A Turn in the South
All day, mechanics and construction workers across America keep a radio twanging next to the socket wrenches or hooked on to bare studs. * All night, the ghost army of workers and cleaners who service the offices and classroom buildings in our towns fill the corridors with the same music from their portable sets. To travel in this land today you need not only wheels but also a radio tuned to Country—one of the thousands of radio stations across the continent which now play country-and-western music day and night. Our samizdat is wide open, electronic, and commercially successful. Its wailing or driving rhythms ride on slide guitars and nasal voices. Behind the broken loves and honky-tonk lives celebrated in the lyrics, it doesn’t take long to find bedrock. John Denver’s bid for a new national anthem is entitled “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” It contains the essential code word.
What’s going on? What does “country” mean? Country-and-western music appeals to a thick social stratum in the North and South and may even define it. Folklorists tell us that an economically and politically deprived segment of the citizenry in any country will soon find an outlet for its feelings in a folk art, often in music. With at least a sixty-year history, C&W music may well be telling us something about the inadequacy of political parties in their present form to represent the people.1 In its several intermingled styles—hillbilly, gospel, bluegrass, cowboy—this music incorporates a strongly felt tradition of populism and protest. We should not misread today’s signals: “country” protest comes from the right.
Country means redneck. The second word crops up fairly frequently in today’s songs as a brag. It mediates between the old slur, “white trash,” and the new cleaned-up model, “country,” an adjective that can enhance anything from pork to chintz. As soon as you try to define redneck, you turn the word into a caricature. Poor, white, undereducated, manual or farm or wage labor, disreputable, patriotic—useless half-truths. Catching the category accurately should concern us less than its expansion and its extent. Rednecks used to exist only in the South. Today there is no state in the Union, no province in Canada without a redneck culture. A diversified corporation in southern Indiana runs a highly successful year-round Country festival and calls itself Little Nashville. WBOS in Boston plays “ten Country numbers back to back” around the clock. Rednecks punish their pickup trucks and consume their sixpacks in Oregon, in Vermont, in Saskatchewan as ritually as they do in Mississippi and Tennessee. The cowboy has not disappeared; he has been taken over. His ten-gallon hat has yielded to the baseball or feed-grain cap. His boots go on.
The reddening of America has already caught the full attention of the music and clothing industries. A few sociologists have given it their attention. The precedents for my title, the “greening” and later the “blueing” of America, had their day as journalism and did not stay the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.