A Way to Survive: Some Autobiographical Reflections on Labor and Country Music

Playing around with an autobiographical preface for my dissertation prospectus. Crazy? Probably.

Several years ago, I found myself living in central Texas. During my time there, I began the complicated process of shifting my intellectual energies from music to history. I also began to take advantage of one of Austin’s unique features, its status as one of the few Southern cities where old-fashioned country music is still performed live. The city has become a retirement destination for many veterans of the Nashville scene. As a dabbler in country music and lifelong carrier of a flame for post-WWII country’s signature instrument, the pedal steel guitar, I sought out one such veteran in order to learn the language of classic country music. In the 1960s and 1970s, my teacher had been a Nashville fixture, playing with an impressive roster of legends, on the road, at the Grand Ole Opry’s Ryman Auditorium, and in the Quonset hut studios of Music Row. During our lessons and while tagging along to gigs, I encountered some mysteries that led, in a roundabout way, to the topic of this dissertation.

I was soon to learn that Austin’s network of bars, honky-tonks, and dancehalls was only remarkable against the background of comparatively recent developments. In the three decades after World War II, dozens of cities supported lively country music scenes, wherein a musician could earn a living by playing live for working class audiences. At some point in the late 1970s, this changed. First, the bars that hosted country music began to switch over to DJs and mechanical bulls to accommodate the “urban cowboy” craze that culminated in the 1980 film starring John Travolta. Urban Cowboy signaled the infiltration of even this seemingly well-insulated corner of working class culture by faddish, youth-worshipping, consumerist, proto-yuppie energies. Then, after the “urban cowboy” trend faded, the bars closed down, or switched to other musical formats. At the same time, developments in the recording and radio industries, and a shift in political mood (signaled by the advent of “Reagan Democrats”) led to the rise of “New Country,” a form largely indistinguishable from mainstream pop. Working musicians bore the brunt of this cultural shift, especially specialists on instruments like the fiddle and pedal steel that provided the sonic signature of “old-fashioned” country and were linked in the popular imagination with the now outdated timbral quality of “twang.” (I recall that as a child in Toronto, “New Country” radio stations explicitly advertised themselves as free from “twang,” in much the same way that a restaurant might advertise itself as free from salmonella). Country musicians who wanted to remain active after 1970s had to abandon their baroque ornaments and solos, and content themselves with mimicking the instrumental styles of rock guitar and keyboard players, or “padding,” that is, creating innocuous textures in the background.

With the exception of some pockets of traditionalism in Nashville and a few cities that had enjoyed country music revivals during the counterculture’s ascent in the 1960s, the unique set of skills that made up the toolkit of the journeyman country musician—the intimate knowledge of song forms and structures, common key changes, “signature” intros, solos, and tags, and the hundreds of rules of thumb, spot fixes, and quick reflexes that all skilled workers acquire, share, and pass down to apprentices—had become obsolete, no longer serving as dependable sources of income.

This narrative may or may not be “true,” according to the strict rules of oral history. My teacher’s take on the history he had lived through was not shared by everyone. Like many creative geniuses, he had personal demons that might have played a greater role than he admitted in his difficulty finding work at different times. Though we didn’t talk about it much, it was clear also that my teacher deviated enough from the personality profile of the typical country musician­­­­­­­­­ (insufficiently straight, evangelical Christian, southern-born, and politically conservative) that his battle to stay employed after the rise of “New Country” was always going to be more difficult than his more central casting-approved peers.

Whatever the “truth,” of the matter, I believed the story that my teacher told me. Variations on it were echoed by other legends and rank and filers on the internet forums for pedal steel players and other country musicians that began to spring up in the late 1990s. As I began to study US labor history, I also spent hours in country bars and online, tracking the stories and laments of this cadre of musicians, who, it seemed to me, were building in real time an archive of working class oral histories as interesting as any I was encountering in my formal studies.

