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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
During the first half of the 20th century a mania for yodeling seized America, catapulting its greatest practitioners to national celebrity. Though yodelers once numbered among America’s best-known vocalists, their names have faded from public memory with the exception of Jimmie Rodgers and a few movie cowboys.
While the Arkansas native Elton Britt was billed as “The World’s Highest Yodeler”—his stardom was such that he performed at the White House for Franklin Roosevelt, and then ran for president himself in 1960—neither he nor any other vocalist of the period approached the range of sounds coaxed from the human voice by two girls from a farm just outside Royalton, Minnesota.
Among the first female country singers to appear on stage without husbands or fathers, The DeZurik Sisters (Mary Jane and Caroline, with Lorraine later replacing Mary Jane) always appeared as a duet, amazing audiences with their rapid, high-pitched yodels that often spiraled into animal sounds. In fact, so convincing were their chicken yodels that the act was renamed The Cackle Sisters when they joined the Ralston Purina Company’s Checkerboard time radio program as regulars from 1937 to 1941.
This according to “The DeZurik Sisters: Two farm girls who yodeled their way to the Grand Ole Opry” by John Biguenet (Oxford American, summer 2005; reprinted in Da Capo best music writing 2006, pp. 92–99) Below, a rare video of Caroline and Lorraine.
Related article: Jimmie Rodgers and semiotics
The extraordinary popularity of Hank Williams’s songs in the late 1940s and early 1950s played a crucial role in transforming country music from a regional and class-bound genre to a staple of mass popular culture.
Yet Williams’s narratives exuded a fatalism and despair about personal relationships, resisted romantic optimism, and avoided the kinds of closure and transcendence historically associated with male subjectivity.
His refusal to embrace dominant cultural narratives gave an individual voice to collective fears and hopes about the body, romance, gender roles, and the family.
This according to “‘Everybody’s lonesome for somebody’: Age, the body and experience in the music of Hank Williams” by Richard D. Leppert and George Lipsitz (Popular music IX/3 [October 1990] pp. 259–274).
Today is Williams’s 90th birthday! Below, a live recording of his classic expression of male vulnerability.
“I was about six when I started smoking cedar bark and grapevine, and rolling up Bull Durham” writes Willie Nelson. “I was trading a dozen eggs for a pack of Camels.”
“Then I ran into beer and whiskey, pills, and then pot. By then I was twenty-five years old and my lungs were killing me….So then I said to myself, “Hey, you’re not getting high on cigarettes, and they killed half your family….”
“So I started quitting everything. No more cigarettes at all. I started running again and getting back in shape.”
“I took my cigarettes and threw them away. I rolled up twenty joints and put them in the cigarette package, and every time I wanted a cigarette, I smoked a hit or two off a joint instead. One joint would last all day and it worked for me.” (Roll me up and smoke me when I die: Musings from the road [New York: HarperCollins, 2012] p. 121).
Today is Nelson’s 80th birthday! Below, the book’s namesake.