- A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music
A volume on gender in country music is a welcome addition to the scholarly corpus. To a great degree the welcome is as much for the subject matter as it is for the approach. There simply is not enough scholarly work on country music. Because of the social conservatism associated with the genre, compounded by a common presumption that such conservatism lacks nuance, gender provides a mode of understanding the field that is necessarily useful far beyond the immediate topics at hand.
Country and blues—two styles of music that have continuously embraced, swung away from each other at arm's length, and braided their steps together in the most intimate of dances throughout more than a century of musical process—are the foundation of almost all popular music today and yet the least understood, certainly the least documented and theorized. While blues has been the subject of numerous books, the vast majority of them are steeped in a romanticism that clouds our historical and musical view. This obfuscation certainly can be understood as a necessary political maneuver. In his introduction to the 1975 reprint of his 1959 The Country Blues Samuel B. Charters is ahead of his musicological time in stating overtly that his writing had been shaped by the forces of the rising civil rights movement, drawing on the blues as a source of history and pride for African Americans.1 Country music, on the other hand, has been largely ignored by literary enthusiasts as well as scholars. Bill C. Malone's Country [End Page 104] Music, USA (1968; updated in 1985 and 2002) was, for a very long time, the sole historical survey of the style.2 One of the strongest correctives to this dearth of information was Mary Bufwack and Robert Oermann's Finding Her Voice, which first appeared in 1993 with the subtitle The Saga of Women in Country Music. It reappeared in 1995 as The Illustrated History of Women in Country Music and was revised yet again in 2002 as Women in Country Music, 1800–2000. This hefty volume is a treasure of archival information and photographs, oral history, and clear, engaging storytelling organized by themes, including "Single Girl, Married Girl: The Carter Family and the Birth of Country Music Recording," "Honky Tonk Girl: Kitty Wells and Her Postwar Sisters," and "Little Darlin's Not My Name: Women in Bluegrass." It's a great read and full of incredibly useful detail; it is wonderful journalism, with a sensitivity to issues of gender, class, and race. It is not, however, essentially a scholarly book.
Country exists in a no-man's-land in the map of musical scholarship. Even for those who study American popular music, it exists before the "great rock and roll divide," allowing the perpetuation of the myth of rock and roll's explosive birth in the 1950s, and its Billboardsponsored shotgun wedding with the Hollywood-bred genre of "Western" music has emphasized the aggressively commercial nature of the music. All of this, particularly juxtaposed with the cultivated sense of the primitive and "folk" of the blues, fenced country music off from the more heavily tilled fields of musical study.
In his foreword to this volume David Sanjek goes right to a key issue in all popular music studies:
However familiar their destination or the landmarks encountered along the way, some expeditions of the imagination seem to be repeated generation after generation, as if the very itinerary was hardwired into our genetic makeup. Like Orpheus or Ahab, we hunger after our private Eurydices and white whales, betting that the reward at journey's end will compensate for all the confusion and consternation that came before. In the context of American popular music, one of the most traveled paths leads to the satisfaction of an insatiable appetite for authenticity . . . Inevitably, that appetite remains evanescent through and through, for it encourages the belief that the need to be compensated for any creative enterprise reduces that activity...