New England Country and Western Music and The Myth of Southern Authenticity
New England Country and Western Music and The Myth of Southern Authenticity
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter illustrates how the story of New England country and western music is ultimately about how working-class New Englanders living in the multiethnic age chose to understand themselves as Americans through the frontier symbolism of western music. When the Country Music Association (CMA) coalesced in Nashville and rebranded the music as “country music,” a fundamental change took place in how country music functioned within working-class New England. The courting and subsequent takeover and abandonment of New England country and western music by national or corporate entities is just another in a long line of such losing battles for New England's working people, which led many to believe that the interests of working-class New Englanders are not the interests of the nation.
Some readers may find the subject of this book somewhat perplexing. To many, country music and its various offshoots are inherently southern in style and cultural origin. If you have a pulse, there is a good chance you’ve learned exactly this in a book, at a concert, in a film, on TV, or in a derisive joke about rednecks. Few cultural sounds are so thoroughly tied to a specific geographic location in the imaginations of North Americans as country music. Indeed, modern country music musicians go to Nashville in order to claim they come from it.
New England country and western musicians and fans do not need me or anybody else to justify their cultural authenticity to anyone. And yet for New Englanders reading this work, odds are good that you, like me, grew up entirely unaware of your home region’s country music heritage. In looking back on my own life, I feel as though I should have known better: I grew up in a house in New Hampshire where we listened to country radio every morning, I was a professional musician who played in an alternative country rock band for fourteen years, I fronted a traditional honky-tonk band for five years, and I plundered record stores (as both customer and employee) for the best music I could find. For as long as I can remember, I was interested in where American music came from. Yet my explorations of the roots of American music never led homeward, and I did not hear the extraordinary country and western music of Maine’s Dick Curless until I was twenty-three. Even then, I thought Curless was an anomaly. After all, I had dug through a mountain of evidence that said quite convincingly that country music came exclusively from the South. The sad feeling in my gut—and the guts of my fellow working musicians in New Hampshire—was that our region was a place that was largely devoid of homegrown, living musical traditions older than a quarter century. It took me over ten (p.12) years—and dozens of interviews, field recordings, and archival hunts—to develop an informed picture of my home region’s musical heritage and to understand how that heritage had become obscured and undermined by powerful and remote corporate interests.
And so, in the event you are skeptical of the existence of such a thing as New England country and western music—or think that if such a thing exists, it can’t possibly be good, authentic, or important—you’ve got plenty of company. What you will learn here is that New England radio’s relationship with live, local music enabled local country and western traditions to flourish from the 1920s until the late 1950s and that the local tradition suffered when radio shifted away from live, local music to national playlists of music recorded elsewhere. This shift toward the playing of records on radio skewed the public’s perception of where country music came from, replacing local music with that produced in Nashville and obscuring the music’s local history and traditions. This book sets down a narrative of New England country and western history and illuminates some of the musical and cultural factors that make this deeply community-rooted music distinctive to the region. The point of it all is not to convince you that the best country and western music is from New England. Rather, it is to introduce you to extraordinary everyday New Englanders, to document the full participation of the New England working class in the story of North American vernacular music, and to celebrate that community’s remarkable contributions to New England folklife.
Community history and memory is a temporal thing, governed as it is by the nostalgia triggered by the changing of generations and the values and memories they hold and share. Musical memory is stunningly short-term, always shifting and expanding forward, shedding stylistic phrasing, repertoire, and tastes like the many skins of an undying yet ever-traveling snake. Northern musicians active in the folk revival of the 1950s recall encountering the southern hillbilly and blues records of the 1920s and 1930s as though they came from an ancient, unreachable past, despite the fact that fewer than three decades stood between the revival and the time of those recordings’ first release (Stampfle 1997). In New England, the same imagined gulf between today and the heyday of regional country and western music is accentuated by the fact that so few local musical performances were ever recorded. And so this work aims to set part of this community’s tale down in writing while some of these practitioners and their traditions are still living.
This work also aims to revive the notion that country music is, at its foundation, a traditional social music that, nationally, encompasses many regional (p.13) styles. New England—indeed, much of the North American continent—has a long, rich history and tradition of country and western music that dates back as far as that of its famous southern counterpart. Some regional scenes, styles, and communities have been documented from the Canadian Maritimes (Rosenberg 1988) to the Southwest (Boyd 1998) to Kentucky (Davis 1998), and the New England portion of this missing history is chronicled for the first time in this book. It is my hope that other regions will follow suit. After all, New Englanders have produced their own deeply community-based form of country and western music since at least the 1920s. From the advent of radio until the late 1950s, local music and musicians were well supported by regional radio and early television. Since the late 1950s, when the country music industry became a nationalized industrial triumvirate of broadcast, publishing, and recording based in Nashville, Tennessee, non-southern forms of country music have become marginalized, and their perceived authenticity in their home communities has been called into question by those generations who never witnessed an era in which local musicians played a significant role in regional broadcast media. In short, popular country music and its supporting industries have done a very effective job at promoting authentic country music making as an exclusively southern cultural export.
This book aims to reorient the compass of country music authenticity not just geographically but in its social wellsprings as people’s music (Keil 1985), in the basic dialogue between musicians and audiences. Regional musicians and their fans outside of the South have soldiered on through decades of self-aware disenfranchisement and have come to view themselves as stewards of “traditional country music.” It is a decidedly community-based form of what popularly passes as “country music,” where its primary function is to facilitate social dancing, and it retains—counter to its pop brethren on contemporary radio—a homegrown regional accent in both vocal and instrumental delivery.
This history and ethnography of New England country and western musical traditions serves as a consolidation of community memories, an examination of cultural meaning, and a celebration of a musical history that has nearly become fully displaced. History is typically written by conquerors, and social history less so; ethnography is something altogether different. Ethnography demonstrates that multiple narratives of history and cultural meaning coexist within any society, folk group, or community. When well written, ethnography can help show how these multiple narratives inform, resist, and even rely upon each other. Again, ask anyone living in North America today where “authentic” country music comes from, and invariably (p.14) you will be told the South. This is as true for New Englanders and Atlantic Canadians as it is for Tennesseans and Texans. Worldwide, people who parody or denigrate country music affect a southern accent while doing so.
