Gone Country: Cecelia Tichi and the Politics of Writing About Country Music
By David E. Whisnant
Vol. 17, No. 1, 1995 pp. 4-10
Cecelia Tichi, High Lonesome: The American Culture of Country Music. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. xiii, 318 pp., with 23-track CD. $39.95.
For a long time I have said, only half-jokingly, that the millennium cannot not come until everybody listens to and plays country music. And since so little serious attention was paid to it before about 1965, I usually welcome each new book–from the slick “as told to” autobiographies and Opryland coffee table books to the scholarly biographies and analytical studies. Even the most superficial books contain some useful information, and the best deepen our understanding of and commitment to the music. Having written some books myself, I am also aware of what a taxing labor of love it is, and of how hopeful and vulnerable one feels once the finished product is out there.
At the same time, the politics of writing about country music are at least as complicated as the politics of the music itself. This is especially so in the current environment of country chic (“gone country, look at them boots”) , cultural studies, and blandly tolerant multiculturalism, all of which tend to make country music both more legitimate in the academy and more lucrative in the market-place. So if one sets out to write a book about country music, it behooves one to be careful, and modest in one’s claims. But Cecilia Tichi has gone country full-speed ahead, with nary a look back and (one judges) nary a doubt about her competence to bring heretofore unheard-of insight to the subject, never mind that until seven years ago her ignorance of country music was (as she admits) “oceanic” (p. viii).
Well, seven years is quite a spell, actually, and one can learn a lot in such a time. So what has she learned? What does she have to say that is new, useful, insightful or important about country music? Tichi’s own estimate is that she has in a single stroke boldly thrust herself into the scholarly vanguard, her timid predecessors having shunned a music “linked to white poverty–white trash’–and racial oppressiveness” for fear of being “found guilty by association.”1Perhaps only a scholar/teacher of American literature” such as herself, she says, “someone steeped in the standard or canonical American texts year in and year out, then transported to Nashville . . . and immersed for five years in its musical traditions, [could] see the connections developed in High Lonesome” between Dolly and Ralph [Waldo Emerson], Hank and Walt [Whitman], and Emmylou and Mark [Twain]–in a word, between low country and high culture (p. x).
As Tichi claimed to an interviewer from the Cultural Studies Times, not only is this virtually the first book to do with country music what must be done in order for us mere listeners to truly understand it, but it is also an epochal event in the history of publishing on any subject. By the middle of the twenty-first century, she says, a book like High Lonesome, combining print, photos, and “an audio CD” will be seen “as an important transition between the traditional book and the computerized one, a way-station between Gutenberg and Bill Gates.”2
Well, now, as my favorite down-home comic Jeff Foxworthy says, “Wait just a damn minute!” These are some pretty high falutin’ claims: a single book jerks the timid academics up by their collars, puts Hank in touch with Walt and Dolly in touch with Ralph (what one wouldn’t give to see that!), builds a way-station between Gutenberg and Gates, and establishes belatedly but once and for all that country music is really about the Great Themes of American Literature and Art. Now, thank God, the rest of us can go on liking it not only without being secretly ashamed of ourselves, but also being both clued in and logged on.
Some critics have agreed. In a Christmas Day review in my hometown Raleigh (NC) News and Observer, Frye Gaillard praised Tichi as an astute scholar and a “sharp-eyed student of American culture” who “sees country in all its breadth” and “illuminates the strains and contradictions of our culture.” Instead of being the book’s merits, however, these are in fact precisely its major problems: its thin scholarship, its narrowness, its pretentious globalizing of country music into “American” music, and its very tentative grasp of the “strains and contradictions” within the larger culture.
As for scholarship, Tichi apparently hasn’t done much on country music itself. Her bibliography includes a total of seven of the dozens of serious scholarly books on country music of the past several decades (such as–just for starters–those in the University of Illinois Press’s Music in American Life Series), and–except for Doug Green’s long Journal of Country Music (1978) piece on singing cowboys–no serious journal articles out of the hundreds now available. A total of five interviews are listed (Barry Tashian, Holly Tashian, Patsy Montana, Rodney Crowell, Richard Bennett), although several more appear to have been conducted. Hence what Tichi presents as nothing less than a paradigm-challenging set of “new ideas about cultural relations” (p.6) turns out to be something considerably less than new–and scarcely even tenable–to anyone who has read much about or listened to much country music.
