One of the many tragic aspects of southern history revolves around the fact that despite centuries of working the same land, worshipping the same God, enduring corresponding degrees of poverty, and concocting similar cultural practices to combat oppression and maintain personal dignity, the region’s African American and white inhabitants still do not really know each other. A shared culture and the traditions that have accompanied it have not translated into a shared history. Perceiving the past (and present) differently both ratifies and results from their status as strangers. One does not have to contemplate too long this perpetual American dilemma to recognize that perceptions regarding phenomena such as the Civil War, the Confederate battle flag, the Brown decision, the Great Society, Elvis Presley, the presidential election of Barack Obama, and the death of Trayvon Martin are viewed through glasses whose lenses have a racial tint. Accordingly, visions of a truly integrated society seem to have run aground on the fragmented and polarizing shoals of popular memory. Any rescue operation requires a new interrogation of a past that to this point has been nothing less than divisive.
This appears to be the primary motivation behind Diane Pecknold’s edited collection, Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music. Utilizing a recording studio metaphor that suggests the manipulation at the outset of an original sonic artifact, Hidden in the Mix brings together an impressive array of scholars who engage in exhuming and accentuating the buried black sounds and voices of country music.
The editor has set herself quite a task; few manifestations in public life exhibit a more racial character than country music. No musical genre conveys “whiteness” quite like country music. This is not to deny the music’s acknowledged indebtedness to African American influences. Historians and fans alike have long referenced country’s [End Page 716] biracial folk roots and ensuing currents of commercial interchange (Jimmie Rodgers, Presley, rockabilly). Many likewise place in the shadow of their pantheon of heroes the implicit mentors of those who defined the history of the music: Tee Tot Payne (Hank Williams), Arnold Shultz (Bill Monroe), and Lesley Riddle (A. P. Carter). Most connoisseurs also can point to occasional black artists—Charley Pride, DeFord Bailey, and Darius Rucker readily come to mind—who serve as the exceptions that prove the rule: country music in and of itself is and always has been “white.”
Not so fast, Pecknold and her collaborators argue. African American participation in the genre has been much more variable and filled with randomness than conventional history allows. It is an arbitrariness that calls into question the music’s master narrative, a contradiction susceptible to Pecknold’s postmodern sensibilities and methodology. The essays that comprise the collection follow, to various degrees, the lead of the editor, and delve into that unpredictability. They address the well-known and the relatively obscure, ranging from pieces on Shultz, Al Green, Cowboy Troy, Kentucky fiddler Bill Livers, songwriter Alice Randall, King Records and Henry Glover, the demise of the banjo among black musicians, old-time country music as practiced in North Carolina and Virginia during the 1970s and 1980s, and the creolization of country and western dancing in St. Lucia. While all are insightful, it is particularly the essays by Pecknold (on Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music), Patrick Huber (the industry’s early recording of African Americans), and Charles Hughes (the relationship between southern soul and country) that set the tone and provide the assist that allows Hidden in the Mix to raise the bar regarding musical and historical scholarship. Whether it is enough to rescue southern history or country music from the polarizing shoals of popular memory is another story. [End Page 717]
MICHAEL T. BERTRAND teaches history at Tennessee State University. He is the author of Race, Rock, and Elvis (2005) and is currently writing Remixing the Master: The Significance of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Southern History...