And what of New England’s domain of cultural authenticity? That domain is made up of anything you can attach variations of the word “high” to as a prefix: high society, higher education, high-tech, high-grade seafood, high-range mountains, and indulgent high times enjoyed by students in exclusive boarding schools and private colleges. Yet drive through New England and look around, and you will find that most places you travel through are untouched by high-rolling lifestyles. The towns and cities that feature prominently in this work—like Bangor, Ware, Waterbury, Manchester, Nashua, Lewiston, and Providence—are filled with the grandsons and granddaughters of workers wooed from near and far by thundering industry, only to be abandoned in that industry’s rotting mill town corpse. What are the stories of New England’s working-class people, and what is—and what was—their music? The answers are, of course, myriad, but one prominent thread among New England working people from the 1920s through the early 1960s was country and western music, no matter what language they spoke at home. Deindustrialization and the resulting destabilization of the working class in the decades following the Korean War plus the generational rifts of the Vietnam Era chipped away at country music as a family commonality. But the biggest change in the relationship of New England working-class families and country music was the rapid erosion of local people’s voices and music in broadcast media. This erosion produced a significant rupture in community traditions, and Nashville turned that rupture to its advantage. Country music is popular today in New England, but it is a specific southern brand with exclusive access to mainstream broadcast media. This music and the community that rallies around it is not devoid of its own culture, but it is noteworthy for a cultural compass that points decidedly south.
Jimmy Barnes of Mariasville, Maine, believes that regional resources are harvested for the profit of outsiders and to the detriment of locals, a point he makes in the liner notes to his CD Country & Eastern:
Country music was originally built around the lives of hard-working country folk who believed in family, honesty, and a simple rural life. That concept was embraced by the music industry and sold as a product. It’s my belief that over the years, we, the public, have been robbed of our local music heritage and independence, in part, by being told that if you’re not from a certain geographic location or sing with a certain accent, you’re not country. I also believe that the (p.15) woodcutters of the Maine woods, the farmers who grow blueberries to potatoes, the fishermen of the rockbound coast, the truck-driving diesel cowboys who truck Maine products all over the country and all those other independent Maine folk, beg to differ. Whether you’re from country or town, North or South, mountains or seashore, country is a state of mind and a value system rather than a specific location. (2000)
Barnes’s statement is a powerful one. What it claims is that local values and local musical heritage have been mined as a resource, moved south to industrial production plants, and resold to New Englanders as a cultural import.
So how did we get here? Essentially it comes down to three key developments: the radio industry’s shift away from live, local entertainment programming toward nationalized playlists of commercial recordings in the 1950s; the creation of nationalized country music playlists generated by the Nashville-based Country Music Association; and the development of a body of country music scholarship in the wake of these changes that focused almost entirely on commercially recorded southern country music. The absence of New England—and Atlantic Canadian—country musicians and accents on modern country radio in New England today marks a stunning reversal of cultural history and signifies the extent of the conquest of the Nashville brand of country music as southern music that swept across New England and other regions beginning in 1958. Up until that point, local and regional acts dominated country music broadcasts and live performances in New England. That is unfathomable today.
So to understand why we have not heard—or heard of—New England country and western, we’ll need to take a look at how radio developed in New England, why the country music industry formed a powerful coalition in Nashville, and what the cultural and intellectual ramifications of these changes have wrought in country music scholarship. The end result is a worldwide impression that “authentic” country music is, as Jimmy Barnes observes, an exclusively southern cultural export. And, as Barnes also observes, the absence of nonsouthern regional forms of country music on modern country broadcasts calls into question its cultural authenticity. Although authenticity is a cultural concept that has largely been dismissed by scholars, it retains great significance in the world of musicians like Jimmy Barnes: country music is one area where the notion of authenticity still holds sway among musicians, fans, and even detractors. To understand how New England country music became obscure at best and “inauthentic” at worst requires a trip into the respective histories of the New England radio industry, the Country Music Association in Nashville, and country music scholarship.
New England was home to one of the nation’s first regional radio networks—the Yankee Network (and its sister network, the Colonial Network), owned by John Shepard and founded in 1930 in Boston, with WNAC—founded by Shepard in 1922—as its flagship station (Halper 2007). By 1936 the Yankee Network came to encompass thirteen stations in five of the six New England states (Vermont was the only exception) (Kroeger 1968), and while most of its stations were either news-only or “free format” (meaning programming varied, from drama to news to religious services to various styles of music), its stations hosted hillbilly and country and western talent as early as 1930 (Little and Little interview 1975). New England’s first national radio network preceded the Yankee network by nine years (1921) in the founding of WBZ at the Westinghouse factory in Springfield, Massachusetts. The Westinghouse Corporation had launched station KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1920 (it remains the oldest surviving commercial radio station in the nation) and founded a network of stations in the North and the Midwest, stretching as far as Chicago. Westinghouse launched WBZA in Boston in 1924, and by 1931 the two Massachusetts stations (WBZ and WBZA) had switched call letters. By the middle 1930s, WBZ (Boston) broadcast at fifty thousand watts, and its signal could at times be heard as far away as Oklahoma (Westinghouse 1943).
Both the Yankee and Colonial Networks and the Westinghouse stations had reputations for developing strong local talent and programming. With the dawn of NBC and CBS network programming in the 1920s, Westing-house stations and Yankee and Colonial Network stations often preempted network broadcasts for locally made programs. John Shepard, owner of the Yankee and Colonial Networks, saw radio as a means to amplify regional and individual expression (the FCC’s first act of censorship involved silencing Shepard’s anti–Roosevelt/New Deal editorials broadcast on the Yankee Network in 1938) (Halper 2007). Networks were friendly toward hiring and developing New England hillbilly and country and western talent. It was primarily on these networks that New England country and western music blossomed from the first-known broadcast of local hillbilly music (the Crockerville Mountaineers on WNAC in Boston in 1930 [Little and Little interview 1975]) until the advent of television and the arrival of Top 40 and country format radio in the late 1950s.
To the listener, the shift away from live music to DJ-style broadcasts of commercial records was somewhat gradual. Beginning in the late 1940s and taking hold by the mid- to late 1950s, major New England country (p.17) and western on-air radio performers began spinning records during their programmed time slots. Performer/DJs generally had a great deal of control over what recordings they played during their shows. In the case of the duo Jerry and Sky, their show came to encompass far more than country and western, making them regionally famous among third-shift workers for their all-night radio broadcast, during which they interviewed major performers passing through Boston such as the Mills Brothers and Frank Sinatra (Snow 2006). By the 1960s, live in-studio performance had mostly been phased out of New England radio programming; performers either moved into television or became full-time DJs who only spun records.
This shift toward a format where DJs played songs primarily provided by major labels was strictly financial and logistical. The emergence of television caused radio to appear instantly as an outdated form of technology and caused the radio industry to be caught in a financial (and identity) crisis in the 1950s. Radio’s key “selling” point for advertisers had been the radio play (essentially an audio extension of vaudeville skits), which was adapted more successfully for television. Though many people continued listening to radio for news, sports, and music, the ability of radio stations (large and small) to secure lucrative advertising was compromised by the emergence of television (Hilmes 1997). As a result, radio stations had less money to work with, and playing prerecorded music and network broadcasts was cheaper and easier than employing the larger stable of audio engineers and personnel needed to manage and develop live talent. In a sign of the times in 1956, WCOP’s Hayloft Jamboree—New England’s only barn dance–style radio program—went off the air the same year the station switched to a Top 40 format (Halper 2007; Senter and Senter 2004; Brown 2004; White and Albro 2004). By the middle 1950s, most radio stations in New England had shifted away from live entertainment and toward Top 40 formats.