Breadth? High Lonesome is essentially ahistorical in its approach and narrow in its coverage. To Tichi, “country music” is country music is country music–in all times and places, by all performers, regardless of subgenre–and can be endlessly generalized about. Tichi’s grasp on either the contributing musical streams (traditional or commercial) or regional cultural differences is minimal. To her, late nineteenth century fiddlers (p. 151) fall neither less nor differently within the rubric than do Johnny Cash or opera singer gone country Kathy Chiavola. A thoughtful comparison between Chiavola in the nineties and Vernon Dalhart in the twenties might have been illuminating, but no such comparison is forthcoming.
This book, it turns out, is for all practical purposes not about the complex past and present of country music at all, but about Cecelia Tichi’s short-term, mostly serendipitous, and above all personal encounter with some bits of it–mainly, it appears, the Tashians and Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, and Dolly Parton. The latter three, she asserts, “are a pivot to the past and a touch-stone for the present and future of country music” (p. 18). Harris figures most prominently of all: there are at least seven photographs of her (pp. 14, 96, 97 [two photos], 164, 166). Moreover, Tichi’s 184-item discography (pp.279-84) includes one song each by Fiddlin’ John Carson, George Jones, Kitty Wells, and Tom T. Hall, two each by the Carter family, Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe, three by Johnny Cash, four by Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, a half-dozen or so each by Gene Autry, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, nine or ten each by Dolly Parton and Rodney Crowell, and twenty-six [sic] by Emmylou Harris.
The best of the book is to be found in its final two chapters, which contain a long interview with Rodney Crowell and some thoughtful profiles of a couple of young producers (Mike Lawler and Richard Bennett), several young newcomers (opera singer Kathy Chiavola, classical violinist Andrea Zonn, bluegrass fiddler Laurie Lewis), and the ever-present Tashians. Some friend or colleague of Tichi’s could have done her a favor by advising her to focus her book on such materials–where, it appears, she might actually have constructed a sustainable argument and made a substantial fresh contribution. Such advice might have (mercifully) prevented her from leaping to the embarrassingly premature conclusion that it was up to her to explain in some all-inclusive way what she fancied had never before been dreamt of in anybody’s country music philosophy.
But one must take the book as it stands. Tichi’s principal thesis is that, properly understood, country music is national music, a quintessentially American music too long neglected by those whose business it is to know and understand things. The book’s epigraph comes from Chet Atkins: “Country music is our heritage. They oughta teach it in the schools.” Well, calling country music “our heritage” in any global or inclusive way is highly problematic, even if Chet himself did it. The assertion is reminiscent of the movement in Congress some years ago to declare square dance the “American national dance.” Understandably, a lot of blacks, Jews, Native Americans, and other cultural subgroups not accustomed to bedecking themselves in checked shirts and crinolines begged to differ. Country music is a very important part of our national experience, to be sure, and one worth taking seriously. But the leap from there to globalizing it as “our [national] heritage” is a long and risky one, and the means Tichi chose to do it riskier still.
What are the means? Logically, the formula is straight-forward: The term “country” in country music, she asserts, “is synonymous with nation” (p. 1; an assertion in support of which she would be hard pressed to offer one shred of evidence) . This country/national music, like the Best of Our Literature and Art, deals with the Great Themes of Our National Experience (home, the road, loneliness, the West, hillbillies, the spiritual journey, and nature). The music deserves, consequently, to be taken
as seriously as the standard canonical works, to which it has heretofore not been (properly) understood to bear such a striking resemblance.
Practically, what happens in the book is that Tichi explores a long series of what she considers to be parallels (identities, she usually asserts) between selected themes of country songs (“country” in her indiscriminate, globalized sense) and those of canonical works: this, that, or the other Great Theme in this, that, or the other country song and canonical work (novel, story, painting, poem, statue, whatever). In her search for parallels, Tichi invokes not only the canonical Great Artists one might most expect (Whitman, Sherwood Anderson, Currier and Ives, Edward Hopper–though not Charles Ives, oddly enough), but also a raft of more esoteric and elite others presumably unfamiliar to the average philistine listener (Wallace Stevens, Pablo Picasso, Giacomo Puccini, Maria Callas, Ruggiero Leoncavallo).
But alas, there are serious problems both with this logic, and with how it gets implemented in the book. One persistent problem is Tichi’s apparent unfamiliarity with musical analysis in general. A glaring example is her “explanation” of the “Nashville number system” used to designate chord progressions (p. xi). Far from having anything in particular to do with Nashville, however, that notational system has been widely used in musical analysis at least since the eighteenth century.3 Other terminological problems abound: “Wayfaring Stranger” is “a traditional country-folk song” (p. 173); Hazel Dickens belongs to “the so-called ‘primitive’ country-folk tradition of singers” (p. 215), and so on. Even Tichi’s title itself is misleading: in its conventional usage, “high lonesome” has referred specifically to a certain vocal style usually thought of–appropriately or not–as Appalachian (as in John Cohen’s film on Roscoe Holcomb); more loosely, it has been applied to bluegrass vocal style. Using it as Tichi does to apply to country music in general conflates vocal style with overall musical style and repertoire, and elides the enormous differences one hears (vocally and otherwise) between Bill Monroe and Jim Reeves, Molly O’Day and Nanci Griffith, and countless other individuals, styles, and subgenres one might easily name.
