In her preface to High Lonesome, Cecilia Tichi confesses that she’s only been listening to country for five years, but you would never guess it from the wealth of material synthesized here. The accompanying CD gives a 56-minute sample of the music, ranging from Hank Williams to Robin and Linda Williams and showcasing one of the three stars of the book, Emmylou Harris (the others are Dolly Parton and Rodney Crowell). Some fifty songs are listed in the permission credits; the discography runs to twelve two-column pages.
Tichi guides us through the music by identifying some of its major themes (such as home, the road, loneliness, the Wild West) and mapping them onto canonical American literature (Jefferson, Cooper, Emerson, Whitman, Steinbeck, Kerouac, and many others), in order to demonstrate country’s expression of “the American identity.” Her goal is not to generate new readings of the literature, but rather to use the commonality of themes to address a problem faced by scholars of country music (as well as by the musicians themselves): the “problem of country music’s status as serious music worthy of respect.” With the South Atlantic Quarterly bringing out a special issue on country music [End Page 405] (edited by Tichi), the battle for scholarly respectability seems nearly won, but the problem may still exist for readers who don’t work in English or American studies departments.
The comparative thematic analysis leads in some useful directions—for example, the discussion of the often unrecognized importance of loneliness as a cultural topos, to which country music provides a “secret map.” At other points, however, this approach has its drawbacks. Infrequently, the theme distorts a text, as in the chapter on “road” songs, where Tichi imagines Jefferson, in the famous passage on the Blue Ridge from Notes on the State of Virginia, to be “issu[ing] a personal invitation to seek your future in the West across and beyond the Shenandoah Mountains.” The problem is not the deliberate misreading itself so much as the supposed universality of the mythic paradigm that produces it—a paradigm that makes us want Jefferson to be looking west when he was in fact looking east. In chapter 6, “Red, Red Rose,” the theme get us off track. Here the central image of a wild rose is not sufficient to organize the real topic of the chapter, which is class. This topic deserves a more pointed and thorough exploration, since country music frequently articulates white working-class resentment, but such an exploration would distract from the claims Tichi advances about country’s ability to express a universal American identity.
We need to know how the Nashville branch of the culture industry so successfully constructs a particular identity or narrow range of identities as fundamentally “American” and gets people to believe in them. Tichi gives us tantalizing glances at this sort of analysis. She notes, for example, that the cowboy-singer was a retrospective formation, a product of music marketing with virtually no connection to the cattle drives of the latter third of the nineteenth century. As country music became commercialized, “cowboy clothes . . . were a shortcut out of the hillbilly’s overalls, an image makeover with a certain advantage in terms of status.” Dropping this historically oriented line of inquiry, however, Tichi goes on to describe the ways in which Western songs, such as Tex Ritter’s theme for High Noon, “give expression to [the] inner life” of the “individualist American typified as a self-reliant western hero.”
The last third of the book, beginning with chapter 8, “Nature’s Music,” is the best. Here questions of “the American identity” recede into the background as Tichi examines how country artists regard [End Page 406] their work. She points out that song writers and music journalists often appeal to the category of natural genius and speak of a song as “a whole entity, intact, virtually existing before it is written down.” This kind of talk prevents us from recognizing the...