Into this breach stepped Nashville. In addition to the arrival of television and radio’s subsequent shift from live to recorded music was a confluence of other changes—the growing popularity of rhythm and blues and rock and roll had prompted the U.S. government to investigate key industrial participants in those musics’ market successes (recording companies, publishing companies, radio stations, and DJs) for conspiring against the musical tastes of the public (Pecknold 2007, 6). The country music industry consolidated (geographically) most of its production operations in Nashville during the emergence (and subsequent success) of commercial honky-tonk and rockabilly music (roughly the World War II period through 1956) and adjusted its branding image accordingly. The origins of this branding can be traced to 1952, when the music publishing company owned by Fred Rose and Roy Acuff—one of Nashville’s first powerful song publishers, which controlled (p.18) the songwriting catalog of Hank Williams and Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, among others—invited a collection of radio DJs from across the nation to Nashville for a convention (Kingsbury et al. 1998, 149). The purpose of this meeting was to respond strategically to the changes sweeping the worlds of radio, music, and television.
Nashville-based country music song–publishing companies like Acuff-Rose made a regular practice of promoting (or “pitching”) their copyrighted material to as many record agents and recording artists as possible. It was not unusual in the 1940s and 1950s for competing recordings of the same song to be released by multiple artists on multiple labels concurrently. Acuff-Rose also made a practice of promoting recordings of their copyrighted material to radio DJs across the nation. DJs who played Acuff-Rose’s songs were invited to the Nashville convention. At the convention, the DJs formed the Country Music Disc Jockeys Association (CMDJA) (Kingsbury et al. 1998, 149), marking an early industrial shift away from the term “western.” In 1958 a group of powerful Nashville-based corporations, performers, promoters, and songwriters took control of the CMDJA and reorganized it as a trade union geared toward the promotion of country music. The new trade union was called the Country Music Association (CMA), and it jettisoned previous monikers (hillbilly, western, country and western, etc.) and officially rechristened the genre “country music” (Kingsbury et al. 1998, 100, 149). Ostensibly, this was done with the intention of creating a less confusing “brand” (the irony of the cowboy origins of the term “brand” notwithstanding) at a time when those corporate interests at play were seeking to develop a more urbane and cosmopolitan (or “countrypolitan”) recorded sound product as a means of moving beyond the “hillbilly” image (Peterson 1997, 263) and as a rallying point in the face of rock and roll (Kingsbury et al. 1998, 100; Peterson 1997).
In the wake of this industrial shift, national playlists originating from Nashville became the norm on stations nationwide, regional artists in New England began disappearing from local radio, and cowboy music dropped off the country music charts almost entirely. The term “country and western” was rendered archaic. In 1964 western musicians and promoters accused the CMA of geo-industrial favoritism (Peterson 1997, 263) and organized a separate trade union (the Country and Western Music Academy) geared toward the promotion of western-based artists like Buck Owens, Johnny Bond, Merle Haggard, and Roger Miller (Kingsbury et al. 1998, 4; Peterson 1997, 263; Academy of Country Music 2007). By the early 1970s they had renamed themselves the Academy of Country and Western Music and dropped “Western” from their name shortly thereafter, becoming the Academy of Country Music (ACM) (Peterson 1997, 263; Kingsbury et al. 1998, 4; Academy of (p.19) Country Music 2007). They claimed that the inclusion of “Western Music” in their title created the false impression that they were a school for classical music (i.e., Western art music) (Academy of Country Music 2007). The CMA remains the most powerful trade organization in country music, and through its offshoots (the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the Country Music Foundation) and its financial backers and founders it exerts a powerful hold on public and scholarly perception of what “is” country music and what country music “is” (Sanjek 1998). Virtually all major museums, encyclopedias, trade organizations, and popular and scholarly histories produced in the past thirty years devoted to the music formerly known as “country and western” have used the CMA trade brand “country music.”
Popular music scholar Diane Pecknold marks 1958 as the birth of country format radio and 1959 as the year it began to take hold nationally, noting that “even Bing Crosby, who had deplored the condition of popular music in 1956, acquiesced to the rule of consumer democracy over cultural guardianship. In 1959, KFOX, Bing Crosby Enterprises’ major outlet in the Los Angeles market, switched to a full-time country format and became a pioneer in developing the form” (2007, 132). Pecknold attributes KFOX’s success as the blueprint for the national success of country format radio, as it “became the model and marker of the genre’s economic recovery and cultural rehabilitation” (132).
Between 1958 and 1975 country format radio stations—and small stations with designated country broadcast hours—sprang up across New England. Playlists remained flexible enough so that occasional local records received airplay (on both Top 40 and country format stations) if callers demanded it. However, the national industry trended increasingly toward maintaining nationally standardized, genre-based formats, much to the detriment of local and regional musicians of all genres. In 1975 country and western musician Doc Williams of Wheeling, West Virginia, wrote a letter of complaint to Richard Wiley, chairman of the FCC. Williams had been the star and host of the Wheeling Jamboree on WWVA for decades and had owned his own radio station. Williams explained that he was troubled by developments in radio that consistently excluded local and regional musicians:
I refer to the fact that almost no local music input is included on most radio and television stations; as a result we have super-super stars operating out of Nashville, Detroit, Bakersfield, New York, and so forth. (I have nothing against super-stars. I’d like to be one myself). Modern recording technology and mass communications should help the local musician, not destroy him. … Radio stations use music tapes put together by syndication groups thereby shutting out the local-regional performer. I strongly suggest that radio and television stations should be requested not only to program local news events, sporting (p.20) events and otherwise, but also should present recordings and musical programs on radio and television by local-regional artists. (1975, 1)
Williams lamented the lack of regional music found on radio stations in the Pittsburgh/Wheeling region, a region that had been historically rich in regional radio music, writing, “This presents a terrible and discriminatory disadvantage to the local-regional musicians and performers.” The legendary singer concluded his letter to the FCC commissioner with the modest suggestion of requiring between two and five hours of local musical programs per week, depending on the size of the market (1975).