However confused and confusing the terminology, three highly questionable assumptions lie at the base of the book’s many problems: (1) the repeated occurrence of a particular motif in country music is evidence that the music is in some deep, pervasive way “about” that motif, and that whenever and wherever the motif occurs, it is treated in the same highly predictable way; (2) if the same root motif (home, road) appears in two cultural artifacts, it means the same thing in both; and (3) the presence in country music of a set of repeated themes also prominent in canonical works certifies it as “our national music.”
The first of these assumptions seduces Tichi into innumerable facile and misleading generalizations about country music’s complex past and present, and blinds her to the nuances and contradictions wherein much of its expressive interest and power lie. When one reads, for example, of Merle Haggard “with his raw ballads of drifting, drinking, and chip-on-the-shoulder individualism” (p. 12), one wonders whether this is a different Merle Haggard from the one who sings “Hungry Eyes”
and “The Way I Am.”
The second assumption drives Tichi’s dubious project of rehabilitating country music by promoting it to canonical status and by elevating the mere existence of a superficial similarity above the far more important issue of how any particular work (canonical or not) treats any particular motif or theme. And the third assumption is based on a concept of “national” experience long since rendered useless by careful analyses of regional, gender, racial, class, and occupational differences within the body politic.
So how does this scheme work out, chapter by chapter? Limitations of space demand that a few examples stand for a host of problems. Perhaps the most pervasive and fatal problem is that of conflation: to Tichi, a home is a home is a home, whether it is “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane,” “This Ole House,” “Home On the Range,” or Tom T. Hall’s “Homecoming” (pp. 20-25); all are grist for generalizations about “home songs in country music,” for which Tichi invokes Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House as the paradigm (pp. 32-35, 79-81) . Thus when Tichi asserts that in country music (as in the culture generally) the “mythic American home, is fixed and unchanging” (p. 45), one wonders what happened to “The Grand Tour,” “Yard Sale,” or “Pretty House for Sale.”
Similarly, one road is as good a comparative example as another for representing your “typical country music road song” (p. 54): the National Road, the Chisholm trail, Route 66, the camino real, the open ocean of Moby-Dick, Huck Finn rafting on the river (or slaves sold down it), the Trail of Tears (I am not making this up), and the road Frederick Douglass took away from slavery on the eastern shore of Maryland (pp. 58, 61, 63, 70, 71). Within such an analytical framework, Hank Williams “dies on the road to Canton and is reincarnated on the Western road of the cattle drives” (p. 69), if you can believe that.
In the same way, when you get right down to it, all loneliness is pretty much the same–to the Carter Family, to Jimmie Rodgers, to Hank Williams, to all and sundry. Thus Tichi’s “high lonesome” chapter–far from illuminating anything about how particular country artists or songs have made particular statements about particular kinds or states of loneliness–is about how the generic loneliness in generic country music is like the generic loneliness of a putatively American national character (p. 102).
These problems of conflation and generalization persist throughout the book. Tichi’s discussion of the “wild wild West” is nearly completely ahistorical both with regard to the West itself and with regard to country music (again, undifferentiated as to period, performer, or subgenre). Her chapter on the West claims that “From this music’s earliest years, country artists embraced the West in song” (pp. 104, 107). Titles, images and brief phrases intended to substantiate her global assertion tumble in undifferentiated profusion; only Tex Ritter’s “High Noon” and Willie Nelson’s “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” receive more than cursory mention. It is as if the complex changes one in fact observes in moving from Jule Lane Allen through Gene Autry to the Girls of the Golden West and on to
Kinky Friedman’s “Ride ’em Jewboy,” Michael Martin Murphy’s “Cosmic Cowboy” and the current “hat acts” did not exist. The bulk of the chapter focuses, it turns out, not on country music at all (however defined), but on Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self Reliance,” and Gary Cooper’s performance in High Noon.
