"Which way to the honky-tonk?": An analysis of the Bakersfield and Nashville sounds

University of South Florida Scholar Commons Graduate Theses and Dissertations Graduate School 2009 Which way to the honky-tonk? : An analysis of the Bakersfield and Nashville sounds Matthew Arnold University
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University of South Florida Scholar Commons Graduate Theses and Dissertations Graduate School 2009 Which way to the honky-tonk? : An analysis of the Bakersfield and Nashville sounds Matthew Arnold University of South Florida Follow this and additional works at: Part of the American Studies Commons Scholar Commons Citation Arnold, Matthew, Which way to the honky-tonk? : An analysis of the Bakersfield and Nashville sounds (2009). Graduate Theses and Dissertations. This Thesis is brought to you for free and open access by the Graduate School at Scholar Commons. It has been accepted for inclusion in Graduate Theses and Dissertations by an authorized administrator of Scholar Commons. For more information, please contact Which Way to the Honky-Tonk? An Analysis of the Bakersfield and Nashville Sounds by Matthew Arnold A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts Department of Humanities and Cultural Studies College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: Andrew Berish, Ph.D. Daniel Belgrad, Ph.D. Maria Cizmic, Ph.D. Date of Approval: April 7, 2009 Keywords: Music, space, country, class, western Copyright 2009, Matthew Arnold Table of Contents List of Figures Abstract iii iv Introduction 1 The Problem of Class in Country Music 1 The Middle and Working Class 3 The Development of Country Music 6 The Country Music Audience 10 The Importance of Place 11 The Plan of this Thesis 13 Chapter One 16 The Local Tavern and Class Consciousness 16 The Rise of the Honky-Tonk 18 Music Inside the Honky-Tonk 20 Mind Your Own Business 21 Changing the Industry 22 Chapter Two 26 World War II and the Expansion of the Country Music Audience 26 Chet Atkins: Moving Uptown 29 The Nashville Sound 30 i Jim Reeves 32 Chapter Three 36 The Dust Bowl and the Okie Migration 36 The San Joaquin Valley 38 Buck Owens 40 Sam s Place 42 Conclusion 44 Works Cited 46 ii List of Figures Figure One 15 Figure Two 24 Figure Three 25 Figure Four 35 iii Which Way to the Honky-Tonk? An Analysis of the Bakersfield and Nashville Sounds Matthew Arnold ABSTRACT The goal of this thesis is to analyze the development of the Nashville and Bakersfield sounds in the 1950s and 1960s through the lens of space. I will examine the role class plays in country music by examining the places in which it developed. Beginning with a historical perspective of the music, I will show that a middle-class outlook controlled labeling of the music. While the early country music industry professed to discover the sounds of rural America, this sound was only allowed to be expressed if it conformed to corporate interests. With the advent of the honky-tonk bar, the working class had an important opportunity to step outside this mold and fashion a music that better reflected its own interests. The developing honky-tonk sound became rougher in its lyrical content, voicing the concerns of failed marriages, alcohol filled nights and urban frustrations. The instrumentation began to include steel and electric guitars. Over time, the developing honky-tonk sound influenced the recording industry. Through the use of jukeboxes in the honky-tonks, patrons voiced a preference for the new, rougher and louder sound. After establishing the sound of the honky-tonks I will focus attention on the developments of the Nashville and Bakersfield sounds, examining how each responded to the honky-tonk. For the architects of the Nashville Sound, the issue of class remained iv king. Chet Atkins professed a goal of making the music more respectable. Respectable in this case meant middle class, prompting Atkins to abandon the honky-tonk altogether by smoothing over the rough edges of honky-tonk music. With respect to the Bakersfield Sound, Buck Owens, in striving to carve out an identity as an authentic country performer, identified the honky-tonk as a site of authentic country music, and sought to retain much of the same instrumentation. However, like Chet Atkins, Buck Owens made his own changes to the lyrical content of the music, downplaying some of the rougher themes to honky-tonk music. For Owens, authenticity laid in keeping the artist authentic to the honky-tonk which was more about instrumentation and singing style than it was lyrical content. v Introduction The Problem of Class in Country Music Garth Brooks's Friends in Low Places is one of many love-gone-wrong songs in country music. In this song the spurned male has a chance to call out his no-good exgirlfriend. Yet while the song at its core details the troubles between a man and his former lover, Friends in Low Places also deals with class. In the first verse, Brooks sings Blame it all on my roots, I showed up in boots, and ruined your black-tie affair, signaling to the listener that he is out of place when he arrives at the party of his exgirlfriend, who is now with someone of a higher social class. 