Tag Archives: Country music

The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, September 8, 2019: Patsy Cline’s Performance Outfit

 

Hilda Hensley (maker), Patsy Cline’s Costume, ca 1958, National Museum of American History.

 

Patsy Cline: Icon and Iconoclast

Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts producer Janette Davis made herself clear: for the show on January 21, 1957, “Walkin’ After Midnight” was a better choice than “A Poor Man’s Roses (Or a Rich Man’s Gold),” and a sleek, blue linen, sheath dress was preferred over country western attire. That evening, the plucky and ambitious Virginia Patterson Hensley of Winchester, Virginia—Patsy Cline to her listening public—uncharacteristically put aside her pride and did what was asked of her, singing the song she once disparaged as “nothing more than a little old pop tune.” Had she not, there may have been no thunderous applause to guarantee her landslide victory on the televised talent contest and no rush for the label Decca to release a recording of the song that would climb to number two on Billboard’s “Hot Country” chart and number twelve on the “Hot 100” (pop) chart. In short, Patsy Cline the country western singer may not have become Patsy Cline the country-pop crossover star.

It is hard to overstate the incredible power that television had, particularly in its early years, to catapult the career of a performer like Cline. According to the advertising trade publication Sponsor, about half of all homes in the United States with a television watched Godfrey’s show, which was the fifth most popular of the week. Cline was not only heard by millions that night, but also seen by millions. Although a recording artist’s dress had always been essential in constituting a persona, television significantly amplified its ability to construct celebrity.

Across her career, Cline adopted at least three styles of dress that reflected her background, the different performance contexts available for country music, and changes being made within the genre itself. At a time when producers, arrangers, and sound engineers were developing what would be called the Nashville sound—replacing steel guitars, fiddles, nasal roughness, and regional dialects with more commercially viable string arrangements, background vocal quartets, and rhythmic grooves—Cline found herself negotiating the lines between the honky-tonk roots she held dear and an industry bent on expanding country western’s markets. Cline preferred to project “traditional” country markers of authenticity, and particularly in the early years of her career was able to toggle between the fringed cowgirl outfits her mother Hilda made for her (for early stage shows and TV performances) and the “barn dance” look, which relied on an imagined conception of life in the rural American West. To these two options were added the more pop-friendly, form-fitting cocktail dresses prevalent in the early 1960s. As Joli Jensen notes in her contribution to the collection of essays, Sweet Dreams: The World of Patsy Cline:

Patsy Cline embodied the tension between down-home and uptown country music…That tension was obvious visually as well as aurally, where hillbilly, cowboy, and pop visual markers all mix together. Pictures of the Grand Ole Opry stage include performers in business attire (men) and dressy little suits (women) standing in front of wagon wheels, hay bales, and other barn dance signifiers, with cloggers in petticoats and banjo pickers in dungarees. This disjointed visual quality mirrors the contradictory effort, during the period, to find a commercially successful sound that could stay country but still cross over and appeal to a wider audience.

Although we should be suspicious of clear sonic distinctions between “country” and “pop,” there can be no doubt that an artist’s look carried important signifiers. Unlike the wardrobe choice imposed on Cline for her break-through debut on Godfrey’s television show, the pink performance outfit featured here, made by Hilda in around 1958, was fashioned in the barn-dance mold. However, the inclusion of five hand-stitched, rhinestone-adorned, “record” patches, each containing a (modified) title of a Cline recording, illustrates the kind of contradictions pointed out by Jensen above. Clearly shown in the photograph above, “Come On In” and “Poor Mans Roses” sit atop the shirt’s left and right shoulders, respectively. “Stop the World” appears at the bottom of the suit’s left pant leg, “Yes I Understand” is affixed to the right, and “Walking After Midnight” takes its position on the outfit’s back. The point is that we have a costume that is at once country and modern, traditional yet boastful, rural and urban. The patches, as an overt method of promotion, betray a sense of (gendered) humility that would have fed into the concept of respectability so important to the middle-class aspirations of many 1950s Winchester natives. But at the same time, they epitomize the striving for upward class mobility that characterized much of the decade as a whole.

The outfit also points to the rise of the disc as a medium through which to encounter music in the postwar era. After World War II, it was no longer necessary for the United States to restrict the commercial production of shellac, the material required for the construction of the record. Once records were again mass produced and displayed for all to see in jukeboxes, their prominent role as a means through which to disseminate country music could not be denied. Cline’s patches not only advertised her music, but also laid bare the most profitable medium through which it could be brought to the consumer.

