Culture  /  Q&A

‘Country Music … Was Anything BUT Pure’

On the music’s African-American tributaries, its unpredictable politics, country radio’s woman problem, and working on Ken Burns’ forthcoming doc.

One of the first points you make in the book punctures a myth about country music representing some sort of a pure monoculture, when in fact it’s much more multicultural than that.

BM: It’s very romantic to think that this music began in some isolated enclave way back in the Appalachians or the Texas plains. And I think I probably fell into that trap a little bit in the beginning. But one of the book’s main purposes was to show that this music came from many, many sources. It was largely American-made, and it was anything but pure. The early hillbilly musicians borrowed from everyone around them — the African American influence was particularly strong, but everywhere you could see the influence of the varied ethnic groups that populated America and had driven pop music.

I’ve continued to be amazed at how many of the old songs came from Tin Pan Alley in New York City — these hard boiled songwriters who wrote songs on every subject, and then had their music disseminated by vaudeville, minstrel, burlesque entertainers. Music moved into the repertoires of country music, and consciously or unconsciously, they changed the music, and then it came down to us on recordings and sheet music and personal appearances. Country has been a very eclectic music. I think musicians tend to play whatever appeals to them. They don’t care where it came from.

There’s a pretty big Hawaiian influence, surprisingly.

BM: Very much so. I think it was 1915, there was a international exposition in California and musicians came from everywhere. But there was a contingent that came from Hawaii, introduced their style and their instruments, and then some of them began touring the country. Young American musicians heard this music, were intrigued by it, and began trying to learn the Hawaiian guitar. It just provided a really nice complement to old lonesome songs, and came about as close to simulating the voice as any instrument did.

There were other influences, too — Mexican influences and Tyrolean yodeling.

BM: You’ve got all kinds of speculation about where the yodel came from. Swiss musicians came before the Civil War and traveled generally, I think, with minstrel troupes.

You know, there are all kinds of ways in which the human voice has been used to punctuate a moment or a mood. Cowboys had their hollers; African Americans shouted their field hollers. And I know my father, when I was growing up in east Texas, he used to get up every morning and — this is literally true— go out on the front porch and just holler at the top of his voice. I think it was just his way of sort of greeting the morning, getting ready for what he had to do.