The Culture

Bill Malone on Fifty Years of ‘Country Music USA’

Fifty years after it was first published, Bill C. Malone’s ‘Country Music USA’ remains the most comprehensive look at the genre.

Bill C. Malone
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue with the headline “Gone Country.”

At 83, Bill C. Malone sees his doctoral dissertation as the gift that keeps on giving. In 1965 he offered up an unorthodox treatise to the University of Texas at Austin’s history department: a thoroughly researched account of country music’s origins and development, from its roots in Southern folk traditions through early incarnations of Nashville’s Music Row. Three years later, UT Press published it as Country Music USA, and subsequent editions of the book have been taught in university courses ever since.

Today, Malone’s research is as relevant as ever. The Lindale native was recently tapped by filmmaker Ken Burns to consult for Country Music, a documentary series airing on PBS next year that uses his book as a guide. And this year, to mark the book’s fiftieth anniversary, UT Press is offering an expanded edition that brings things right up to Miranda Lambert and Maren Morris.

Texas Monthly: Do you have a theory as to why this book has lasted fifty years?

Bill Malone: I guess it’s because the music has lasted. When I first started doing research, back in the early sixties, right after the rock and roll boom, American musical tastes were changing dramatically. I thought that I might be writing sort of a posTMortem for country music, but as it turns out, it just got stronger and stronger.

TM: This book is in its fourth edition. What have you learned through updating it?

BM: It made me realize that country is just a small part of a much larger musical scene. I guess I kind of intuitively knew that from the beginning, but over time I’ve learned more and more that the music was indebted to not only African Americans in Southern culture but to other musical forms that became available to entertainers along the way. Musicians tend to be open to anything that’s appealing. It could come from ragtime, from classical music, from vaudeville—if it was good, they would admit it to their repertoire.

I’ve also learned, over the years, that I can’t tell the whole story. I was naive enough to think, in the beginning, that I could. A smarter person than me would have started out with a segment of it. The more I revise, the more I find out there is still more out there that I don’t know, and how much I’ve neglected: the sideman, the business aspects, the recording process. There are still a lot of stories to be told.

TM: In one of the guest essays that opens the new edition, it’s suggested that you hope that the newer artists in the latter half of the book will spend a little more time thinking about the artists at the beginning.

BM: I sure do. There’s still so little sense of history in country music. I’ve been sort of an unofficial consultant to the Country Music Hall of Fame, in Nashville, part of a group of people making suggestions about the pioneers. You can tell, when you throw out a name like Bradley Kincaid, the Kentucky Mountain Boy, that [the selection committee] has never heard of him. They mostly haven’t heard of anybody prior to Hank Williams. So when they add new people to the Hall of Fame, it tends to be the ones who made relatively recent contributions. I just wish there was more historical consciousness.

TM: But you’ve admitted that the current crop of artists speaks to people the way traditional classic country artists spoke to their audience.

BM: Evidently they must, because there’s a huge following. I think they are speaking to people, but they don’t speak to me. I guess it’s because I’m not always convinced that they’re singing about actual experiences they’ve had. And I think too often they are cut off from their working-class roots. The current music is beautifully performed. The musicians are great, singers are great. It’s just that, as a whole, the music speaks to me way less than the older forms did.

 

TM: There’s seemingly less serious study of country music than jazz or even blues. Why is that?

BM: Country still carries kind of a stigma that was present from the twenties onwards, the reflection of a similar stigma that Southern culture suffered from long before country music became an industry. When the music began developing, it was hard for critics to take the music seriously because they couldn’t take the culture seriously. They thought of it as a culture of snake handlers and moonshiners. So how could they make good music? That dichotomy continues to the present day.

TM: You were studying and playing music in Austin well before the city’s music scene put it on the map.

BM: In the late fifties, early sixties, there was a country music audience, but there weren’t too many places where they could hear it. But a friend of mine knew about Threadgill’s, out on North Lamar. We started going out there once or twice a week, and we’d sit around a big table and sing everything we knew. I’ll never forget the moment that this little group from the university’s folk music club came into Threadgill’s for the first time. It was Powell St. John on harmonica, Lanny Wiggins playing banjo, Tary Owens on guitar, and a young woman named Janis Joplin strumming an Autoharp. I remember that very clearly to this day, because while I wasn’t smart enough to know it at the time, that was a reflection of a real turning point in American musical habits and culture. It was in that context that I wrote my dissertation.

TM: This book has been used in so many classrooms over the years. You probably never could have seen that coming, but that’s your legacy, right?

BM: I think so. I think I did a lot to create and legitimize the field of country music scholarship and to suggest to younger scholars that they can do the same sort of thing. I think this book has influenced people, and there are certainly a lot of scholars now studying not only country music but rock, hip-hop, and just about every grassroots form. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

 

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