Such requirements never came to pass. In fact, the opposite was true: by 1976 country format stations had moved into every New England state but Vermont (Massachusetts, four; Connecticut, four; Rhode Island, one; New Hampshire, four; Maine, eight) (Peterson and DiMaggio 1975; Russell and Pierce 1976). In the 1970s and 1980s these stations employed several New England country and western “stars” as prominent DJs who actively promoted local country and western recordings on their programs. But with the arrival of computerized and satellite broadcasting in the 1980s and 1990s came a proliferation of automated country format stations in every state in New England. Independent, local musics were not integrated into automated broadcasts. Local and regional country and western recordings do continue to be played on small stations, particularly college radio stations (WHRB—Harvard University’s radio station—has featured a program called Hillbilly at Harvard every Saturday morning since 1948), on some low-power AM radio stations, and on community or public radio stations like DJ Phil Briggs’s Country Stew on WBLQ in Westerly, Rhode Island, and Doc Morrill’s Downhome Country program on WERU in Blue Hill, Maine. (WERU actually features four blocks of programming time dedicated to either “downhome country,” “independent country,” or “truck stop” music in addition to multiple “Americana” blocks in which these “traditional” styles of country music are frequently played.) It is on these small-scale stations that New England country and western music still finds a home—a reality that says as much about its role as a social community music as it does about its marginalization in the mainstream.
Country Music Scholarship in the Wake of Country Format Radio
Country music scholarship arose in the wake of the formation of the CMA and country format radio. A group of prescient scholars in the 1960s— (p.21) mostly folklorists, historians, and serious record collectors—considered country music and its various offshoots (bluegrass, gospel, hillbilly music, cowboy music, etc.) to be a style and form of working-class community expression worthy of serious inquiry. Writing seriously about country music at that time was an act of great professional courage, and the field owes an enormous debt to these scholars. The perspective of scholars such as D. K. Wilgus, Archie Green, and Norm Cohen lacked a southern bias—Wilgus, in fact, characterized the South’s claim to country authenticity as a “myth” (1965, 196). Nevertheless, their scholarship was primarily restricted to those artists who had made commercial recordings (most of whom were southerners), helping to shape a distinctly southern worldview in scholarly discourse about the music (Cohen 1965; Green 1965; Wilgus 1965).
Folklorist Bill C. Malone emerged as the foremost of this first generation of country music scholars and published the first scholarly history of country music, Country Music, U.S.A., in 1968. Malone’s book is a work of astounding depth, breadth, and historical precision, and his empathic literary eloquence is drawn from his roots as an East Texas farm boy whose parents were tenant cotton farmers. Malone achieved what most scholarly writers and country music producers only dream of: a certified crossover hit. Country Music, U.S.A. has been a foundational text for both scholars and serious fans alike for over fifty years (see Malone 2002a). In Country Music, U.S.A., Malone developed what has become known as the “southern thesis,” by which country music is understood to be a southern white form of musical and cultural expression. In Malone’s view, country music’s popularity represents the cultural triumph of the South (the South may have lost the Civil War, but it has won the battle to define the American character), as well as the superiority of southern country music to any and all variations.
Malone’s work, which has set the tone for country music scholarship for a half-century now, explicitly sets down ground rules for the creation of authentic country music, limiting its sphere of authenticity to the American South:
1. a rural agricultural population composed of white Protestant Anglo-Celtic inhabitants,
2. a basic isolation because of rough topography, deficient education, widespread poverty, and poor communication,
3. a commitment to and preservation of traditional cultural values, summarized as basic conservatism, and
4. a socioeconomic system resting on a base of slavery (Malone 1968, viii, 3–5)
I would not argue that Malone’s treatment of country music is wrong, just that his portrait of the music is incomplete, as it leaves so many regional variations of the music out of the picture. A dedicated few scholars since have worked to develop a broader portrait of country music in America. Within a few years of Country Music, U.S.A.’s publication, some scholars began to challenge the southern thesis with examinations of country music in Canada (Taft 1974; Klymasz 1972). Most significantly, sociologists Richard Peterson and Paul DiMaggio published a study in 1975 showing sociological evidence that country music was a fundamentally working-class—rather than exclusively southern—music. Their quantitative analysis focused on country music makers, fans, and radio stations in the mid-Atlantic and New England regions. Other studies quietly gave some credence to the notion that country music had more to do with working-class values than with a white, southern worldview. Malone (2002a, 2002b; Malone and Stricklin 2003) amended his thesis in subsequent works to say that country music is white, southern, working-class music.
In 1976 folklorist Paul F. Wells published a brief history of Maine fiddler Mellie Dunham, whose short-lived fame predates the accepted “birth” of country music in 1923. In 1978 folklorist Elaine Eff examined trucker culture—including singing truckers, trucker broadcast radio, and so forth—in mostly northeastern truck stops. Other works followed suit in the North: Rod Roberts’s (1978) and Simon Bronner’s (1978) work on country music in New York and James P. Leary’s (1983) work with “ethnic” country music on the south shore of Lake Superior. Not too long after, folklorist Neil Rosenberg (1985, 1988, 1993) began fleshing out a history of country and bluegrass music in New England and Atlantic Canada. These works helped develop a lean and important body of work on country music making outside of the South.
Significantly, Leary’s work on “ethnic country music” on the south shore of Lake Superior—which built on ethnomusicologist Robert Klymasz’s groundbreaking work with Ukrainian country music in British Columbia—helped develop a body of work examining country music making by North Americans of non–British Isles heritage. And Bronner’s essays of the 1970s and 1980s, which culminated in his book Old-Time Music Makers of New York State in 1987, put forth a direct challenge to Malone’s southern thesis, stating that Malone “is wrong in claiming that these conditions and the old-time music associated with them are unique to the South” (Bronner 1987, 41).
(p.23) Bronner’s work seeks to open up the scholarly discourse of country music to the notion that country music is a regional form found throughout the nation, shaped in different ways by conditions specific to each region (a point with which I agree). In an attempt to bring Malone’s and others’ southern vision of country music into proper alignment, he writes: “Using the example of New York’s old-time musical legacy, I find the background of country music to be a more complicated story than the outline that has been previously drawn in works such as Malone’s of a national musical foliage growing from a single southern root. Looking into the old-time music of regions such as New York State reveals the varieties of development and the fullness of the cultural reservoirs that fed the later popularity of a national country music” (Bronner 1987, xv). Bronner’s work was, without a doubt, the biggest salvo against the southern thesis since Peterson and DiMaggio’s study in 1975. In 1993 George Lewis contributed a scholarly essay entitled “A Tombstone Every Mile: Country Music in Maine.” Rather than taking Bronner’s tack of challenging Malone’s idea of the “southern root” of a national flowering, Lewis sought to meet Malone on his own terms, adapting Malone’s ground rules of authentic country music making to Maine and concluding that “Maine fits Malone’s pre-conditions for the development of country music probably better than many of the regional areas of the South from which the model was constructed” (1993, 105).