Patsy Cline was simultaneously a country western musician and a pop star; the first female solo country artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the recipient of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Despite her untimely death, her lasting impact is, in no small degree, due not only to the songs she brought to life in her recordings and live performances, but also to the personas she projected. Both icon and iconoclast, Cline’s images remain as emblazoned on the history of American popular music as the record patches sewn on her suit.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM. For more, see https://music.si.edu/.

Written and compiled by Michael Lupo, Assistant Editor, RILM

*****

Bibliography

Cline, Patsy. Love Always, Patsy: Patsy Cline’s Letters to a Friend. Compiled by Cindy Hazen and Mike Freeman. New York: Berkley Boulevard, 1999.

 

Gomery, Douglas. Patsy Cline: The Making of an Icon. Bloomington: Trafford, 2011.

Patsy Cline remains a much beloved singer, even though she died in 1963. By 1996, Patsy Cline had become such an icon that The New York Times Magazinepositioned her among a pantheon of women celebrities who transcended any single cultural genre. The making of an icon is a cultural process that transcends traditional biographical analysis. One does not need to know the whole life story of the subject to understand how the subject became an icon. This book explores how Patsy Cline transcended class and poverty to become the country music singer that non-country music fans embraced, going beyond a traditional biography to examine the years beyond her death. (publisher)

 

Hofstra, Warren R., ed. Sweet Dreams: The World of Patsy Cline. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013.

 

Jensen, Joli. “Patsy Cline, Musical Negotiation, and the Nashville Sound.” In All that Glitters: Country Music in America, edited by George H. Lewis, 38–50. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University, 1993.

A brief survey of the life and career of Patsy Cline (1932–63), whose career spanned a transitional period in country music—the developing “Nashville sound” of the early 1950s. Her recording sessions reveal the search for a commercial country sound, combining pop with country. Her struggle to maintain a country definition demonstrates the defining power of music as a cultural form. (Judy Weidow)

 

___________. The Nashville Sound: Authenticity, Commercialization, and Country Music. Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1998.

 A history of country music. Emphasis is placed on the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the growing country music industry developed what has become known as the Nashville sound. The style was less twangy, softer, lusher, and more influenced by pop music than the country music styles that preceded it. The sound sparked debates about whether country music had “sold out.” The notion of country music’s authenticity in relation to charges of its commercialism is examined, and the development of the countrypolitan Nashville sound is explored in detail. (Terry Simpkins)

 

Jones, Margaret. Patsy: The Life and Times of Patsy Cline. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.

 

Nassour, Ellis. Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Patsy Cline, the beloved country singer, soared from obscurity to worldwide fame before her life tragically ended at age 30. After breaking all the barriers in the Nashville boys’ club of the music business in the 1950s, she brought the Nashville sound to the nation with her torch ballads and rockabilly tunes like “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “Crazy,” and “I Fall to Pieces.” Earthy, sexy, and vivacious, she has been the subject of a major movie and countless articles, and her albums are still among the top five best-sellers for MCA almost 30 years after her death. In the end it is her music, a standard feature on jukeboxes from Seattle to Siberia, that prevails and keeps on keeping on. Patsy’s colorful and poignant life is explored in intimate detail by a veteran of The New York Times, Ellis Nassour. She is remembered in Honky Tonk Angel by the country stars who knew and loved her, among them Brenda Lee, Roger Miller, Loretta. Lynn, George Jones, Jimmy Dean, and Ralph Emery. With an introduction by the late Dottie West, a complete discography, and many never-before-published photographs, Honky Tonk Angel lovingly re-creates the life of an American legend whose music lives on forever. (publisher)

 

 

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Kitty Wells’s persona

 

While Kitty Wells’s publicity depicted her as sweet and subservient, her performances told a different story; her steel-blade voice conveyed a maturity and temerity that was impossible to misread.

Confident but not flashy, plaintive but not abject, Wells tapped into a rich vein of deeply loyal fans who heard the grit and forbearance of her experience as she sang to and about them. A role model for women who felt both fidelity and frustration toward family values, she was a transitional figure who represented changing times: a fierce traditionalist with her band, the career wife in an otherwise traditional marriage, and the voice of women who predated the feminist movement but still embraced women’s universal desire to be heard.

Projecting a toughness and stamina honed by 16 years as a professional musician, Wells forged feminine stereotypes into tools of power and strength. She built her reputation on this contradiction: She would not make waves and she would open doors.