1 Brooks goes on to sing, I'm not big on social graces, think I'll slip on down to the oasis, oh, I've got friends in low places. 2 With the chorus the narrator confirms his status as a working-class individual and someone who is at the mercy of both capricious women and a middle-class masculinity he perceives as effeminate. However, while the song tells the story of the marginalized male, it must be noted that the song is complicated by the fact that Brooks himself does not share the experience of marginalization. Being one of the most successful acts within the country music genre, Garth Brooks has enjoyed considerable crossover success. Friends in Low Places shows the contradictions that exist within the country music genre. On the one hand, country music is viewed as a music of the people. It lauds old-time values and strives to not get above its raising. The genre sings about the 1 heartland, mom and apple pie. Yet it is also filled with individuals who are seeking popularity as well financial success in their chosen profession. The pursuit of such success, though, is often denigrated as selling out. While both aims seem antithetical to each other, they have managed to coexist within the same genre, though not without some difficulty. Scholars have long attempted to arrive at a satisfactory explanation for how country music can manage to be both things at the same time. How can the country artist manage to be both the non-presuming, humble farmhand and the successful cosmopolitan at the same time? Current scholarship focuses on the tension that develops from trying to be both of these things at once. Jeffrey Lange discusses the expansion of the country music audience over the course of the fifties. Lange writes on the ways country music producers altered the genre in order in order to find listeners beyond the working class a process he describes as a search for respectability. 3 However efforts to make the genre more respectable also sparked concerns that the genre was trading its authenticity for increased profits. Joli Jensen examines these concerns within the context of the 1950s by looking at how individuals define authenticity. According to Jensen, the identity of country music became linked to the identity of working class Terms like authentic work to celebrate our music as virtuous and valuable while denigrating their music as insincere, specious, tainted, or false. 4 Thus, any change that threatens the authenticity of country music seemingly undermines working-class identity. However, such arguments presume that country music accurately represents working-class culture. Barbara Ching addresses the gap between perception and reality. Ching points out how many country artists became successful by highlighting their abjectness and expressing a 2 formulaic articulation of failure. 5 While such songs are interpreted by lay audiences as a realistic depiction of the working-class experience, what Ching points out is that often such songs exaggerate the woes of the working class in order to poke fun at a dominant mddle class. 6 In this thesis, I will examine how country music has dealt with the issue of social class in relation to the spaces in which country music is performed. Previous scholarship has already examined the manner in which space informs our conception of social class. Most prominent is Mary Douglas's work on safe and dangerous zones, which theorizes that we divide the world into safe and dangerous zones in order to control our movements and actions. 7 This model is useful in analyzing country music s development: the honkytonk, a major space in which country develops, is deemed dangerous to the middle class, who avoid it in order to maintain respectability. However, such a view is further complicated by the fact that while the middle class is ascribing its own set of meanings and beliefs onto honky-tonks, the working class is likewise ascribing its own set of beliefs upon the same space. What is dangerous to the middle class becomes a refuge to the working class. I will explain later how country music can act as a sponge, soaking up the cultural values of the honky-tonks in which it developed. It becomes something to be derided and mocked by the middle class while being embraced by a working class who see the music as an authentic expression of their experience. The Middle and Working Class A brief discussion is needed to explain the importance of the middle and working classes to country music. There is no clear-cut delineation between the two groups, as certainly there are middle-class listeners of country music and there are working-class 3 individuals who were able to make the jump to a middle-class lifestyle. What further clouds the picture of the two classes and their importance to country music is the fact that the primary individuals of importance to this thesis share common racial and religious backgrounds, being white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs). During the 1950s however, class took on a particular significance within American culture, given the rapid economic advances and increased opportunities associated with the postwar period. 