Country music has remained relevant to successive generations of adherents because of strategies that are focused on adapting to changing trends (appealing to new and younger potential listeners) yet also committed to positioning each new musical offering as part of an uninterrupted tradition (to not lose core fans). This process, which requires the ideological leap of “putting country as a state of mind on equal terms with country as a place,” is thoroughly and insightfully vetted in Jeremy Hill’s study Country Comes to Town: The Music Industry and the Transformation of Nashville.
Hill’s study identifies the key gatekeepers and events in Nashville [End Page 452] that this ideological positioning has depended on. These include the managers and influential performers of the Grand Ole Opry (chapter one); the creation of Music Row and the Country Music Association (CMA) in the 1950s (chapter two); the Nashville Sound and the drive for hits that could cross over into wider popular music markets (chapter two); how urban redesign that affected Nashville’s positioning as the home of country music, despite resistance from local business leaders (chapter two); the racialized historical and musical legacies of Nashville, and in particular the civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s (chapter three); the relocation of the Opry in the 1970s to the suburban area that now houses the Opryland entertainment complex (chapter four); and the emergence of exponentially larger markets for country music in the 1990s (chapter five).
Hill’s study is rigorous, drawing extensively from both archival and media sources. While much of the information he presents is available elsewhere, Hill’s contextualization of it is poignant and fresh. His examination of Music Row’s responses (or utter lack thereof) to the civil rights struggles going on all around them, locally as well as nationally, in the 1960s is a vivid reminder of how and why country music gatekeepers preserve the narrative of whiteness that surrounds the genre. In addition, the connections Hill draws between broad sociocultural shifts brought about by suburbanization throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century and the Opry’s move away from the Ryman Auditorium has not been as usefully examined by previous authors. As Hill demonstrates, this physical move was made possible because of discontent (rife with classed and racialized sentiment) with the “unpredictable space of Downtown,” yet the Opry’s shift to a newly built, theme park–like complex was also enabled because the majority of country music listeners had in fact left the country by that time (if they ever resided there in the first place). Opry owners, managers, and performers argued that the Opry’s move to new suburban digs was a similar process of uplift that should instill pride rather than nostalgic loss.
While Hill usefully presents country music from the perspective [End Page 453] of its gatekeepers (and beyond the sentimentality of its common narratives), his study implicitly absents—and thus invites a consideration of—the perspectives of adherents. While beyond the scope of Hill’s study, the listeners that Music Row gatekeepers strategized to capture the attention of have not attained a voice in Hill’s work or within academia generally. Yet, Hill reminds us that insightful analysis about country music involves a consideration of how its long-standing relevance depends on a continual reworking of the narrative itself: a fluidity that relies on constructed fixity. His book is part of a welcome and emerging body of scholarship that attempts to explore this fluidity and articulate the meaning and function of country music within the U.S. cultural landscape.
CHRIS WILSON is sessional lecturer, music teacher, theatre musician, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist living on an island a short ferry trip from Toronto, Canada. He is working on a manuscript based on his ethnographic study of songwriters in Nashville. He earned a PhD from the University of Toronto in 2015.