Lewis’s article cites many of his scholarly predecessors who used Malone’s rules for authentic country music making to authenticate country music from other regions. Bronner, too, had applied this paradigm successfully to country music making in upstate New York. New England proved a tough fit for Lewis: the trickiest turn in this respect was navigating around the significant impact of Franco-Americans and other Mainers of Roman Catholic orientation to the Malone paradigm. Lewis’s work is an important starting point for documenting the story of country music in New England, but the application of Malone’s rules for authenticity is misguided. A foundational principle of ethnomusicology and folklore is that each community has its own ground rules for authentic expressive culture. Malone’s work outlines rules that are perhaps appropriate to one region but too ethnocentric to apply nationally (Bronner 1987, 47).
The scholarly works of Lewis, Bronner, Rosenberg, Wells, Taft, and Leary did not win Maine, New York, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, or Wisconsin widespread acceptance into country music’s inner circle of authenticity. Instead, the fans and scholars who paid attention pointed to the southern origin of the overwhelming majority of commercially recorded country (p.24) musicians as proof to the contrary. Another narrative that emerged in the work of Malone and others began to gather widespread acceptance—that country music’s popularity in the urban North was the direct result of the deployment of musical southerners in northern military bases and the arrival of waves of migrant southerners in northern factories. Such claims were—in Bronner’s words—“tossed about loosely” (1987, 46).
Indeed, such claims—while rooted in fact and flowering in songs about working life in booming Rust Belt cities like “Detroit City” and the “Streets of Baltimore”—are overblown, as they overlook the marriage of one regional style to another. Depression-era southern Appalachian migrants to Baltimore and the northeastern Maryland/Pennsylvania border region, for instance, recognized that locals had what they called a “New England” style of playing and singing, favoring plucked banjos over the clawhammer and three-finger styles of the mountain South. Incoming migrants adopted aspects of the repertoire of the region, just as the region adopted stylistic elements of the newcomers (Whisnant and Camp 1977). With regard to New England, this work presents a mountain of evidence to show that southerners may have participated in New England country and western music, but they by no means birthed country music making in New England.
Rosenberg and Bronner write that country music occupies dual strata in society: as folk music and as commercial music. The folk form becomes country music (the music industry term) when it gains access to national or international commercial recording companies. For New Englanders, the folk form of country music—what I call here New England country and western music and which makes up the bulk of this work—is deeply rooted in community and reflective of that community. Its national commercial successes are few and far between. But this fact is more telling of how the music business has succeeded in establishing its southern brand—and the nation’s centuries-old romantic bias toward southern musical styles and themes of an imagined agrarian past—than it is of the heritage and authenticity of New England country and western music. The heart of Malone’s southern thesis resides in the premise that country music is inherently southern, and—in reviewing his work and the vast body of country music literature (history and ethnography) produced over the past half-century—indeed it is when reduced merely to the prism of those musicians who have become enshrined in wax, silicon, and binary code by the Nashville-based recording industry. So this work takes a different approach and documents a regional folk form of country and western music with a few significant national commercial triumphs interspersed along the way.
(p.25) Such a treatment of country music is somewhat out of step with current scholarly trends. For the past twenty years, country music scholars have tended toward examining the rules by which the country music industry—and its artists—establish authenticity among their fans nationally and internationally. Sociologist Richard Peterson—who had firmly established himself as the chief foil to Malone’s worldview by the 1990s—set the tone for this with his seminal 1997 publication Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity. Peterson’s book, while profound, groundbreaking, and an important foundational piece for parts of this work, examined issues of authenticity through the lens of the international country music industry. His treatment, and those that have followed in its stead, continued to place the center of country music discourse in Nashville.
With the notable exceptions of anthropologist and ethnomusicologist Aaron Fox’s revelatory work Real Country (2004) and Jennifer Post’s staggeringly thorough Music in Rural New England Community and Family Life, 1870–1940 (2004), Ivan Tribe’s Mountaineer Jamboree (1996), Amy Davis’s 1998 work on local oprys in Kentucky, Tex Sample’s White Soul (1996), and folklorist Jim Leary’s Wisconsin-based Polkabilly (2006), scholars have focused on the international country music industry and the products it produced while devoting significantly less attention to local country music makers and the communities that produced them. In short, scholars have focused on the popular form of the music at the expense of the living traditional folk form, all while carefully mentioning the pop version’s early folk roots.
If scholarly writings about country music and the opinions of country music fans seem incongruous, the two are more entwined than you might think: Malone’s work has been endorsed by major country music stars as well as Nashville’s industrial powers that be. This can be seen on the walls of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, whose grand narrative of country music mirrors that of Malone’s book. So while barn dance programs like the Wheeling Jamboree were central to the country music experience of generations of working people in the Upper Midwest, mid-Atlantic, New England, and Atlantic Canada, it is barely a footnote in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. I have counted four nonsoutherners on the walls of the Hall of Fame, and one of them is a Ukrainian-born rodeo tailor. The Encyclopedia of Country Music—produced by the Country Music Foundation, which operates the Hall of Fame and Museum—is more inclusive, as it contains entries on those nonsoutherners who made a significant number of commercial country music recordings. But, again, it chronicles the lives (p.26) of only those artists who have gained commercial success in (or access to) the recording industry (Kingsbury et al. 1998). What an ethnographic view of country music—and an historical analysis of New England country and western music—helps to show is that country music “success,” at least in its folk form, cannot be defined in the terms set forth by Nashville and the music industry.
Understanding New England Country and Western Music and Style
Anthropologist and ethnomusicologist Charles Keil writes that style—or “a deeply satisfying distillation of the way a very well integrated human group likes to do things”—is a reflection of class forces (1985, 12). In the case of New England country and western music, these are decidedly urban multicultural working-class forces with a nostalgic remembrance of an agrarian past that may or may not be located within the United States. Style is an important indicator of close community—or of a community that is working toward commonality across differences. In his treatment of the working-class Texas-Mexican style of conjunto music, ethnomusicologist Manuel Peña describes the emergence of style as “a cultural solution to a social problem” (1985, 8). For Keil, style indicates “an intense sociability that has been given shape through time” (1985, 122), and, indeed, New England country and western music is primarily the music—or at least a music—of working-class sociability (southern New England’s strong polka heritage is an example of another). More to the point—and echoing Keil’s assertion that twentieth-century musical style “is almost entirely an ethnic working class phenomenon” (123)—New England country and western is reflective of multiethnic working-class sociability (again, southern New England polka exemplifying a parallel working-class social music encompassing a smaller constellation of ethnicities). A community’s musical style is the result of a process, like the dance I played for in Union, Maine, with Dick Philbrook’s band, or the social dynamics of blues and polka, described eloquently by Keil: “It is in constant response to the expressed and implicit needs of the dancers passing before their eyes that tunes are chosen, tempos fixed, and the broad stream of musical style subtly elaborated from weekend night to weekend night” (123). It is through nearly a century of this process that New England country and western has become both a regional style of country music and a people’s music.
