restricted access Commercialization and Tradition in the Nashville Sound
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Commercialization and Tradition in the Nashville Sound William Ivey THE ENTIRE QUESTION OF TRADITION and its ability to survive in a contemporary urban context hascertainly been of major significance to American folklorists. As filmmaker Jean Renoir stated, "it is practically the only question of the age, this question of primitivism and how it can be sustained in the face of sophistication." Folklorists have answered this question in a variety of ways, and I will not digress by restating Richard Dorson's arguments for relating folklore to the American Experience, nor will I present the work of contextualists or the more recent argument (formulated rather opaquely in Del Hymes's unfairly ignored American Folklore Society presidential address) that the need to "traditionalize" some part of group experience is a kind of cultural universal. I will only stress that because folklorists are drawn by temperament to those arts and artifacts that seem to reflect specific cultures rather directly (and country music is certainly one of those arts) the shiftingmoods of folklore scholarship, the changing definitions of "traditional" and "commercial," form an inevitable backdrop to a discussion of country music in general and the "Nashville Sound" in particular. Within folk music study scholars have been particularly interested in questions of transmission, textual analysis, and 129 130 P U R E C O U N T R Y in a general sense, with questions of authenticity, whichfrequently equals questions of quality. This latter interest has resulted in the development of certain perceivedcontinuums that help to locate a particular performancein relation to its degree of folkness or degree of authenticity, perhaps on a scale of one to ten. If you drew such a horizontal scale for blues you would, I suppose, locate Robert Johnson at the "very traditional" end of the scale with a rating of nine or ten and an artist like Stevie Wonder near the other end of the scale with a rating of one or two. Much of black musical expression could be located between these two extremes. The same kind of scale can be drawn for country music, with early string band music and balladry on record at one end of the scale, and with, let's say, Anne Murray orKenny Rogers at the other end of the scale—or perhaps just off the scale. However, as observers of what is traditional in culture our attitudes shift. For some, use of electric instruments indicated a clear decline in "traditionally" of an item or style. That's no longer true. Among other factors, a little distance in time from a given popular culture item allows us to see more clearly its "traditional" component. It is important to note that many scholars seethe popular or commercial elements in these musical traditions as hostile to, or even destructive of, the elements identified with a pure oral tradition. There have been countless allusions through the years to the destructive impact of popular orcommercial art upon folk art— they need not be restated here. This pervasive view of popular culture as negative and destructive has produced a shorthand stereotype of commercial musicwhich sees it as the functional antitheses of traditional music, and so we see that—to use the example of country music—balladry and string band music of the twenties possesses the virtue of oral tradition (amateur, community oriented, culturally reinforcing , local, expressive of community values) while the Nashville Sound is commercial, national, imposed upon com- Commercialization and Tradition in Nashville Sound 131 munities, reflective of industry perceptions of what will sell, and impersonal. I wish to restate this admittedly overdrawn characterization of attitudes toward the role of commercial forces in traditional music only to suggest that we may now possess a less-than-complete view of these commercial forms, a less-than-thorough understanding of their functional role in the adaptation of rural traditions to urban life and contemporary technology. The phrase "Nashville Sound" means several different things, and it is worthwhile to briefly describe each of these meanings. The origins of the phrase are obscure, but it was fixed in popular culture by a Time magazine story in 1963, and by the late 1960s was being reinforced by a major record company as RCA noted each country album as "recorded in RCA's Nashville Sound studio." First, the "Nashville Sound" refers to an era in which country music responded to pressures and demands of the marketplace in order to carve a permanent niche within the larger popular music spectrum in the United States...