Thursday, November 10, 2016

Don't Get Above Your Raisin'

Don't Get Above Your Raisin': Country Music and the Southern Working Class
© 2002 Bill C. Malone
432 pages

Friend of mine named Steve Goodman wrote that song, and he told me that it was the perfect country-and-western song. I wrote him back and told him he had not written the perfect country and western song, 'cause he hadn't said anything at all about Mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or gettin' drunk.  (David Allen Coe, "You Never Even Call Me By My Name")

Don't get above your raisin', stay down to Earth with me -- Bill Malone never quotes the song that serves as the title of his book, a history of country music in its southern context...but its spirit is ever present. Using the lives of country's most passionate and storied performers, Malone reflects on the tradition and finds it a lovable mess -- alternatively humble and bragging, pious and rowdy.  Malone's deep familiarity with the tradition, and his love for it, are obvious. He doesn't simply treat readers to a barrage of chronology, but rather examines how certain aspects of the genre have evolved throughout  the last two centuries, so tumultuous to the South.

Country is as the name implies a tradition of music created and sustained by rural populations -- farmers first, and now people who live and play in the backwoods.  Its beginnings mix traditional romantic ballads, dances, and religious music.  Religious music is an especially strong influence on country, the stuff of lullabies and tent revivals that created generation after generation of musicians and singers.  In religiosity, the South remains stridently Protestant, but there's no puritanism to be found in country music. Inst ed, piety and partying mix together freely --  with no better witness than Hank Williams, who penned "I Saw the Light" and died an early death, plagued by depression and substance abuse.  The tangled, wonderful messiness of country  envelops more than religion. Country songs simultaneously embrace Mama's hearth and home, while celebrating rambling men and the freedom of the open road. Politics, too, finds contradictions -- zealous law-and-order mixed with praise of rowdy outlaws who give the Man what-for.  Not for nothing are truckers and cowboys, the ramblers who come home eventually, so popular -- as are repentant sinners who will invariably go chasing cigareetes, whuskey, and wild, wild women.  Additionally, Malone delves into the connections between country and its daughters, bluegrass and political folk, as well as the changing country-dance scene.  There's also a good chapter on country's connection with comedy in general, focusing on the Grand Ol Opry and Hee Haw, mentioning people like Andy Griffith and Jerry Clower.

Malone's piece is a labor of love, though with most others his age he despairs of the way country music headed in the 1990s, with more synthesizers and less fiddles.  That trend has certainly continued,  Taylor Swift's seamless transition into pop being an obvious example.  There are many traditionalists in the ranks, though.  Travis Tritt is quoted as sneering at Billy Ray Cyrus, who dressed in a body shirt  and 'turning country music into an ass-wiggling contest'.   Considering the posterior antics of Cyrus' daughter Miley, who does more than wiggling,  I suppose apples still don't fall very far from trees.  Still, Malone looks for the best even in then contemporary music, and concedes that every genre is in constant motion.

Don't Get Above Your Raisin' surprised me. I knew it would be a history of country music, but -- even as someone who grew up with country, who loves and collects the older artists -- Malone shared artists and stories I'd never heard of. Who knew that square dancing was borrowed from French aristocrats?  If you have any interest in country music at all, this book is worth picking up just for the discography in the back,  where Malone lists all of the albums and songs he's been referencing throughout the text. I've been able to find a lot of older artists via youtube's "also reccommended" feature, but this kind of shortcut is welcome!


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