8 To be middle class meant performing a variety of different traits, from working a successful job to living in the suburbs and having the perfect wife and children. Sitcoms from the era, such as I Love Lucy and The Donna Reed Show presented images of the perfect family while scholars like Vance Packard discussed the importance of the organization man, explaining how success in the workplace was also dictated by one s success in his private life. The idea of the white-collar job became especially important to middle-class status over the course of the fifties, as scholars such as C. Wright Mills pointed out the rising importance of the corporation as comprising the leading circles of power. 9 Thus one s position within the company became central to one s social status, as even the location of one s office became a marker of one s importance to the company. 10 However, the office also provides an example of the divide between the physical and imagined spaces. During the fifties, the office was filled spaces that marked your importance. Having the corner office and obtaining a key to the executive restroom meant you were more important than your colleagues who worked in cubicles. These things became part of a system of perks that were a better indicator of status than one s actual income. 11 This created a defining feature of the American middle class: to rise to 4 the top without disclosing its[the individual s] success in doing so. 12 At the same time though, things like the executive restroom were satirized in American cinema during the fifties, as films like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, mock the executive restroom as mere posturing. However, the use of space in such settings as the office, highlight the importance of performativity to middle-class values in the fifties. One wasn t simply middle class in the fifties, one had to perform the role of middle class. In examining the popular culture of the era, it becomes clear that middle-class success was not tied simply to the work one did, but rather to the overall life they lived. Happiness during this era was not simply tied to your income, but how well you performed your middle-class identity. An example of this can be seen from an episode of The Donna Reed Show, titled Donna Plays Cupid, which originally aired in In this episode, the show s protagonist Donna engages in efforts to bring together two of her friends, Ceil Pennington and Dr. Bo Bolind (The Donna Reed Show, Donna Plays Cupid, episode 21 [originally aired February 11, 1959]). While each individual in this episode works a respectable middle-class job Ceil as a librarian and Bo as an obstetrician they both are viewed as unhappy for still being single, sending the message that a key aspect of middle-class performativity during this era was being married. Such media messages were not limited to The Donna Reed Show, as most of the popular sitcoms from the fifties sent similar messages. In fact, a skit from a 1979 episode of Saturday Night Live parodied the formulaic structures of the fifties sitcom by showing Ricky Nelson wandering through the sitcom homes of Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best and Make Room for Daddy while attempting to get home. 13 Furthermore, many Americans felt inadequate compared to the sitcom families. 14 5 In this thesis middle class refers to the range of values making up this social class. In contrast the term working class is used to describe those individuals and behaviors viewed as not performing as middle class. Hence their status is not simply attributed to having limited economic means, but is reinforced by their failure to behave in ways that are identified as emblematic of an upper class. These are individuals who were labeled as not working white-collar jobs, having failed marriages and drinking too much. The hillbilly stereotype became useful in deriding and caricaturing these individuals, as well as making them appear as dangerous to a middle-class ethos. This is not meant to completely disvalue Weberian concepts of class that reduce the term to its economic components, identifying those members of a class as a group of people who share the same life chances. 15 While my focus is on the performative component to class, economics affect the range of activities available to an individual. Certainly those individuals most often frequenting honky-tonks share a common background of limited economic means and opportunities. However expansions in consumer credit over the fifties created additional opportunities for individuals to display wealth without being wealthy. 16 As a result, there was a lessening contrast in the material way of life of rich and poor within America over the course of the fifties. 