I’ve been listening to the fine podcast Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell (pictured) over the last few months. Many of the episodes have been head-in-the-hands sad,as he peels apart events or the way we do things.
One of his more recent episodes is “King of Tears“ and it’s mainly about Country music. His thesis is this: country music, the songs of poor, white Southern/South-Westerners, is sadder and more emotional than rock music whose writers, he says, come from a myriad of backgrounds.
He argues that Country music is emblematic of a divide in American society, although he doesn’t delve into any specifics.
Malcolm Gladwell portrays Country music to be somehow more honest and authentic than Rock music.
Instead his proposes that the detail of Country music, those little moments in a song’s lyrics, are extremely affective in connecting with feelings. Conversely, rock music, he says, is all repetition, cliché and bombast. There is no question that Gladwell portrays country music to be somehow more honest, more authentic than rock.
It’s a like the distinction between showing and telling in writing: it’s generally considered more effective as a writer to show how someone is feeling by describing their actions; by leaving the reader to imagine the feelings rather than simply telling them straight.
There’s a lot in his podcast that ring true, certainly on first listening. Country music is often sad, telling tales of lost love and drinking. In 2015’s Grammy winning country album Traveller by Chris Stapleton, two songs specifically name whiskey, with several in which drinking /drugs are explicitly part of the singer’s downfall, and three to four more that are very directly about the failure of his relationships. That’s about two-thirds of the album.
No wonder there’s a cliched image of Country singer/songwriters: drunken and miserable writing tales of woe. Certainly such greats as George Jones, Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson and many more went through those cycles many times.
Some scant research into Rolling Stone‘s Top 50 lists show that country music has primarily been written and performed by white Southerners from poor backgrounds.
But it’s hard in a 42 minute podcast (or a few words online) to really do this thesis justice and that’s why I think Gladwell has missed the mark this time around.
Some scant research into Rolling Stone‘s Top 50 lists show that country music has primarily been written and performed by white Southerners from poor backgrounds. Similarly it’s true that rock music’s canon is much more diversified, including north- eastern American Jewish writers, English writers, black writer and more.
That difference doesn’t lead necessarily to Gladwell’s conclusions though; not at all. Those differences come largely from the origins of these two forms of popular music.
Rock in particular came from the whitening/bowdlerisation of black Rhythm’n’Blues which itself arose from Blues and slave songs alongside Jazz in the early part of the 20th century. Early Rock’n’ Roll made no pretence about from whence it came — with Elvis being so distinctive because he was a (poor) white Southerner who sang like a black man.
If you consider many of the early performers of Rock music — Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins — they have not dissimilar backgrounds to their Country singing cousins. It’s just that they were conscious that they were singing music that had until then mostly belonged to black singers.
The characterisation of Country equals poor /white/ southern/ right wing/ racist vs. Rock equals northern/ mixed/ progressive is far too facile.
Country music is more overtly racially specific than Rock music — only one major black Country singer (Charley Pride) emerged in the 1960s/70s. Country is more reflective of southern attitudes as its audience has mostly remained rooted in that southern half of the USA (and in outback Australia as its second heartland).
Again though, that characterisation of Country equals poor /white/ southern/ right wing/ racist vs. Rock equals northern/ mixed/ progressive is far too facile – there are major exceptions to these stereotypes on both sides (Ted Nugent for example).
Rock too, has its southern base — Lyrnyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers and more, that’s even ignoring its white descent through Memphis and Sun records, home of Elvis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash — the “million dollar quartet“.
Gladwell has cherry-picked songs to make his point such as unfairly comparing Wild Horses with Boulder to Birmingham. That’s a bit too specific for my liking as it wouldn’t take long to substitute even other Rolling Stones songs like Angie to potentially turn the comparison around. Even if you used his last section – centred on He Stopped Loving Her Today and its importance as a centrepiece at the George Jones funeral show – you could submit While My Guitar Gently Weeps as played at the George Harrison tribute show as a similarly emotional moment. Both manage to uplift through the tears.
The point is more that Rock music arrived as a means of expressing rebellion, frustration and angst. It came from the musical traditions of slaves wanting to get through the day and express their anger by means that would not lead to punishment and morphed into the expression of oppressed black people wanting to celebrate. It was appropriated as the music of white teen rebellion in the late ’50s and ’60s and combined the emotional expression of sex, euphoria and ‘fuck you’ in the same moment.
Rock may largely now be the domain of an older audience wanting to be reminded of rebellious youth, but the emotional uplift is the same.
Satisfaction (to stay with the Stones) sums up that mood perfectly. It too is specific in its imagery —“a man comes on and tells me how white my shirts should be” — and angry protesting ‘whatever it is you’ve got’, as Brando put it in the Wild Ones. Its beat is elemental and the fuzztone guitar is a finger up to the smooth music of parents. It’s music for a thousand late night dates in the car.
The fact that Rock ‘n’ Roll matured into Rock then lost its way in the corporate bloat of the ’70s does not negate these roots. Punk, then later, Grunge, re-vitalised its rebellious nature. Rock may nowadays be largely the domain of an older audience wanting to be reminded of its rebellious youth, but the emotional uplift is the same.
Wikipedia lists six distinct waves or generations of Country music from the 1920s through to Carrie Underwood. Gladwell is really only talking about the traditional ballad – certainly it’s hard to match, say, Taylor Swift with his descriptions. While Country borrows heavily from Blues and Jazz, those thefts are less acknowledged. Arising from the Hillbilly music of the Appalachians in the late 1920s, it came from a melange of European folk music and was distilled by isolation and the pride of being American.
Its tone is not that of raising the middle finger to power, it’s one of shrugging helplessly and bemoaning being poor/drunk/lonely. It’s white man’s whiney loser blues (in Gladwell’s version), accepting that things are shit and always will be. Attracting an initially localised audience through southern USA, those themes became self-reinforcing and each generation since has found new ways to express them.
In the modern era of tribes within tribes and micro-cultures, exceptions are now the rule.
Country Outlaw Rock of the ’70s was a melding of the themes of Country and Rock music. Its influence is strong in Country today and this, along with the Country Rock stylings from the Byrds/Gram Parsons/Flying Burrito Bros, showed how the two genres moved closer together over time.
In the modern era of tribes within tribes within sub-genres and micro-cultures abounding, it’s no longer possible to paint with such a wide brush as exceptions are now the rule.
Gladwell’s podcast is a good starting point for thinking about this subject, but it’s a toe in the water only.
Is it useful as a guide to a divide in American society? That’s almost certainly a grad student thesis topic – are for example Country fans more likely to vote for Trump? That seems to be one of the implied outcomes of Gladwell’s podcast as the stereotypes he presents are strikingly similar to those who reportedly fill Trump’s electoral base. It will be interesting to see if he ties that down further in later episodes.
I like all three types of music: Rock, Country … and Western. I get an emotional burst out of a good song played with feeling, no matter from whence it came. Yes, Country music has a propensity for story songs, and Rock a propensity to anthem, but that’s all it is. As each genre develops their similarities are looking like outweighing the differences. Bobby Braddock may indeed be the King of Tears, but that’s far more a marketing strategy than a political statement.
Image of Malcolm Gladwell pictured on the NBC Today show.