed of rural authenticity" (Hogeland, 2005). This authenticity applies not only to the themes of the songs, which are usually more focused on topics like partying, but also the sound, which is now similar to pop production. As Robert Fontenot writes, countrypolitan differs from Nashville Sound in that it works in "adding strings, horns, backup vocals, lush production, a high sense of drama" (Fontenot, n.d.). A pop production sound detracts from the sincerity of a working class message that was originally in grittier-sounding production. The countrypolitan genre, now ubiquitous in current country, is the embodiment of the gentrification of country music.
Of course, this pop-like transformation of the country genre did not go uncontested. The Bakersfield Sound was developed in reaction to the glossier Nashville Sound. It originated in the 1960s in the working class town of Bakersfield, California ("The Bakersfield Sound," n.d.). The sound was grittier and less "produced" than the Nashville Sound which had become more mainstream in the country music world. The themes were often more focused on the struggles of the working man, as opposed to the Nashville Sound's focus on more universal themes such as love. Notable Bakersfield Sound artists include Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. The Bakersfield Sound is significant in country music because it shows that there can be strong, successful rebellions against the mainstream.
In addition to the Bakersfield Sound, female country artists also provided a desperately needed critical voice within the country genre. Female artists are important to remember in understanding the themes are country music. Because women may suffer from the systematic oppression of sexism, particularly in more traditional rural communities, the female experience offers a unique perspective to the genre. Female artists in country music not only broke barriers, but also represented a demographic that was otherwise marginalized. The early female country music artists brought women's experiences to mind in a genre that had previously been dominated by men. Even today, female artists in country music bring to mind the struggles that are faced every day and challenge the problematic aspects of rural life that are now celebrated in an attempt to make country music more palatable for mass consumption.
One of the most notable female pioneers in the world of country music was Kitty Wells, a Nashville native who rose to stardom during the Honky-Tonk era. Wells, called "the Queen of Country Music," is probably best known for her song "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels." This song and Wells's work overall brought consciousness to the female perspective within the country music world. This is significant not only for purposes of diversity within the genre, but also to express the struggles that women experience within rural America and even in the country music industry itself. Wells came from a working class family in South Nashville and worked at Washington Manufacturing Company "ironing and folding shirts" (Friskics-Warren, 1999) before being discovered as a musician. Wells also lived through the Great Depression, and was no stranger to struggle in terms of economic and social class.
Another famous female country artist was Patsy Cline. Cline was born in Westchester, Virginia in 1932 to a blacksmith and a seamstress ("Patsy Cline," 2015). Cline's parents eventually separated, leaving her mother to support Cline and her siblings. Cline had the rural, working class upbringing that is iconic in country music. She is renowned as one of the most incredible vocalists not only in the the country music genre, but also in popular American music. Cline rose to stardom around the 1960s, and is known for her lovesick ballads such as "Crazy." Cline was significant as a female figure in country music, as she helped other female artists, such as Loretta Lynn, break into the industry ("Patsy Cline," 2015).
Perhaps the most unforgettable woman in country music is Dolly Parton, the most honored female country music performer of all time ("Dolly Parton Bio," n.d.). Parton was born to an impoverished family of twelve children in Sevier County, Tennessee, and began performing professionally in the late 1960s ("Dolly Parton Bio," n.d.). Her song "Coat of Many Colors" reflects on her experiences of difficult rural life with pride and sentimentalism. Parton now runs the Dollywood Foundation, which supports children in Tennessee in becoming more literate and having better opportunities no matter what their socioeconomic status.
These female pioneers in country music provided an important perspective in the genre that had previously been ignored. The female working class and lower class perspective is significant to consider when creating a more comprehensive portrait of what this part of America experiences. Though current country music has moved away from its rural working class beginnings, current country music women are trying to revive attention to this experience.
Many women in today's country music are trying to return attention to country music's roots by returning the subject matter to the struggles of working class rural life. Carrie Underwood's song "Blown Away" deals with themes of child abuse in rural Oklahoma in a dramatic manner, while the Dixie Chicks's "Goodbye Earl" deals with the topic of domestic abuse with dark humor. Brandy Clark's "Pray to Jesus" offers a sympathetic view of rural working class struggle, criticizing the customs of small town life, while still understanding the sentiments from where those customs originated. A critical and realistic view of small town life is one of the more important traits of this type of country music. Casey Quinlan writes in her article "When Country Music Goes to the Dark Side of Small-Town Life" that "recently, a few female country singers have stepped away from this point of view, portraying small-town narratives in a more melancholy light. Instead of endorsing the country lifestyle, these artists question small-town living, the value of tradition, and the virtue in staying in one’s place" (Quinlan, 2013). It is possible that women are becoming increasingly more critical of this traditionalist lifestyle as they are more likely to suffer institutional oppression due to sexism, which worsens the struggles of low-income life.
Though it would seem that there is a lot of railing against the gentrification of country music, there are certainly a lot of people who are for it. The term “gentrification” usually applies in the context of wealthier people moving to lower income neighborhoods causing a “related increase in rents and property values, and changes in the district's character and culture” (Grant, n.d.). Although the common application of the term is towards cities (as it has in Nashville, the country music capital), it can also apply to any aspect of culture. Gentrification of a cultural aspect involves the transformation of a lower-income cultural form in order to become more appealing to those of higher income for consumption. This is accomplished by making the cultural piece more universal. Country music is a good example of this, and many feel that this phenomenon has also occurred in hip hop and rock music.
The push to make country music more universal was a one of the reasons behind its gentrification. This universality would make the music more commercially successful because more people could relate to the message and the sound would be more familiar. Chuck Dauphin of Billboard magazine quotes Sarah Trahem (CEO of the Country Music Association) in saying, "'...when the channels open for country music artists to reach a wider audience, the level of talent from our format rises to the challenge'" (Dauphin, 2014). The goal of universality in country music is well-intentioned in trying to reach a larger group of people. However, the real motivator is achieving a large audience for the sake of profit. When the voice of the rural working class is sacrificed for the sake of profit, there is gentrification occurring.
There are pros and cons to the gentrification of country music. The gentrification of country music has not had totally negative effects. The rise of country as a mainstream genre has raised national and international consciousness and appreciation for Southern culture. It is also quite possible that, through the introduction of mainstream pop country, national and international fans come to later educate themselves on the history of country music and understand its roots as well as the culture it represents. The genre may also speak to non-Southern fans of the working-class who otherwise cannot find media that represents their experience. In addition, there is nothing necessarily wrong with the genre becoming popular. If anything, it could aid in helping others understand the rural working class experience.
However, negative effects of the gentrification of country music are numerous. The insistence on universality of theme and sound completely abandon the rural working-class foundations of the genre. When these roots are ignored, yet another genre suffers from the lack of socioeconomically diverse representation. Those who are more disadvantaged in American society suffer the consequences. Because so much of our cultural education stems from our entertainment, the proper representation of various socioeconomic groups in media is important. Gentrification does not allow for this authentic representation, but instead either erases the working class history of country music or misrepresents it in order to make a profit.
Though the gentrification of country music does not seem to be stopping any time soon, there are ways in which we can react. By supporting independent country music and consuming country music critically, we can make a difference in how the genre is produced and perceived.
"Carter Family." Country Music Hall of Fame. Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2015. .
"Dolly Parton Bio." CMT Artists. Viacom, n.d. Web. 08 May 2015. .