Thus when Tichi attempts to generalize from “American” culture to country music, the central problem is that country music gets blanded out–generic-ed, if I may be permitted the term. But when in her newfound enthusiasm she generalizes back from her generic country mu-sic to the larger culture, yet other serious problems emerge. Discussing loneliness, for example, she asserts that not only is country music “about” it, but that outside the music, the “subject appears muted, submerged, oblique, absent outright. Print texts and visual arts barely seem to register the lonely state of mind.” A “taboo of denial” surrounds the topic; it is “muted, half-hidden, suppressed, treated like a kind of skeleton in the American closet.” Fortunately, however, country “owns” the theme, which it “has a special cultural license” to treat. Country is a “reservoir for the expression of the loneliness of this nation,” a “secret map” to such a state of mind(pp. 82-87). There is no other way to say it: this is arrant nonsense. Certainly such assertions would come as a great surprise to a host of American writers, from Melville (Ishmael and Bartleby, pre-eminently) through Poe and Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wolfe’s Eugene Gant (“Lost, oh lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost come back again!”) and onward.4
But conflation and insupportable generalization are not the only problems. When the evidence she needs is not available, Tichi sometimes fabricates it. She argues, for example, that Hank Williams shows “a reluctance to say outright how profound is the cost of loneliness,” and that his listeners collude with him “not to state outright what both know.” Thus in “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “cry is a code word … [that] drives the real meaning into hiding.” So first-time listeners (who “know the essential word is die“) hear “cry” as “die” (p. 101) . Nonsense. In the first place, “die” is clearly articulated two lines earlier (“When leaves begin to die”) and the subsequent “could cry” alliteration is perfectly clear. Moreover, if loneliness and its costs are not overt and explicit in Hank Williams, then nothing is. Thus, what Tichi presents to us as dazzling insight comes off as considerably less than that.
The combination of conflation, insupportable generalization, and outright fabrication that characterizes much of Tichi’s book reaches its apogee in her discussion of the “red red rose” motif/theme. In what she implies is an uncommonly illuminative insight, she asserts that the rose “can open up certain American public attitudes to-ward country music” (p. 133), helping us understand the culturally biased politics of its public reception. Specifically, we are given to understand, country music is “about” a “war of the roses”: the cultivated American beauty (of the Biltmore House and Gardens, say [pp. 131-32]) vs. the wild rose, which is the “floral symbol” of the hillbilly–ergo, the “hillbilly rose” which is the “central figure” in American “free wildness” (pp. 136-41). So it is Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter vs. Eddie Arnold’s “Bouquet of Roses,” Notre Dame’s rose window vs. Margaret Fuller’s Summer on the Lakes, in 1843, George Vanderbilt’s rose garden vs. Dolly’s dulcimer (p. 139).
Some pages of this, and one is impelled to say, “Come on, now!” In the first place, the history of the Appalachian region and its status as a complex image and symbol in American culture have been carefully re-researched and rewritten during the past thirty years, and so far as I know there is not one shred of evidence to support Tichi’s contention that the wild rose is even a widely recognized (to say nothing of the central) symbol of the hillbilly.5 In the second place, Tichi’s determination that it shall be so, regardless, leads her to force and even to fabricate evidence. Thus Sally Rose of Emmylou Harris’s Ballad of
becomes “the backwood . . . wild hillbilly Rose” (p. 158) despite the fact that the first stanza of the title song says she was born “in the Black Hills of South Dakota,” and nothing else on the album (save one reference to “the Shenandoah hills”) ever links her with anything specifically hillbilly.
Tichi handles some of her high-culture examples in a similarly high-handed way: comparing William Merrit Chase’s two paintings “Portrait of Miss Jessup” (cultivated roses on her dress) and “Carmencita” (wild roses dropped by her feet), she asserts that the protagonist of Bizet’s opera Carmen is “a hillbilly wild rose” (pp. 160-61). Never mind that Carmen has consistently been portrayed (and recognized) as a gypsy rather than a hillbilly–between which there are major and important differences–and that the Chase portrait of her looks like every gypsy (and no hillbilly) you ever saw.6 There is in fact no end to it: the rose on Emmylou Harris’s guitar marks her as “wild”–“Wild like Thoreau … Hillbilly wild” (p. 164). Emmylou as a wild rose? Thoreau as a hillbilly? Go figure.
