Country Music’s “Geo-cultural” Origins

Country music has historically been defined through a “southern thesis” which suggests that the music emerged from the countryside and mountain hollows of the rural U.S. south. This idea is strongly linked to the first published history of the genre, Bill C. Malone’s Country Music, U.S.A. (1968). Recent scholars (Patrick Huber and Paul L. Tyler) have challenged this paradigm, critiquing the southern thesis as a narrative that privileges the contributions from white, male, southern USA born artists. Karl Hagstrom Miller’s work has shown that the recording industry developed this construct in the 1920s as a way to market records by segregating southern music into distinct musical genres linked to specific racial and class identities. Diane Pecknold argues that this fictive construct, perpetuated by the industry and embedded in the broader country music discourse, serves as a powerful exclusionary tool that has obscured and even erased the contributions of artists born outside of the U.S. south, persons of colour, and women.

In a period in which racism and gender inequality are at the fore of public, political and scholarly discourse, this project will raise awareness around issues of gender, race, class, and geography as they are shaped by and relate to country music identity and culture. Unlike the more liberal pop and hip-hop genres, whose artists actively participate in public debate, country musicians have (with a few exceptions) remained largely silent on political topics, especially those regarding gender and racial inequality. While some may be fearful of being blacklisted (or worse) by the industry and fans in the same manner as the Dixie Chicks were in 2003, this silence is often interpreted as implicit agreement with Republican political ideologies. As such, it serves to reinforce the southern thesis that keeps women, African Americans, and non-southern artists from participating in country music. The proposed project will deconstruct the southern thesis, re-contextualize the discussion surrounding country music’s geo-cultural identity, and explore the ways in which it has dictated industry practices.

Funded by an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, this three-year project adopts methods for Big Data research in the humanities in order to undertake data-driven analysis of country music’s geo-cultural identity. In going beyond basic questions about the regions that have produced the most country performers, it will interrogate the role that artists outside of the white, southern, male construct have played in shaping country music’s geo-cultural identity and breakdown the southern thesis that underpins this nearly century-long narrative construct.

Opinion pieces

Watson, Jada. 2021. “Grammys 2021 performer Mickey Guyton makes history – without country radio’s support.” NBC News Think, 14 March.


Watson, Jada. 2021. “Redlining in Country Music: Representation in the Country Music Industry (2000-2020).SongData Reports; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 12 March.

Conference Presentations

Watson, Jada. “Reproducing Inheritance: Country Music and the Myth of Southern Whiteness.” Paper to be presented at Social Justice in the Life and Music of Johnny Cash at the 2021 Virtual Johnny Cash Heritage Festival; October 15-16, 2021.

Watson, Jada. “Listening for the Lost Archive.” Paper to be presented at the Radio Preservation and Task Force’s conference ‘Century of Broadcasting: Preservation and Renewal’; Washington, D.C, October 2020. [postponed to October 2021 due to Covid-19]

Watson, Jada. “Voix d’exception : Les métadonnées discographiques comme outil de recherche pour étudier la culture de la musique country (1944-2016).” Article présenté à la conférence annuelle de Muscan; juin 2021. 

Watson, Jada. “Overlooked Voices: Race and Gender on Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart (1994-2016).” Paper presented at the annual conference of the International Country Music Conference; Nashville, TN, May 2021.

Watson, Jada. “Discographic Metadata as a Research Resource for Studying Popular Music Cultures.” Paper presented at the annual conference of the Music Library Association; Richmond, Virginia, February 2020.


Watson, Jada E. “A Double-Edged Sword.” Paper to be included in Whose Country Music? Genre, Identity, and Belonging in 21st Century Country Music Culture, edited by Jada Watson and Paula Bishop. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [in progress]

Bishop, Paula J., and Jada E. Watson, eds. Whose Country Music? Genre, Identity, and Belonging in 21st Century Country Music Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.

This research is supported by an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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