17 The Development of Country Music Spatial ideas alone are insufficient to fully explain the development of country music and its relationship to class. Considering the lack of scholarly literature on the issue of space and its relationship to the genre, this thesis focuses on space s relationship to country music. As such, I will give a brief account of the genre s history, its relationship to class and its relationship to space. From its earliest recordings, country 6 music was tied to both issues of class and race. Class was apparent from the genre's origins during the 1920s as hillbilly music, giving a voice to the rediscovered, backwoods segments of the American population. 18 It was also dubbed as hillbilly music despite the genre sharing many characteristics with blues music. Scholarship on Hank Williams argues it would be just as appropriate to label him a blues musician as it would be to label him as a country artist. 19 However, given racial policies in the recording industry in the early twentieth century, it became necessary to segregate white and black musical forms and as a result, hillbilly music became the music of white, rural Americans. 20 This is not to overstate the importance of urban producers in the creation of country music. Country music originated among rural performers. However, the importance of the producer was in the manufacturing of the image of the performer. George Hay, the founder of the Grand Ole Opry, played a vital role in rusticating his performers in order to make them conform to middle-class stereotypes about how a hillbilly should appear. 21 Such depictions retained their dominance throughout the twenties and thirties as the music remained in the control of the producers. However, over the course of the forties, the audience of country music expanded, due to both the growing youth culture in America as well as the diaspora of working-class Americans throughout the United States. 22 Although the country music audience expanded during this period, representations of the hillbilly did not improve. Depictions of the hillbilly, particularly in the fifties were often negative. For example, a 1958 article in the Chicago Tribune, described hillbillies in the following manner: The Southern hillbilly migrants, who have descended like a 7 plague of locusts in the last few years, have the lowest standard of living and moral code (if any), the biggest capacity for liquor, and the most savage tactics when drunk, which is most of the time. 23 Such depictions continued in Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd, from 1957, which stars Andy Griffith as country artist Lonesome Rhodes, who despite achieving fame within the genre, remains a threat to middle-class values, as he is depicted as a symbol of social and political decay. 24 Such depictions of the Southern migrant are informed by the idea of place, as they evoke tensions between the city and country. It must also be remembered that the fifties was a time when social critics sought to undermine cultural hierarchies, as typified by Vance Packard's The Status Seekers. 25 Thus a film like A Face in the Crowd can be seen as carrying a dual message. While the first is to paint the picture of the hillbilly as a dangerous element within society, it also carries a message to the broader American culture that distinctions of taste, and by extension class, still matter. 26 The image of the hillbilly has a problematic history within country music. On the one hand, images of the hillbilly, such as those found in the Chicago Tribune article and A Face in the Crowd were anything but positive. Even when depictions of the hillbilly were not intentionally negative, they were still far from flattering. During the early years of the Grand Ole Opry, the Opry's founder, Judge Hay went out of his way to rusticate his performers. 27 As such, Hay often downplayed the professional, middleclass roots of his performers and dressed them in overalls and straw hats in order to authenticate them with the target audience. Such depictions are pandering to negative middle-class stereotypes held about the hillbilly. Regardless of the negativity in these 8 images, the audience of hillbilly music had little choice but to accept them because the music represented the first genre targeted specifically at a rural audience. 28 Regardless of this, the hillbilly image was still one that the genre tried to move beyond. The roots of the hillbilly image are found in the 1920s, when country recording was still in its infancy and urban producers who represented the interests of the middle class controlled the recording technology. 29 Lacking control over the means of production, hillbilly artists could not adequately defend their rights in the recording process. As such, many artists entered into contracts that benefited the recording companies and which did not pay the artist all that they were entitled to under the law. 30 Further, by consolidating control over the recording process, the production companies were also able to maintain control over the advertising strategies of the music. 31 In order for a hillbilly arti
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