There is more (in numerous aspects of her consideration of country as “nature’s music,” for example), but one wearies. Ultimately one wonders for whom this book was written. To anyone who knows much about country music, the bulk of it will seem silly (the admiring statement by my good friend, Country Music U.S.A. author Bill Malone, on the dust jacket to the contrary notwithstanding). To the New York sophisticates (like reviewer Nicholas Dawidoff), it “glitters like rhinestones with Ms. Tichi’s enthusiasm but is, alas, something of an Arkansas diamond in the reading”; its observations tend to be “mere bromides” (as in the long riff on roses). Ultimately it is “a bit pretentious–quite a sin when the subject is country music.” 7 Writing for a less high-toned audience in Time (July 25, 1994), Malcolm Jones, Jr. is a bit more sensitive to the cultural politics of hillbilly symbolism (the “only minority not protected by the bylaws of political correctness”) and country music (which he says “forfeited its soul” when it got rid of “rhinestone suits and beehive hairdos”). Nevertheless, he finds Tichi’s treatment “entirely too tasteful,” and says her book “raises the suspicion that country will not be done in by friends in low places but by new pals in high culture.” Why? Because in his view “a unique American art” of universal appeal like country music emerges only when somebody like Hank Williams can wed “guilty pleasures” to those “great themes” Tichi is interested in. So far, so good. But what is Jones’s notion of what country music ought to be doing? Mainly making sure that the idiom “never stray[s] from the rudiments of hillbilly songwriting.” In his view, maybe only Bill Monroe among them all retains “that old spit-in-your-eye hillbilly defiance” he contends is the essence of country music. Which, unfortunately, gets us exactly nowhere, since what appears to trouble Jones is precisely that he likes his hillbillies and misses them when they are (apparently) gone.
So where do we go from here to write about country music? We are now in at least the third, and maybe the fourth, wave of serious writing about it. In the late 1940s and 1950s pioneers like Archie Green, D. K. Wilgus, Bob Pinson, Eugene Earle and others compiled the first primitive discographies and bibliographies, put out the first newsletters, and wrote the first articles. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Bill Malone, Ed Kahn and others wrote the first serious articles, dissertations, and books, which concentrated mainly on laying out the historical narrative and pinning down crucial details. Still later came more specialized biographies and studies by Mary Bufwack and Robert Oermann, Norm Cohen, Robert Coltman, Richard Peterson, Nolan Porterfield, Neil Rosenberg, Charles Townsend, Ivan Tribe, Charles Wolfe and many others. More recently, a few books and articles have begun to explore more conceptually sophisticated lines of analysis. Pre-eminent among them is Robert Cantwell’s Bluegrass Breakdown (1984), but younger scholars such as Mark Fenster, Aaron Fox, Richard Leppert, and George Lipsitz are also making major contributions.8 All of this constitutes an enormous gain, and much of it was achieved by people working nights after long days on unrelated jobs (Pinson, Green, Earle, and Cohen come especially to mind), or whose conventional academic departments (English, History, Anthropology) couldn’t understand why they would want to waste their time writing about country music.
But now we are in a new phase–in the era of fuzzy
disciplinary boundaries in the university, cultural studies as a modish orientation for scholars, multiculturalism as a focus in the media, and (above all) everybody and his brother and sister going country (look at them boots). This is a situation both promising and fraught with some peril. Since some of the books that most need to be written to carry serious analysis of country music forward will be unlikely to find commercial publishers, university presses will be called upon to publish them, as they should be. With the notable exception of the University of Illinois Press (with their now extensive Music in American Life series), Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas, how-ever, university presses have thus far done relatively little with country music.
Unfortunately, the opening to do something significant comes just as the presses find themselves under increasing financial pressure from stingier and stingier state legislatures, smaller university subventions, and declining library sales. Consequently they are scrambling to find a few highly marketable books to pay the way for less marketable ones (North Carolina recently picked up some of the best-selling Foxfire books, for example).
As the economic situation for university presses worsens within the current political climate (as it inevitably will), the temptation with regard to books on country music will almost inevitably be to shape and position those books for a niche as money makers in the popular market. Duke University Press has already invited Tichi to edit a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly on country music). To the extent that such pressures continue to operate and such choices continue to be made, serious work on country music will suffer. And for that, we will all be the losers.
One might reasonably infer that the handling of Tichi’s book by the University of North Carolina Press was perhaps conceived at least partly to position the Press in this new potential niche. It was in any case lavishly designed and produced, and is being aggressively promoted. In these straitened times, there are nevertheless nearly 140 color and black and white photos (all but three of the color ones also reproduced in black and white). Pages are generously-sized, margins are wide, and typography is elegant. For good measure, a CD is tucked into the back; it has “23 tracks,” we are promised–double the number on your usual run-of-the-mill CD.“9
To return to my opening point: I welcome serious attention to country music, from whatever quarter, and applaud the new openings to write about it that issue from whatever changes, inside the university or out. But one risk of those openings is that scholars may be tempted by the presumed analytical power of their method to write about subjects about which they in fact know little if anything. As in this case, the results are likely to be disappointing.
David E. Whisnant teaches courses on country music, Appalachia, American literature, folklore, and the politics of culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.