A data-driven history of 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. 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.
“Overlooked Voices: Race and Gender on Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart (1994-2016).” Paper to be presented at the annual conference of the International Country Music Conference; Nashville, TN, May 2020.
This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.