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.