- Real Country: Music and Language in Working-Class Culture
In Real Country, Aaron Fox has produced a theoretically sophisticated and beautifully written ethnography, giving readers a lyrical depiction of working class Texan barroom life, while developing a theory of the speaking and singing voice as central to working class culture. In a place where "poverty and the risk of poverty" (31) are pervasive, and work is "alienated, body-wrecking, and mind-numbing" (32), people construct unique selves and create spaces of warm sociability through country music and other verbal art forms. Working in the zone where linguistic anthropology and ethnomusicology overlap, building on and contributing to both disciplines (not to mention cultural studies), Fox makes a persuasive case for the importance of song in the constitution of particular social and cultural worlds, and of the selves who inhabit those worlds.
Linguistic anthropologists have long produced sensitive analyses of a wide range of verbal art forms, including stories, jokes, praise, oratory, and song. Real Country is no exception, and has a depth that comes from many years of fieldwork; crucially, Fox also became known as a musician and a friend, in ways that both strengthened and complicated his ability to carry out his research. The resulting product is especially valuable, [End Page 1209] because he does much more than write about country music lyrics and performances. Instead, he situates song within a broader discursive field, showing how it grows out of and is incorporated into other genres of speaking. In the presentation of ethnographic evidence throughout the book, song lyrics and performances are intertwined with conversations, stories, and jokes about music, emotions, and relationships as they are in the bars themselves.
Fox describes the honky-tonk bar in chapter one as a public institution where country music performance and other verbal art forms take center stage; this is a critical site for the reproduction of working class culture, a theme he develops in more detail in chapter six. Neither church nor home, the bar nevertheless contains elements of the sacred and the domestic. Most of the patrons identify as "redneck"—"a particular class-positioned way of being white" (25), but more importantly, they identify as "country," defining themselves both by the place they live and the music they love. Chapter three focuses on the cultural construction of "country" as a specific kind of place, a "liminal industrial-agricultural wasteland" (74) with occasional hints of older pastoral landscapes. This place is peopled with well-known "characters," who work to establish public personalities marked by interesting imperfections even as they protect themselves from too much small-town scrutiny. The country's iconic sounds are the meandering conversational "talkin' shit" and the slow, sad country song, though some auditory moments are more intense in their pacing and poetry, just as certain physical places are more densely layered with meanings and memories.
Chapter four explores the linguistic and musical construction of "the social person and the psychological self" (125), as exemplified in the imperfect but valued "character" and the potentially disruptive "tore up fool." Where the "character" contributes his or her unique qualities to the ongoing discourse of the community, the "fool" endangers sociability by withdrawing in despair or exploding in anger. In country music, this type is figured as "the fool in the mirror," who experiences a disconnect between the interior self and the exterior person constructed or mirrored in discourse. It requires some careful linguistic work to repair this disconnect, to draw the "fool" out from self-obsession into sociability. The analysis of self and person, "subjectivity and sociability" (126), in this chapter is particularly insightful theoretically, and serves to ground the chapters which follow.
In chapter five, Fox unpacks the local concepts of "feeling" and "relating," concepts which link embodied emotions and rhythms with "pretty [End Page 1210] words" in the creation of both meaning and sociability. Real country music is music sung from the heart, music with beautiful lyrics that convey "lived social experience" (162), music that listeners can relate to as it elicits meaningful memories. Particular songs...