This according to “Kitty Wells, queen of denial” by Georgia Christgau, an essay included in Country boys and redneck women: New essays in gender and country music (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016, pp. 211–30).

Today would have been Wells’s 100th birthday! Below, her signature hit It wasn’t God who made honky tonk angels.

BONUS: A classic cover of the song.

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Filed under Popular music, Women's studies

The Goree All-Girl String Band

The members of the Goree All-Girl String Band, all inmates in the Texas state prison system, used country music’s gender iconography in their struggle for greater autonomy and ultimately freedom in the 1930s and 1940s.

Their incarceration and past violations of the norms of feminine passivity and virtuousness placed them beyond the pale of country music’s prevailing image of valued femininity: the sentimental mother, who embodied home, domesticity, and a lost rural past. But through the alternative roles of dutiful daughter and cowboy’s sweetheart they performed their way to rehabilitation, both symbolically (as women who had returned to their proper place) and literally (as convicts who had served their time or gained clemency).

Though largely forgotten today, the Goree Girls’ popularity during their broadcasting years demonstrates that while country audiences may have venerated the sentimental mother, they also identified with and embraced women whose relationship to dominant gender ideals was fraught with complications.

This according to “As if they were going places: Class and gender portrayals through country music in the Texas State Prison, 1938–1944” by Caroline Gnagy, an essay included in Country boys and redneck women: New essays in gender and country music (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016, pp. 126–45).

Below, a selection from a musical based on the Goree Girls’ story; information on the 2017 production is here (scroll down). A film produced by Jennifer Aniston is reportedly in the planning stages; information on that topic is here.

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American popular music

In 2017 the University of Oklahoma Press launched the series American popular music to explore the evolution of folk, blues, gospel, country, rock, jazz, and soul by looking at the ways music relates to the land and people. The primary focus is on music identified with Oklahoma, Texas, and surrounding regions, following regional influences to the farthest extent of their reach.

Of particular interest are individual artists and how they express their ties to land and people uniquely and collectively. This series therefore considers the role that music plays in the lives of artists and the communities that identify with them, and demonstrates how the business of music has shaped their careers and legacies.

The inaugural volume, Sing me back home: Southern roots and country music by Bill C. Malone, presents the story of the author’s working-class upbringing in rural East Texas, recounting how in 1939 his family’s first radio, a battery-powered Philco, introduced him to hillbilly music and how, years later, he went on to become a scholar on the subject before the field formally existed. The book draws on a hundred years of southern roots music history, exploring the intricate relationships between black and white music styles, gospel and secular traditions, and pop, folk, and country music.

Below, Joe Thompson, one of the musicians discussed in the book.

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Filed under New series, North America, Popular music

Why ladies love country boys

The emergence of a strikingly cohesive set of gender narratives on country radio in the late 2000s and early 2010s can be linked to the impact of globalization and economic crisis during those years.

In redneck-blueblood anthems, the country boy wins over the wealthy, cosmopolitan woman despite her material success and his limited economic and social prospects. This popular narrative extends the long-standing tradition in which down-home country masculinity is defined partly through its relationship to the character of the upwardly mobile woman who has moved from working-class to middle- or upper-class status.

Whereas some critics view country culture as articulating a form of working-class male abjection or degradation, the redneck-blueblood songs provide a narrative of success that directly reclaims the value of working-class masculinity. This narrative resonates with audiences confronting intensely threatening economic and social dislocation in the global economy.

This according to “Why ladies love country boys: Gender, class, and economics in contemporary country music” by Jocelyn R. Neal, an essay included in Country boys and redneck women: New essays in gender and country music (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016, pp. 3–25).

Above, a screen shot from Trace Adkins’s Ladies love country boys; below, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood’s Remind me. Both songs serve as case studies in the article.

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Merle Haggard lived it

Merle Haggard’s best songs are powerful vignettes portraying damaged souls who manage to summon the inner strength to resist life’s worst onslaughts. That Haggard himself lived through many of the traumas he sang about is evident from his music, giving it a rare emotional quality.

Born near Bakersfield, California, to a family of Oklahomans who had just made the westward trek, Haggard’s early childhood home was a converted boxcar. His father died of a stroke when Merle was 9. Many of his songs recall the troubles of those early years.

Haggard quit school in the eighth grade and hopped on a freight train when he was 14, roaming the Southwest for several years and filling the void left by his father’s death with a life of petty crime and time in reform schools. This was also when he began dabbling in music. At 20, Haggard—now an alcoholic, married, and a father—attempted to break into a restaurant. He was arrested and sentenced to three years in San Quentin.

