Singing Cowboys and Musical Podcasters: Defining Country Music Through Public History
“Grrrr. . .Nudie Suit” (2006) by Flicker User Romana Klee ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License (CC BY-SA 2.0)
In advance of International Podcast Day on 30 September, Sounding Out! finishes a series of posts exploring different facets of the audio art of the podcast, which we have been putting into those earbuds since 2011. Past posts have examined Gimlet Media’s Fiction Podcast Homecoming, Amanda Lund’s The Complete Woman? Podcast Series, and how podcasts position listeners as “stoic.” Today’s entry examines how country music podcasts do–or do not–consider the sound of the music itself in their episodes. Enjoy! –JS
If you’re a country music fan, you might be aware of the genre’s central contradiction: for all the references to classic, traditional, “real” country music, most of this music has not been preserved. The genre’s history is disappearing. Many of country music’s best recordings will never make it to digital archives or streaming services, save for a few generous YouTubers who upload their personal record collections for public enjoyment. Just try to find Stoney Edwards’ 1971 classic Down Home in the Country or Patti Page’s 1951 collection Folk Song Favorites on the streaming platform of your choice. These albums didn’t even make it to CD.
Books about country music history are even more rare, and some of the most insightful publications are long out of print. If you’re lucky enough to score a copy of Philip Self’s Guitar Pull: Conversations with Country Music’s Legendary Songwriters, for instance, the book will set you back over $70. A search of the nation’s university libraries reveals just four copies available in the entire United Sates.
Within the academic world, though, a new generation of scholars is bringing country history to the forefront, all while complicating the inaccurate racialized mythos perpetuated by the industry. Among other exciting work, Amanda Marie Martinez recently published on the intersection of punk and country in Reagan-era Southern California, and Francesca Royster has an innovative piece of the power of country artist Valerie June (and dropping new book in October 2022 called Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions!) . The recent essay collection The Honky Tonk on the Left brings together a diverse cast of professors to challenge the received wisdom that the genre is solely home to political conservatism.
Beyond traditional academic channels, podcasting offers a new way of studying music history. The medium is both popular with the general public and tailor-made for sonic analysis. One of the best examples comes from Cocaine and Rhinestones, a podcast about the history of twentieth century country music. Hosted by Tyler Mahan Coe, the show examines forgotten or misunderstood country history while placing this history within the structural contexts of gender, race and class. Episode 2 of Season 1 breaks down country radio’s sexist gatekeeping, for example. Episode 7 of the first season covers Linda Martell, the first black woman to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, along with the racist label head who kick started her career. In Episode 3 of Season 2, Coe bluntly explains how the “sounds we associate with country music came from poor people working out techniques to produce art on cheap, low quality, often damaged, sometimes straight-up broken instruments.”
The obvious advantage of podcasting as a medium for telling music history is that you can listen to a given song as it’s being discussed. Traditionally, a music fan had to read a book or article, then go track down whatever recordings were discussed. Prior to the internet, this could easily be a multi-year endeavor of parsing through record stores, flea markets and garage sales. Now a fan can search for a song right after they read about it, and with a podcast like Cocaine and Rhinestones that research is already done.
In his 2014 SO! piece, “DIY Histories: Podcasting the Past”, Andrew Salvati argues that “podcasting can help us conceptualize an alternate cultural model of history – one that invites reconsideration of what counts as historical knowledge and interpretation, and about who is empowered to construct and access historical discourse.” While this DIY approach does not overturn elite control over podcasting, it opens space for history as an oral tradition, one which is more intimate and more empowering to listeners than, say, a university lecture or a high-budget, corporately sponsored program. Cocaine and Rhinestones is as DIY as a podcast can be; Coe writes, records and edits every episode himself.
The show’s power is most evident when compared to other recent attempts to bring country music history to a general audience. These popular histories tend to avoid critical analysis of the genre, repeating official narratives without scrutinizing how these narratives became official in the first place.
One example is Ken Burns’s PBS series Country Music (2019). Working with some of the biggest stars in the business, the documentary is more or less a retelling of long-known stories. Despite its $30 million budget, the series doesn’t manage to break new ground, all while smoothing over more complicated portraits for the sake of narrative ease.