So what is New England country and western music? Is it alive, or dead? And how does it differ from the stuff heard across New England on country (p.27) format radio today? New England country and western music is larger than a single identifiable sound or image, yet it does contain a sound and style distinct to the region. It is still alive—though barely. And it is different from the stuff heard on country format radio in both real and imagined ways.
In New England and in much of eastern Canada, there is a community of musicians and fans who look to the precentralized days of country music (pre-1958) for inspiration and song selection. These musicians and fans mix “ethnic” material and newer selections—either composed by the performers themselves or pulled from well-known recordings—whose musical style or message falls closely in line with the community’s aesthetic sense, which tends toward pre-1965 country and western music. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, although there are exceptions, such as Bob Fuller’s Hillbilly Night at the Wheel Club in Montreal, Quebec, an open mic backed by a live band with the caveat that singers can only perform songs recorded prior to 1965.
By and large, New Englanders describe their music generationally: younger generations call it “traditional country,” while older generations who have been active as early as the 1930s call it “western.” Notably, this older generation favors yodelers and reserves the term “hillbilly” for mountain-style country music. This differentiation likely has something to do with New England country and western music having emanated primarily from long-urbanized centers. In upstate New York, however, which holds a great deal in common culturally, historically, and geographically with New England, country musicians were adamant about characterizing their music as “hillbilly.” Floyd Woodhull—accordion player for Woodhull’s Old Tyme Masters of Elmira, New York—told folklorist Simon Bronner that their music and image was decidedly that of a Yankee hillbilly, “not country and western” (1987, 54). Not so in New England.
Nevertheless, “country” is a gentrified “hillbilly,” and in New England the musicians and fans alike have always gravitated toward country songs and cowboy songs. “Country and western” is a term popular with many older musicians and self-described “traditional” country fans in New England and also describes the name the genre held just prior to the formation of the CMA in 1958. Country music fans in New England—both dedicated and casual—can be divided generally into two camps: those aware of the music’s localized history, and those not. It is the former community on which this book focuses—those stewards of community memory who consider themselves “traditionalists” who were involved in New England country and western musical events prior to 1958, as well as those who remember them or have sought out the history, the players, and the recordings of this bygone era. In this respect, traditionalists view Harold Breau (aka Lone (p.28) Pine, Hal Lone Pine, or Lone Pine Mountaineer), Betty Cody, Dick Curless, and Yodelin’ Slim Clark as the defining figures who tower over the historical landscape. And, significantly, these traditionalists participate in community activities at which New England country and western is the main performative event. And so, ironically, the music one heard at the New England Country Music Festival in the summer of 2010—when Keith Urban, Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw, and other Nashville superstars filled the Foxboro, Massachusetts, football stadium where the New England Patriots play—will not be found in this book.
Stylistically, New England country and western music is distinct from its other North American regional counterparts on account of the influence and prominent participation of immigrants of Continental European heritage: French, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, Armenian, German, and Polish in particular. Herein is the ultimate incompatibility of Malone’s theory: New Englanders of primarily orthodox Christian backgrounds (Roman Catholicism and Greek, Russian, and Armenian Orthodox rites) have played the most substantial role in the New England country and western community since the early twentieth century. Of these groups, persons of French heritage—particularly those of French Canadian extraction—have exerted the most resilient and audible stylistic influence. Indeed, Canadians of all heritages—African, First Nations, French Irish, and British Isles—have proven an equally lasting influence on New England country and western music. Additionally, the prevailing fiddle style of New Englanders of British Isles ancestry at the turn of the twentieth century was a more precise single-string melodic style with clearly accentuated (or less “loose-armed” or slurred) notes—as was the case throughout the Northeast and upper Midwest at the time—so as to meet the specific stylistic demands of dancers and regional dance callers (Bronner 1987, 49). This may be on account of the relative racial homogeneity of the region, though New York has had several historically significant African American country fiddlers. Nevertheless, in fairly vernacular terms, New England country and western music sounds more Canadian and less African American than its southern counterparts.
Most distinctive is the New England vocal style, which is identifiable by its use of the soft palate. In the case of some, like Richie Zack of Providence, Rhode Island, this is applied throughout, providing a sound akin to Lawrence Welk or Guy Lombardo with a steel guitar accompaniment. Others, like Dick Curless of Fort Fairfield, Maine, alternate between hard nasality and use of the soft palate on vowels and low notes. For those unfamiliar with Curless’s sound, the singing style of Hank Snow, originally of Nova Scotia, would be the closest comparison.
(p.29) Instrumentally, New England country and western music has distinguished itself through its accordion players and lead guitarists. The accordion—on account of its ability to hit notes precisely and to the liking of dance callers, and due to its widespread popularity among persons of Continental European ancestry—gradually replaced the fiddle, though it has greatly diminished since the 1960s. Guitarists have exerted the region’s strongest influence on continental country music making. New England country and western music has produced a number of virtuosic guitarists of note: Johnny Smith, who left Portland, Maine, in the 1940s to fame and success in New York with an electric jazz guitar original called “Walk, Don’t Run”; Ray Couture, who accompanied Maine greats Lone Pine and Betty Cody before settling in Wheeling, West Virginia, as the lead guitarist for Hawkshaw Hawkins and the house guitarist at the Wheeling Jamboree; Lenny Breau, son of Lone Pine and Betty Cody, student of Ray Couture, sideman for Dick Curless, and eventual Chet Atkins protégé; Dick Dale, son of Lebanese immigrants to Massachusetts who went on to become a founder of “surf guitar” when the family relocated to California; Clarence White, born in Maine, the son of a devoted fan of Lone Pine and Betty Cody, and future virtuosic flat-picking guitarist in the Kentucky Colonels and the folk-rock band The Byrds; George Moody, born and raised in Bangor and periodic sideman to Dick Curless but who relocated to Alberta, where his furious electric fingerpicking and stringbending were a primary influence on Merle Haggard sideman Redd Voelkaert; and, most recently, Johnny Hiland, born and raised in Woodland, Maine, legally blind from birth, a Toby Keith sideman with a taste for chickin-pickin’ and heavy metal that has made him a darling of experimental rock guitarist Steve Vai.
The stories and contributions of these individuals and more are chronicled in chapter 2 of this book. While research for these chapters was exhaustive, it is by no means comprehensive. There are many more stories to tell. Nevertheless, this work represents a starting point—a framework upon which future discussions of New England country and western music history can be built—and a small piece of the continental puzzle of the folk strata of country music.