Paroled in 1960, Haggard returned to Bakersfield and, while digging ditches for his brother, began performing country music on the side. He scored a regional hit in 1963, landing him his first major record contract. In 1966 he topped the country charts for the first of what would be many times.

This according to “Merle Haggard” by Greg Bower (Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century [New York: Routledge, 2013] p. 269); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today would have been Haggard’s 80th birthday! Above, the singer-songwriter in 1967; below, performing the semi-autobiographical Mama tried.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Emmylou Harris and “Pieces of the sky”

While Emmylou Harris’s Pieces of the sky did not hit the top of the charts, it had a crucial impact on young listeners in the second half of the 1970s, merging country, rock, and folk to provide a hybrid form of country that appealed to an audience that was otherwise removed from the typical country audience in age, politics, and geography.

Despite its eclectic repertoire—ranging from old country standards to the Beatles—one of the album’s great strengths lies in Harris’s coherent stylistic approach, which bridges the gaps between pieces that one might be surprised to find together. This wide-ranging yet cohesive sound was to become one of Harris’s trademarks.

This according to “Emmylou Harris: Pieces of the sky (1975)” by James E. Perone, a chapter in The album: a guide to pop music’s most provocative, influential, and important creations. III (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2012, pp. 21–25).

Today is Harris’s 70th birthday! Above, the singer-songwriter in 1975, when the album was released; below, the full album.

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Dolly Parton, semiotically speaking

 

dolly parton

Dolly Parton’s signifiers are at variance, allowing for her prismatic sign.

She is a highly visible culture icon who is a rhetorical text; she articulates as an artifact in popular culture, a semiotic sign of meaning. To study her is to perceive and understand a personal and particular imagery, leading to full understanding of her myth and ironic status.

Parton is part of a gendered industry that produces contradictions; furthermore, she is an example of romantic irony and pastiche. Her rags-to-riches narrative is complex, and her romantic signifiers yield to stylistic representation in a postmodern industry.

She is an entrepreneur, an actress, a songwriter, and a songstress, and she is accomplished at all of these roles. She is also very shrewd at presenting her myth; she uses much ironic play in revealing her pastiche. She is a self-parody and a matrix in which many elements are embedded, and all her talents contribute to her semiotic status. Semiotically, Parton exists in an ideological site of struggle where constant tensions exist; including her outrageous costuming versus her spirituality.

This according to Dolly Parton: A semiotic study of her life and lyrics by Maureen Cecile Modesitt, a dissertation accepted by Ohio University in 2001.

Today is Parton’s 70th birthday! Below, her signature hit Jolene in 1988.

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Happy 90th to the Grand Ole Opry!

ernest tubb

On 28 November 1925 a white-bearded man sat down before one of the Nashville radio station WSM’s modern carbon microphones to play some old-time fiddle tunes. Uncle Jimmy Thompson played on the air for an hour that night, and throughout the region listeners took notice.

In Nashville the response at the offices of National Life and Accident Insurance Company, which owned radio station WSM, was dramatic. It was not long before the station manager was besieged by pickers and fiddlers of every variety, all wanting their shot at the Saturday night airwaves.

By 1940 the Grand Ole Opry had found its national audience and was poised to become the legendary institution that it remains to this day.

This according to A good-natured riot: The birth of the Grand Ole Opry by Charles K. Wolfe (Nashville: Country Music Foundation, 1999). Above, Ernest Tubb at the Opry. Below, Roy Acuff offers his imitation of a train whistle.

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Earl Scruggs defines bluegrass banjo

monroe-flatt-scruggs-1945

Although the genre was yet to be named, the addition of Earl Scruggs (1924–2012) to Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys provided the crowning moment in the definition of bluegrass.

Scruggs astounded everyone. His extraordinary banjo style allowed him to roll out a rapid barrage of notes that nevertheless sounded out the melody as clearly as the fiddle.

What is now known as “Scruggs-style” banjo playing became the final critical component of Bill Monroe’s undeniably distinctive sound that would eventually be called bluegrass.

This according to Homegrown music: Discovering bluegrass by Stephanie P. Ledgin (Westport: Praeger, 2004).

Today is Scrugg’s 90th birthday! Above, Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Scruggs at the Grand Ole Opry in 1945; below, Scruggs and friends on David Letterman’s show in 2001.

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