The documentary’s most glaring failure is its treatment of race. As Kimberly Mack observes in her article “She’s A Country Girl All Right,” the first episode focuses “exclusively on the black and white origins of country, instead of the racism that obscured this shared history.” Even though the documentary interviews Rhiannon Giddens, an acclaimed musician and expert on the racist obfuscation of country music’s black roots, the documentary employs selective editing and voice-over narration to avoid confronting how these black roots continue to be ignored. Acknowledging the importance of figures such as DeFord Bailey, for example, the first person to perform on the Grand Ole Opry and the first musician to ever record in Nashville, is important, but a simple acknowledgment does not explain how the contributions of such a crucial figure are suppressed through an inaccurate racialized conception of the genre’s history.
In the world of podcasting, Malcom Gladwell’s Revisionist History offers a disappointing rehash of country’s manufactured white southern roots. The episode “The King of Tears” (Season 2, Episode 6) seeks to reveal the secret behind country’s embrace of sad songwriting, but Gladwell ultimately fortifies an already whitewashed history.
Unlike Ken Burns, Gladwell does not approach country from within the industry. His episode is just one in a series of other, non-musical episodes. Like Ken Burns, though, Gladwell uses selectively edited interviews and voice-over narration to shoehorn a simplistic analysis of country music. Worse still, Gladwell doesn’t even acknowledge the genre’s multiracial origins. The episode presents a two-part theory. First, country music songwriting focuses on sad, autobiographically specific stories. Second, the only reason this sadness is communicable is because country music’s writers, performers and listeners are all part of the same social group. “It’s white, southern Protestants all the way down the line,” he says while discussing a list of critically acclaimed country performers.
The show is well edited and funded through corporate sponsorships. The podcast hops between Gladwell in the studio, on-sight interviews, and lush music clips. There is little discussion of the actual music, however. We hear next to nothing about instrumentation, production decisions or even singing style. When Gladwell wants explain why a particular song is sad, he just plays the song and talks over the recording. Take his analysis of “Golden Ring,” a 1976 duet from Tammy Wynette and George Jones. Gladwell introduces it as “a weeper,” but offers no explanation as to how the song conveys sadness.
A clip of the song starts playing at the 8:17 mark of the episode. The song fades but keeps playing in the background as Gladwell butts in to summarize the plot. He gives an anecdote from the songwriter, then the podcast cuts to an interview with the songwriter. The music stops while the songwriter speaks about a specific lyric, then comes back at full volume so the listener can hear the lyric in the final recording. We then go back to the interview sans music before hearing the final phrase of the song at full volume.
The transitions are smooth, and cutting between three sources of audio keeps the listener’s attention. Only later does the listener realize that very little was actually said about the song. In total, the section is just under a minute and a half, and barely thirty seconds is devoted to listening to the song. All we know is that it deals with divorce. We have no context for the recording and no explanation of why the song is uniquely sad.
Cocaine and Rhinestones offers the inverse––lower production quality with richer analysis. Compared to Coe’s better-funded peers, the show’s audio quality is sparse, especially in the first season. 128kps files in mono can only do so much sonic justice. Such limitations never hinder the historical message, though, and they might even enhance it. Cocaine and Rhinestones does not build a world with sweeping soundscapes and audio effects. It is Coe in his basement, more or less monologuing. There are no interviews. Music clips and the occasional radio or television broadcast are the only other thing you hear aside from Coe’s voice. For some, his voice takes getting used to, namely in the first few episodes of the series. You can hear Coe try to figure out how to talk within the context of a one-man show. His own family apparently chided him for the awkward initial performance, but he quickly found his groove, and by the mid-point of the first season he sounds clear and comfortable.
Coe was able to upgrade to stereo for the second season, allowing for more detailed sonic analysis. Just look at Episode 14 of Season 2, where Coe walks us through the writing and recording of George Jones’ 1970 hit “A Good Year for the Roses.” His analysis starts around the 1:23:28 mark.
As Coe explains, the record “opens with a rhythm section panned to the right and, in the left channel, a mysterious low-end swell, like a heavy dirigible lifting into flight, probably provided by a pedal steel player running their signal through a Jordan Boss Tone unit and a tape delay to mimic a cello.” Coe cuts out so we can hear the effect by itself. He then goes on to describe how those production choices pair with the lyrics to create one of the saddest recordings in Jones’s discography.
Whenever he discusses a moment in the song, he lets it play without voice-over. The transition between Coe’s voice and the song is less smooth than the transitions we hear in Gladwell’s podcast, but the comparatively abrupt cuts allow the listener to give their full attention to Coe, then to the song. By the end of the analysis, which runs significantly longer than Gladwell’s discussion of “Golden Ring,” we’ve listened to a combined minute and thirty seconds of “A Good Year for the Roses.” The setup takes longer, the observations are more detailed, and that patience lets the listener appreciate the devastating impact of specific artistic decisions.