The personal histories of musicians chronicled in this work are likely the sorts of stories that many readers will initially be drawn in to read. And the stories of these musicians’ exhausting life on the road, chronicled in chapter 5, perhaps provide some idea of why a tradition such as this is so challenging to sustain over generations. But most noteworthy and distinct to New England—more so than any regional stylistic variations, repertoires, individuals, and so forth—is the structure and meaning of the live performance (p.30) event, what I call here the New England country and western event. At the risk of belaboring the point, this highlights the power and potency of the folk form of country music in its ability to drive and transform working-class community while underscoring the commercial music industry’s utter inability to capture and commodify “folk” music at its most fundamental community level.
The New England country and western event—examined in detail in chapter 3—was generally something musicians and fans of the midtwentieth century called a “personal appearance.” This latter term was not unique to New England. But what was distinctive about the personal appearance in New England was its binary structure—it was a show and a dance and was formally divided as such, with musicians charging the audience money for the show and playing a dance afterward for free. Musicians played what they wanted during the show, and they played what the audience wanted during the dance. This, combined with the country and western stagecraft, dress, décor, and stage names, explored in chapter 4, engendered a sociability adept at transcending ethnic barriers and drawing diverse communities together into a larger social circle. This, unto itself, was a dance between the performers and the audience and an embodiment of how the country musician walks a line between innovation and tradition, self-expression and community expression.
This last concept—that of community expression—is ultimately why this book and others like it are so critical. They are not an attempt to wedge New England artists into the country music canon nor to see the Dick Curlesses of the world enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum; rather, they want to show that country and western music—at the community or folk level—is a powerful and beautiful thing unto itself and tells us a great deal about what communities think and feel, who they are, and what they imagine themselves to be.
Threads of Remembrance and Resentment: Nostalgia and the Imagining of New England’s Heritage
These days, New England country and western musicians and fans are nostalgic not simply for the days when good local country and western musicians could be heard on local radio but also for what those days symbolized: an era they know never really existed—the era of the self-sufficient community. This imagined community takes on many shapes, often blending into pure fantasy. An example greets travelers arriving in New Hampshire on I-95: a bilingual Welcome/Bienvenue sign featuring a rendering of a (p.31) colonial New England village nestled in the center of an idealized old mill town ringed by fertile farms, forests, and waterways. These symbols once sustained New England’s working people in powerful and interconnected ways, yet human geography in New England has historically shifted with technological, political, and industrial changes tied to each of these symbols, following a centuries-old cycle of abandonment of community centers and their subsequent reclamation, preservation, gentrification, and reimagining. The resulting image—whether of the traditional colonial New England village green (with requisite white steepled church and immaculately landscaped common), or the relatively recent phenomenon of abandoned mill complexes being converted into expensive condominiums—creates an idealized (and considerably cleaner) portrait of old New England self-sufficiency. New Englanders have been at this active reimagining of self-sufficiency for nearly three hundred years (Conforti 2001), and at times it produces distortions—on billboards produced by the tourism industry, as well as in country and western songs like John Lincoln Wright’s “That Old Mill” (1990), an homage to the town of Sanford, Maine, where he spent his adolescence:
- That Old Mill—you supported every family in this town.
- You worked us too hard yesterday,
- But we could use your work today
- Now we don’t ever work no more.
(© John Lincoln Wright, lyrics)
There are obvious limitations to such an idealized (or entirely imagined) portrait or symbol of New England life—limitations to the actual democracy of the town hall event (which often excluded women, persons of color, persons of minority faiths and denominations, and nonlandowners), and limitations to the notion that the mill was more of a provider than an opportunist (or, in some instances, a parasite), which many of the state’s older inhabitants remember all too well. The kind of idealized symbol of self-sufficient, democratic old New England rendered on the Welcome to New Hampshire interstate sign—a place where farm, forest, village, and mill coexist in harmony—is the kind of tourism-driven rendering of New England that causes some locals to blanch. And yet the power of such symbolism is heartily embraced by even the most cynical native New Englanders when outsiders question the importance the New Hampshire primary should have in the presidential electoral process. The idea that much of New England—and particularly northern New England—is still “small town,” “traditional,” and capable of conducting town-meeting democracy is still very much believed throughout much of the region. In other words, idealized (p.32) symbols like the town hall meeting, the village common, the family farm, or even the industry that sustains an entire town may represent “The Way Life Should Be” (the Maine tourism motto, which greets visitors as they arrive by car in Maine) in the minds of both visitors to and natives of New England, even when native New Englanders are mindful that this is not necessarily “the way life was” or even “the way life is.”
New England has long been a place suspicious of government, bureaucracy, and urbanization. This can be read in both classic and social histories of the region—in events like the Boston Tea Party, General John Stark’s “Live Free or Die” (the New Hampshire state motto, which appears on its license plates), President Franklin Pierce’s pro-Confederate sympathies (Pierce is the only U.S. president [1853–57] to have come from New Hampshire), accounts of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, the stubborn refusal of northern New England textile and shoe factory laborers to unionize, the modern-day Vermont secessionist movement, the resistance of northern New England states to adopt helmet and seatbelt laws, and the ever-expanding Libertarian Party of New Hampshire. Themes of resistance to forces from outside of the community—particularly outside “values” as disseminated via national and international broadcast media—reverberate in the music and discussions of New England country and western musicians and audiences. The imaginary heart of self-reliant libertarian Yankee culture has steadily retreated northward—away from New England’s most affluent and powerful urban centers in southern Connecticut and eastern Massachusetts—since the nineteenth century. In New England country and western folklore—and in the popular imagination—northern New England (and particularly Aroostook County, Maine) is imagined as the last frontier of self-reliance and self-direction. This does not just play out in country and western songs and spirited barroom banter: as recently as 2010, Maine elected officials drafted legislation to divide Maine into two states—the State of Maine (the northern, rural half of the state) and the State of Northern Massachusetts (the southern, coastal, more affluent half of Maine) (“State Lawmaker” 2010).
Though often ambiguous, the imagined geographic orientation of many New England country and western songs points toward northern New England, where cowboys (and cowgirls) and farmers actively resist changing times and serve as regional arbiters and protectors of threatened traditions. And New Englanders who are aware of, and embrace, their region’s country music heritage enact a regionally specific working-class variation of “alternative country,” which places a high premium on what Aaron Fox (2005) calls “emplacement,” or the valuing of commodities that can be tied to a specific geographic place.
