Culture  /  Music Review

Whose Country?

It is impossible to talk about the blues and country without talking about race, authenticity, and contemporary America’s relationship to its past.
Hank Williams Jr.

On the face of it, the idea that Hank Sr. was a bluesman is not implausible. Willie Nelson once said that his best songs are so alive with the blues that “you can’t miss it.” Even if the influence might not be obvious to the average listener of Hank Sr.’s famous “high lonesome” sound today, it makes sense: his music is the product of a region that was and is culturally, politically, and economically as black as it is white, and as blues as it is country. In addition to early “hillbilly” music like the Carter Family, the blues, European folk music, vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, and blackface minstrelsy all informed the music that Williams grew up to make. The same can be said of country music’s first superstar, Jimmie Rodgers (from Meridian, Mississippi), and other singers who helped shape his sound, like Emmett Miller. Rodgers’s 1930 record “Blue Yodel No. 9” is a hugely influential bluesy stroll lifted to a different plane by Louis Armstrong’s cornet, a song that helped shape not just Hank Sr. but a musical generation. Listen to Miller’s 1925 version of the Tin Pan Alley song “Lovesick Blues,” and its influence on Williams’s own rendition—the song is now so closely associated with him that most people think only he could have written it—is obvious.

Both Rodgers and Miller began their careers as blackface minstrels, singing what we might paradoxically call the world’s first self-consciously “white” music. The relationship between minstrelsy and country is complicated. To the contemporary ear, minstrel songs’ instrumentation, audience, and vocals sound a lot like an early version of country music. The combination of fiddle and banjo (an African instrument) was standard in blackface shows, as was the simplicity of the arrangements, the exaggerated southern accent, and the “yodel” that both Miller and Rodgers made central to their singing styles. Minstrelsy’s popularity faded just as what we now call country music emerged as a commercial genre. Billboard published a regular minstrelsy column until 1939, just eight years before Hank Sr. had his first hit on the “hillbilly” charts, “Move It on Over”—and ten years before “hillbilly” was renamed “country and western.”

But country music is not just a modern derivative of the minstrel show. On the contrary, it is “a crazy bastard sort of thing,” as the music journalist Nick Tosches once put it. All of American music is there, and more. So could it be true that Hank Sr. was really a “bluesman”? Is his son a “bluesman” in the “family tradition”? And does it matter?