While Cocaine and Rhinestones tackles everything from minute production choices to centuries-long historical arcs, the format of the show is simple. The first season covers a different artist every episode, while the second season is devoted to the life of George Jones. Episodes typically start with a historical anecdote––this could be the origin of the word ballad or the history of drag––then Coe details a given artist’s life, showing where they came from, what they contributed to the genre, and how their work is embedded within larger historical structures. Coe displays an impressive command of a range of topics, not just related to music but to a variety of historical subjects.
This attention to detail is a testament to Coe’s ability to not only listen but to help others listen with him. Even when episodes cross the two-hour mark, the main takeaway is that you have only scratched the surface. Sources are discussed in the show’s unique closing section, known as the Liner Notes. Coe explains why he chose to tell one story but not another, how a given book is useful (or useless) in relation to other books, and sometimes he will include asides that would have disrupted the episode’s main narrative. This is my favorite part of the show. It’s one of the best examples of annotated citation in any discipline (see season 2’s library here).
By openly discussing sources, not just sharing the books he read but detailing why, for example, a commonly cited source is not as accurate as previously assumed, Coe takes the extra step that big budget country histories won’t take. He shines a light on a suppressed history and explains how that history was suppressed in the first place. Cocaine and Rhinestones doesn’t just cherry pick a few examples to make a point––the show offers a patient, detailed analysis of how we came to understand what we now think of as country music and how the genre can be understood in new ways.
The second season recently ended, and a third is in the works.
Andrew Clark is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied physics and French. His undergraduate thesis, “Time, Space, and Capital: Walter Benjamin in Apollinaire’s ‘Zone’ and René Clair’s Paris qui dort,” examined utopian imagery in early twentieth century Paris. He currently lives in Cincinnati, OH and works at a local brewery. You can contact him at andrewclark.me.
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Malcolm Gladwell’s Bad Aesthetics
Malcolm Gladwell, who recently wrapped the first season of his podcast Revisionist History, has been on a roll lately. Not a particularly endearing one, though. I’ve been trying to locate his nadir, but it’s not easy with so many options to choose from. Is it in the New Yorker, when he condescendingly exclaims “Of course not!” in response to whether Caster Semenya should be allowed to compete in the 800-meter at the Olympics? He follows up with the assertion that no track-and-field fan disagrees with him, as if the complexity of gender identification is somehow best left to a majority appeal. Or is it in Revisionist History’s Episode 9, “Generous Orthodoxy,” when he chides Princeton students protesting the use of Woodrow Wilson’s name around campus? Calling one student “angry”—a loaded word to lob at a black woman—and surmising she would later “regret her choice of words,” Gladwell advises the students to instead threaten to leave the university if their requests aren’t honored. Why? Because otherwise “every crotchety old Princeton alum” wouldn’t believe they actually care about the university.
For those keeping score, that’s Gladwell, who spent an entire other episode of his podcast lamenting that we don’t “capitalize” people’s educational potential well enough, counseling black students to separate themselves from an Ivy League education as a way to make a point about a pro-segregationist president. Gladwell’s seventh episode, “Hallelujah,” where he discusses musical genius, is not obviously about the kind of systemic inequalities he bumbles in the Semenya and Princeton examples. But the conclusions he draws about genius and the anti-pop aesthetic judgments he claims are informed by the same bad gender and race politics that would put a person’s gender identification in other people’s hands and place the burden of sacrifice on the aggrieved in matters of racial injustice.
The episode “Hallelujah” revolves around two songs that Gladwell argues reached their peak of genius years after they were initially recorded: “Deportees Club” (1984) by Elvis Costello and “Hallelujah” (1984) by Leonard Cohen. In each case, Gladwell asserts that the first recordings were flawed but that they attained a certain beauty in later versions that reveals something about how genius works, though each attained that genius status by different routes. While Costello is responsible for the version of “Deportees Club” that Gladwell loves—he re-recorded it as “Deportee” in 1985 (it wouldn’t be released until 1995 on a re-issue of Goodbye, Cruel World)—“Hallelujah” would peak for Gladwell in a series of covers, most famously by Jeff Buckley (1994), performed by artists other than Cohen. Gladwell’s focus on the process by which a song reaches genius status is a riff on David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses theory. Here, Costello and the litany of “Hallelujah” coverers display a process of genius called “experimental innovation,” where the first draft is never the final draft, and genius is only unlocked after years of work. I’ll return to Gladwell’s notion of musical beauty and how it relates to his bad politics momentarily, but I first want to unpack the theory of genius that enthralls him in this episode.