(p.33) If outsiders perceive the sentimental nostalgia that pervades country and western music to be a trite indication of rural or small-town simplicity and naïveté, then they are mistaken and missing the point. These songs mask—or are the product of—an often deep and dark frustration with the current state of things. In New England country and western, nostalgia is produced by a bewildering historical cycle of industrial and national disenfranchisement. Maine country and western singer Jimmy Barnes’s belief that the cultural values and country music heritage of New England working people have been extracted and repackaged by Nashville as a cultural import echoes a familiar plight for the New England working class: the departure of the agricultural industry to the Midwest in the nineteenth century, the departure of the textile industry to the South after the close of World War II, and the decimation of local fisheries by domestic and foreign factory ships in the late twentieth century. The rise of Nashville as the center of industrial country music production and the subsequent emergence of the southern thesis occurred during a painful and intense period of deindustrialization in New England, affecting virtually the same communities. Such a phenomenon gives credence to Barnes’s belief that “we, the public, have been robbed of our local music heritage and independence, in part, by being told that if you’re not from a certain geographic location or sing with a certain accent, you’re not country.”
Losing Our Roots: How the Displacement of Local Music from Local Country Radio Impacts Working Musicians
Many New England country and western musicians no longer feel that either a Nashville recording contract or access to satellite broadcasts is a viable, realistic, or even desirable option for them. These same musicians view the current state of affairs in country radio as tantamount to a corporate takeover of what should be—in their opinion—a more populist format inclusive of local and regional content. Maine country and western singer and part-time radio DJ Bob Elston has expressed deep frustration, resentment, and anger over the state of country radio in Maine and throughout the United States:
All radio is controlled by two or three companies … all interested in making some money, not in the quality of the music, nor in the quality of the announcer. … I don’t let them shove the crap down my throat. With 10,000 albums, 4,000 45’s, 2500 78’s, 1200 cassettes, and 4–500 CDs, I don’t need the garbage out there and I am certainly not going to listen to it. I probably wouldn’t be this (p.34) bitter if I hadn’t spent the last 20–25 years involved with radio and seeing how much music has deteriorated and how the listening public out there is being treated, and it’s not a pretty sight. I can only hope something will come along to reverse that situation but I don’t know how that could happen at the moment.
We’re not only losing our roots in country music here in Maine, but across the country. … I have probably been on a soapbox a little bit and got carried away, but these are my thoughts and I don’t think I am far from wrong, and I don’t think most people, a listening audience, would dispute that.
Some folks are in the business for the money. Many are not. Some I call, “rapist of the industry”: where they come in and make a dollar, and then they are gone. Lots of groups in early fifties came up here because it was virgin territory. They found there was a lot of country music in Maine. Got themselves TV shows and proceeded to rape the folks and leave. When I say, “Rape the folks,” I mean not give an honest show for an honest dollar. Always looking for a scam or a quick way to make a buck. A lot of such outfits, carpetbaggers, if you will, came and did that. It soured some folks I think on country music.
Elston’s language here is certainly provocative and conjures the specter of regional divisions that stretch back nearly 150 years: an inversion of the northern carpetbaggers who attempted to reconstruct the South in their own image following the Civil War. It also signifies a remarkable reversal of fortunes: southern working people are enriched by developing industry, while Yankees (in Jimmy Barnes’s and Bob Elston’s opinions) produce the “virgin territory” and raw goods used by southern country music manufacturers that are then resold to Yankees as a cultural import. Ironically, while the CMA created country format radio partly in an effort to maintain a respectable foothold for working-class music and culture in commercial broadcasting, the Nashville industry’s specifically southern brand has left working-class New Englanders resentful and without access to the very broadcast mediums that had so powerfully amplified their homegrown traditions. In New England country and western circles, the Nashville-based country music industry has come to represent the face of all that is wrong with country music, the media, and the multinational corporations that manage local affairs remotely. This resentment toward Nashville’s corporate indifference is particularly strong in the postindustrial regions of New England that have yet to witness the growing middle-class life triumphantly chronicled in Nashville’s contemporary country music.
This is a familiar theme in New England working-class heritage. The financial condition of New England’s laboring people has hinged on urban (p.35) politics, markets, and a few powerful industrialists for over two hundred years. This is not to say that laboring people in New England have been powerless historically—they have not been. Many have voted with their feet (Mayer 1993), and certainly countless have raised issue with local, regional, national, and industrial politics since at least the time of Shay’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts and most famously during the Bread and Roses strikes at the textile mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts (Zinn 2003). Yet New England working folk have been caught up in a “great story” in which working people are brought to a region to develop the financial interests of a powerful network of outsiders (aristocrats, absentee landowners, governments, armies, and merchants) only to be abandoned without jobs. This has been the case in the northeastern sector of North America since the first European colony took root in Newfoundland. Corporate and government interests have repeated a pattern of land and industrial development and abandonment in the region over the centuries, stranding working-class, maritime, and agricultural New Englanders in a jobless state. This cycle—the “great story” New England’s working-class people embody—has served to embitter working people in northern New England toward distant big-city outsiders, has come to frustrate the self-reliant character of New England, and has generated a nostalgic longing for an imaginary time of agrarian self-sufficiency. This frustration bears fruit in the songs of New England country and western music and in the adherence to older western cowboy styles by so many New England country and western musicians.
The story of New England country and western music is ultimately about how working-class New Englanders living in this region’s first multiethnic age chose to understand themselves as Americans together through the frontier symbolism of western music. When the CMA coalesced in Nashville and rebranded the music as “country music,” a fundamental change took place in how country music functioned within working-class New England. The radio industry that had been built on the backs of New England musicians no longer had room for them or any regional variations of country music. The courting and subsequent takeover and abandonment of New England country and western music by national or corporate entities is, quite simply, another in a long line of such losing battles for New England’s working people and a cycle that leads many to believe that the interests of working-class New Englanders are not the interests of the nation.
While this “great story” of the abandonment of working-class people by powerful agents of industry and government is not unique to New England, this tale of industrial development and decay began in New England before arriving in other regions of the United States. Where it is pertinent to the music (p.36) being discussed here is in the fact that urban corporations and governments have consistently extended a hand to New England working people, asking them to participate in what appears to be a mutually beneficial process, only to then ignore working-class people in favor of higher profit margins. This story can be located in the tale of country format radio in New England and the subsequent displacement of local music programming.
New England country and western musicians and fans have learned to live with the frustration voiced by men like Jimmie Barnes. They have done so because their deep engagement with the local community compels them to. This is, after all, a social music, a vehicle for community entertainment, dance, and identity. In the midst of the New England country and western event as experienced at the Legion Post 15 in Greenwich, Rhode Island, the Thompson Community Center in Union, Maine, or the Canadian-American Club in Watertown, Massachusetts, questions of authenticity or access to broadcast media are not invited guests. If their presence is at all felt, it is in the absence of young people. The sustainability of local and regional cultural heritage and identity—indeed, the very awareness that either ever existed with regard to country and western music—is certainly threatened by country format radio and the myth of southern authenticity, but it is by no means dead.