These experiences provided the spur to look historically at cultural workers, and in particular to focus on the changing valuation of skill. Sitting in my teacher’s living room, I often watched him play beautiful renditions of country songs. We would frequently drive together to gigs, and I would watch his hands and feet from as close a vantage point as I could manage. Why, I would wonder, had these extraordinary capacities become so devalued over the years? Why was it so hard to include my teacher’s perspective on culture and change in a historical narrative? Why had “the market” determined that the ability to generate this specific array of beautiful sounds and to summon deep feelings was no longer worth X number of dollars, if indeed it was “the market” that had done so?

History, Fredric Jameson reminds us, is what hurts. There is no going back and changing things, even if we wanted to, and we would not want to live in a world where culture had to remain static and unchanging. And, we should recall, my teacher’s career had been made possible by a series of accidents: some musicians tinkering with older Hawaiian guitars in garages in the late 1940s, which led to experimentation with primitive pedal steel guitars in the increasingly electrified country bands of the post-World War II era (following refinements of technology and a gradual shift in the attitude of country listeners in favor of allowing the forbidden drum set on country bandstands), which led to the deployment of the pedal steel guitar as a novelty on a hit single by Webb Pierce in the 1950s, which led to hundreds of other cultural mutations that added up to the emergence of the “pedal steel guitar player” as a career track. When pedal steels came in, other instruments—like the banjo and mandolin—went out. My teacher took somebody else’s job, and somebody—or something—else took his.

 

What my experience in Texas inspired was not hand-wringing or mourning—scholarly postures to which I am poorly disposed—but rather a desire to understand the changing relationship of creative labor, the meaning of skill, taste, and the contortions forced upon artistic production by exigencies of capitalism.

These experiences, and years of reflection upon them, led me to ask the questions at the heart of this dissertation. Probing the longer history of cultural labor revealed paradoxes and contradictions that could not be neatly resolved. Why is labor that contributes towards the creation of things called “texts” and “works of art” assumed to belong to a separate and spiritually elevated category of human activity, distinct from the grubby world of manual work? What are the historical origins of this tendency to differentiate cultural work from other kinds of labor? Why is cultural work so often at the forefront of conflicts over the introduction of new technologies? What can this story of the evolution of cultural work tell us more generally about the history of labor and capitalism in the US? In particular, what does the history of cultural work tell us about the changing rationalizations of why some human actions (such as the effective toss of a football, the expert application of bow to violin, or the cogitation of a Wall Street consultant) are worth so much, and why most other human actions are worth so little? And, thinking of my teacher in Austin, why does the capacity to produce aesthetic beauty and summon powerful feelings—apparently timeless virtues­­–so often become “obsolete” due to the vagaries of changing tastes?

6 Comments on “A Way to Survive: Some Autobiographical Reflections on Labor and Country Music

  1. What a (lost) world! Would you describe postwar Southern working class country music as a relatively self-contained culture? A honky tonk culture undone by the larger transformations you bundle into the urban cowboy fad?

  2. That’s always been my sense. And what’s tragic about it is that blue collar southern white culture and southern African American culture are so close… so what Urban Cowboy undid was also a possibility (always weak, but a possibility nonetheless) of an interracial southern working-class politics. We’d be living in a different world if that had happened.

  3. this is fascinating! i like the idea of an autobiographical preface to scholarly work. more scholars should do this! ps: on a less intellectual note, have you and michelle seen “nashville”? i’ll admit that i find it pretty entertaining (as does michalle)

  4. The historical self-consciousness of Austin’s 1970s “Headneck” music scene really cannot be ignored. While there may have been musical continuity from working class Post War Honky Tonk to 70s Twang for Kenneth Threadgill, the outlook of the audience in his club was largely formed by the 60s Folk Revival. That goes double for the folks down the street at Emma Joe’s, a club named after Emma Goldman and Joe Hill. It was really a Honky Tonk (and Western Swing) Revival scene. It attracted some of the surviving musicians from the original musical era, but only later, after the revival scene was well-established.

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