Galenson’s notion of genius is a binary, where some geniuses (“conceptual innovators”) are very young, decisive artists and others, like the “experimental innovators” responsible for “Deportee” and “Hallelujah,” are endless tinkerers who tend to reach their creative potential later in life. Gladwell uses the same paradigmatic examples that Galenson does to categorize geniuses; conceptual innovators are Pablo Picasso, while experimental innovators are Paul Cézanne. Curiously, Gladwell notes that this theory of genius may be best exemplified in music, but he doesn’t seem aware that music scholars have already laid out this same broad theory of genius with easy comps: Mozart the young genius and Beethoven the old master. Moreover, Gladwell doesn’t seem aware that this is a lousy theory of genius.
I’ve written elsewhere about genius myths, and there’s a rabbit hole of problematic ideas out there about classical music genius that run from benignly self-serving to violently racist. One critique is particularly useful for pushing back against Gladwell, as it highlights the gender and race problems with Gladwell’s approach to genius. Tia DeNora’s Beethoven and the Construction of Genius (1994) is a painstaking deconstruction of Beethoven’s genius. While DeNora’s argument includes a number of moving parts, it can be summarized as a demonstration of the way “genius” isn’t so much innate talent as it is a combination of several social and political ideals intersecting with a person’s talents or insights.
It was the 90s, when postmodernity crested in musicology, and the aim of DeNora’s analysis is quintessentially postmodern: undo the Great White Man myth to make room for other kinds of histories and notions of genius to be accommodated. If we understand Beethoven’s genius to be firmly rooted in a number of social and political attitudes—including the reflexive belief that only a white man could be a genius—that tipped in his favor, then we can understand that history isn’t telling us that only men or only white people can be geniuses; rather, history is showing its biases. This sort of deconstruction doesn’t really move the academic needle now—most college freshmen can articulate the Great White Man critique—largely due to the work of DeNora and other deconstructionists who effectively cleared the space for us to build other kinds of scholarship on top of their work.
Alas, though, the 90s truly must be all the rage right now, because Gladwell is wading right back into Great White Man territory. To be clear, he isn’t doing it on purpose, for whatever that’s worth. In Episode 9, the one where he counsels the black Princeton students to threaten to leave the school, he performs a whole Great White Man rant to establish his credibility as A Guy Who Gets It. But beyond understanding that there are too many things named after white men, Gladwell doesn’t indicate that he knows what the rub really is, that the name on a building or School is a tiny piece of a much bigger, systemic problem of race and gender. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, his ideas about musical genius betray his own tendency to set up hierarchies where Great White Men are always on top. So excuse me while I pump some air in my Reeboks, hitch up my Guess jeans, and douse myself in CK1; we have some 90s theory to attend to.
Gladwell doesn’t—and perhaps can’t—articulate what’s genius about the versions of “Deportee” and “Hallelujah” he reveres, and his assessment of the originals is similarly vague. About 1984’s “Deportees Club,” he exclaims, “Oh, god, It’s awful!” For Cohen’s 1984 “Hallelujah,” Gladwell borrows a line from Michael Barthel, who could’ve just as well been describing Gladwell’s podcast: “The entire performance is so hyperserious that it’s almost satire.” [Historiographic aside: Barthel, who is now a researcher for the Pew Research Center, seems to be the under-cited source for the “Hallelujah” history in both Gladwell’s podcast and Alan Light’s book on the song]. Gladwell may suffer a poverty of aesthetic language to describe what is or isn’t good about these songs, but by considering what he does and doesn’t like—what counts as genius or not for him—we can understand where his aesthetic allegiances lie.
Gladwell finds beauty in music whose emotional content is as stripped down as the acoustic guitar textures on the later recordings of “Deportee” and “Hallelujah.” The line he quotes from Barthel misses the point: Barthel likes the satirical nature of the original “Hallelujah” and finds the famous Buckley version—which becomes something of an ürtext for all the covers that came after it—an unfortunate telescoping of emotional range, a “Hallelujah” that only knows lament instead of the many “holy, broken, profane, transcendent” hallelujahs Cohen first explored. But all those hallelujahs, along with the “angry, loud, and upsetting” original “Deportees Club,” don’t seem to suit Gladwell, who prefers versions of the songs where both the emotional and musical content are as straightforward as possible.
