- Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South by Charles L. Hughes
Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South by Charles L. Hughes is a nuanced, elegant, and authoritative history of an important corner of the Southern popular music industry from the 1960s through the early 1980s. Hughes focuses on what he calls the “country-soul triangle” from Memphis to Nashville to Muscle Shoals, epicenters of creativity that helped create the soundtrack of the era. Stars who emerged from the triangle include Al Green, Wilson Pickett, Bobby Womack, the Staples Singers, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, Charley Pride, Dolly Parton, and Elvis Presley, while those who traveled to the triangle in search of a particular sound include James Brown, Liza Minnelli, and the Rolling Stones. Hughes successfully navigates many potential pitfalls as he tells (and revises) the intricate story of how country and soul music have been understood as political and social proxies.
The hit-making studios (such as Stax, for instance) of the country-soul triangle during this period have long been considered extraordinary sites of progressive interracial harmony. For example, a black studio band created the music for the white Mar-Keys and a white band, the famous Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, played the music on some of the best-known tunes by the Staples Singers (at the very moment that the Staples Singers became more overtly political and aligned with a Black Power perspective). Country Soul is filled with a wide variety of similar examples. This narrative of interracial cooperation was cemented by music critic Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (Back Bay, 1986). Hughes’s goal is to both oppose and complicate the assumptions that have followed in the wake of Guralnick’s book, and from related anecdotes that have proliferated about the period. The fact that the Staples Singers used a white studio band is widely known. But what of the similarly talented black studio bands during the period who worked under difficult conditions? It may be fun to watch Louis Armstrong and Johnny Cash perform together on YouTube, but Hughes argues that broad historical conclusions should not be drawn from such glorious moments:
When knitted together, these stories of cooperation offer an alternative narrative of southern history, a tradition of racial interaction that complicates or even contradicts the conventional understanding of the South’s conflicted past. Interracial music collaborations from Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong in the 1920s to Nelly and Tim McGraw in the 2000s are offered as counterpoints to racial polarization. The interracial intermingling of 1850s string bands or 1950s rock ’n’ roll becomes evidence for the limits of segregation and white supremacy. . . .
. . . But those who promote this narrative (and there are lots of us, from Barack Obama to me at some points in my career) have taken it further and exhibit a disquieting tendency to imply that the music existed outside of history. Statements like “racism did not exist in the studio” or “on the bandstand, everyone was the same” or “we saw no difference between black and white” are commonplace in this discourse. Southern musical spaces— both literal and figurative—have become a kind of ahistorical interracial dreamland.(190, 191) [End Page 63]
Hughes successfully uses what he calls a “labor-based analysis” (6) to attempt to replace this ahistorical interracial dreamland with something closer to reality. Hughes does not claim that the dreamland was actually a nightmare-land, but his excavation of the in-between land discards sedimented layers of myth.
There is an element of truth to the idea that many people looked to the Southern music industry as a site of change, or a space reflective of the vanguard of social change. Hughes writes that Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams, a black country-and-soul musician, “understood that his hybrid music offered a way out of [race-based genre divisions imposed by the music industry] by...