Charles L. Hughes, author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South, weighs in on Ken Burns’ new documentary Country Music as well as past and present manifestations of “the central racial paradox at the heart of country music.”
In the sound of the 1960s and 1970s, nothing symbolized the rift between black and white America better than the seemingly divided genres of country and soul. Yet the music emerged from the same songwriters, musicians, and producers in the recording studios of Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama—what Charles L. Hughes calls the “country-soul triangle.” In legendary studios like Stax and FAME, integrated groups of musicians like Booker T. and the MGs and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section produced music that both challenged and reconfirmed racial divisions in the United States. Working with artists from Aretha Franklin to Willie Nelson, these musicians became crucial contributors to the era’s popular music and internationally recognized symbols of American racial politics in the turbulent years of civil rights protests, Black Power, and white backlash.
Q: With the airing of the multipart film documentary Ken Burns’ Country Music, there is a renewed discussion of what is “country music”? This is a question that you considered in your book, Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South. In what ways did your book, published in 2015, turn out to be timely?
A: A central argument in Country Soul is that we must consider the central racial paradox at the heart of country music: on one hand, the genre has incorporated Black music from the very beginning, while it has also had a troubled relationship with Black people. This is a story of appropriation, of course, but also about a broader tension between an inclusive sound and an exclusive politics. In the last few years, these tensions have risen to the surface of the conversation in ways that I honestly couldn’t have expected when I wrote the book.
Country Soul ends with Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s “Accidental Racist,” which was at the time the most potent example of this relationship. But, as interesting (and complicated) as that track was, it now feels more like a precursor to the remarkable period we’re in now. I don’t want to say that the story of Black involvement in country music has become the central story in the genre—the connected questions of sexism and women’s reactions to it are just as important—but it’s easily one of the most important. Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen and Darius Rucker have all established themselves as regular hit-makers on the country charts. Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, Yola and others have re-asserted the genre’s Blackness and forced a conversation on the Americana/roots side. And, of course, there’s Lil Nas X, who embodied and exploded a century’s worth of genre policing with “Old Town Road.”
As always, the music reflects and remixes the society around it. I wrote the book in a moment when the “post-racial” fantasies of the Obama years were fading with the reactionary politics of the Tea Party and the rising demands of #BlackLivesMatter. Ending with “Accidental Racist,” a feel-good anthem that obscured a more troubling history, felt like the most necessary comment. Since 2015, though, those fantasies have been fully destroyed. In the Trump era, the battles over the racial meaning of country, soul and other genres have taken on more urgency and sharpness. I don’t think it’s coincidental that we’re arguing about the whiteness of country music at a moment when we’re arguing about the whiteness of the country. As I talk about in the book, this is a process that’s existed since the genres emerged, and flared up with particular ferocity in the 1960s and 1970s. But the possibilities and limitations of cross-racial music as a force for social change have new and significant meanings in the age of “Make America Great Again.” A few nights before the election of Donald Trump, for example, Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks performed at the CMA Awards, where their collaboration provoked both celebration and backlash. In that moment, and that context, we can witness the continuing power of the story I’m trying to tell.
These are all country-soul stories, in one way or another, and they’ve offered a new chapter to Country Soul that both affirmed and complicated my original conclusions. If I ever write a second edition, I’ll have a lot of material to work with!
Q: You’re quoted in a recent Los Angeles Times piece about the Burns series saying that “Fans of country music are invested in the identity of the genre in a way that a lot of pop music genres aren’t.” Could you talk more about that?
A: From the beginning, country music has been made and marketed around the idea of a particular vision of identity—it’s not just about whether something sounds country, but how the artist is or isn’t country. This plays out through the music itself, but also through the imagery and cultural associations. The musicians and its audiences have been arguing about this for over a century: at their most fruitful, these tensions have propelled the genre both creatively and commercially, as artists and fans insist on broadening the definition of the music and the people it represents. At other moments, though, this has led to the erection of borders around who or what gets to be included. At every point throughout its history, those purists who seek to “protect” or “save country music” are implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) saying that there are certain kinds of people who don’t get to be included. Black artists and audiences are forced to repeatedly insist that they are legitimate participants in country music, and—relatedly—that they are legitimate parts of country spaces and the country itself. They have done so in astonishing ways, in the face of great resistance from a white-dominated culture. I tell part of that story in Country Soul, and it’s a central trope in the music from the first “hillbilly” days through the #YeehawAgenda.
Q: What did you find most interesting about the premiere episode of Ken Burns’ Country Music? Are there particular topics that you’ll hope he’ll explore in future episodes?
A: Country Music offers a wonderful opportunity to both celebrate the history of country and complicate our understandings of it. Beyond all the great footage and interviews, I was particularly impressed by a couple of things. First, the assertion of the centrality of Black and Mexican music to the development of country from the very beginning. This is a case that, unfortunately, still needs to be made, and I hope that the documentary will spotlight the political and economic implications of the musical mixture. As I discuss in Country Soul, the story of interracial musical collaboration isn’t just about who made music together. It’s also about who profited from it in terms of both economic and cultural capital. When you keep that in mind, the story becomes a lot more complicated and a lot less comfortable for white folks. That’s how it should be, and I hope that Burns—who clearly understands the importance of honoring Black and Brown artists—will fully embrace that ambivalence.
Also, connected to that, I really appreciate how Burns establishes country’s origins within both the expected folk roots—blues, Scottish-Irish music, et cetera—and also the pop music of the era. This helps us get past the simplistic authenticity debates that (as I said above) are often laced with a toxic nostalgia. Every generation has its chorus of purists (mostly cis white men) who have condemned the new generation’s country music as a corrupted sell-out; those condemnations are usually directed at artists and moments that incorporate sounds that are associated with young, non-white, female and/or queer folks. It’s happened from Jimmie Rodgers to “bro-country,” and I hope that this documentary will be a way to help debunk this problematic idea. The music is always at its best when the past and future are in conversation, both in terms of the sound and the people who make it.
More specifically, I look forward to seeing his coverage of some of the stories I explore in Country Soul. I know that Charley Pride features prominently, which is great, and I hope that Burns talks both about Pride’s career and the ways that it reflected both the new opportunities for Black artists in country and the continuing limitations. I also hope that he presents the rise of the “Nashville sound,” “countrypolitan” and “Urban Cowboy” with the same generosity that he tackles earlier moments of crossover-minded country music, rather than suggesting they represented a loss of country identity. And I hope that he acknowledges the vast influence of soul music on country from the 1960s to today, both honoring the Black musicians that created it and acknowledging the ways that the complicated racial politics of country music (and the United States) made it difficult for those artists to get their fair share of credit for these transformations.
Charles L. Hughes is director of the Memphis Center at Rhodes College. Follow him on Twitter.