That Gladwell is drawn to the versions of Buckley’s “Hallelujah” and Costello’s later “Deportee” that feature an acoustic singer-songwriter coffeehouse vibe isn’t a coincidence. The villain in his account of genius is pop. Noting that both songs were initially recorded in 1984, he reminds us that year’s “biggest album” was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “pop music glossed to perfection…not a single stray note or emotion on that record.” “Thriller” was the final single from an album two years old, and it peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, so Gladwell’s definition of “biggest album” is suspect, but he’s looking for “the antithesis of ‘Deportee’ and ‘Hallelujah,’” so I’ll engage on his terms and zero in on his aesthetics by figuring out what he thinks is wrong with pop music like “Thriller.”
Gladwell offers a couple other assessments of pop aesthetics in his description of producers. Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who co-produced the Goodbye, Cruel World album “Deporteees Club” appeared on, are the ill-fitting pop perfectionists who try to harness Costello’s sound but only manage to screw it up. Trevor Horn is the guy spending four weeks—“a month,” Gladwell bemoans—shaping a snare sound for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” (1983). Whether it’s Langer and Winstanley, Horn, or Quincy Jones (who Gladwell doesn’t name but who produced “Thriller”), Gladwell has no space for the behind-the-glass work of sound design and sonic processing in his aesthetics of genius. He argues, citing Costello’s own assessment, that glossy pop perfection couldn’t capture the “dark, emotional, bitter songs, gritty and spare,” pouring out of Costello. For Gladwell, pop music production is the villain because it short circuits the true, raw emotion that he finds beautiful.
The problem with Gladwell’s aesthetics is that he’s mistaking his taste for genius, then reverse-manufacturing an explanation of genius that privileges a specifically white masculine mode of expression. “Glossy pop perfection,” in his estimation, covers up something beautiful, obscuring real emotion. But directly sharing one’s emotions—whether musically or politically—is more acceptable for some than for others. We need look no further than Gladwell for proof. If you’re Elvis Costello or Jeff Buckley singing laments? You’re a genius. If you’re a black woman protesting Woodrow Wilson at Princeton? You’re “angry.”In fact, the danger of directly expressing oneself underlies a wide array of black aeshetics, from Gates’s Signifying Monkey to Shana Redmond’s analysis of Janelle Monae’s “Cold War.” Redmond cites Darlene Clark Hines’s “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West” to highlight Monae’s engagement with “the acts of dissemblance that have long characterized black women’s participation in the public sphere” (398). Hines argues that Black women developed “a cult of secrecy, a culture of dissemblance” to protect themselves in public spaces, “creating the appearance of disclosure…while actually remaining an enigma” (Hines 915). It is Monae’s rupture of pop conventions—she breaks down and cries, dropping her lip synch even as the track plays on—that, on the one hand, creates the space for her to step outside of that culture of dissemblance and, on the other hand, marks the cover those pop conventions provide, the strategic, protective secrecy available under so much glossy pop perfection. In his 2002 “Feenin,’” Alexander Weheliye homes in on glossy pop voice-processing, the vocoders and filters (and, several years after his article, AutoTune) that render the R&B voice machinic, and contends that these processing techniques yield human desire that “can be represented only in the guise of the machinic” (39, emphasis mine). In other words, the gloss isn’t a bad thing. It’s a strategy that plugs technology into humanity in order to project ways of being beyond the white liberal humanist subject. In both Redmond’s and Weheliye’s analyses, the sound of pop, the glossy perfection that Gladwell holds up as the antithesis of genius, is employed by Black musicians to enable emotionality in a world that is otherwise hostile to such expression.
Gladwell’s bad aesthetics, his refusal to recognize beauty in pop music, is also bad politics. By holding up an aesthetic that prizes stripped-down, straightforward emotionality, a form of expression available to some but not others, Gladwell ends up in the same Great White Man genius bind DeNora and others unraveled in the postmodern 90s. So I’ll sum it up with a 90s phrase: genius is always already political. Denora argues—and Gladwell inadvertently demonstrates—that labeling artists as genius relies on politically volatile aesthetic judgments that reinforce existing power hierarchies, in this case along the lines of race and gender. Like his response to Princeton students and his armchair adjudication of Semenya’s gender identity, Gladwell’s theory of musical genius proves to be less a revision of history and more a revival of history’s worst politics.
Featured image: “Malcolm Gladwell” by Flickr user Ed Schipul, CC BY-SA 2.0
Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, and a regular writer at Sounding Out!. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his current book project is called Posthuman Pop. He is co-editor with Ali Colleen Neff of the Journal of Popular Music Studies 27:4, “Sounding Global Southernness,” and with Jason Lee Oakes of the Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies (2017). You can catch him atjustindburton.com and on Twitter @justindburton. His favorite rapper is Right Said Fred.
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