Country Soul with Charles L. Hughes

COUNTRY SOUL Cover ImagePop South continues its conversations with book authors.  Today, our focus is on Charles L. Hughes new book Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South (UNC Press, 2015)Dr. Hughes is a Director of the Memphis Center   at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.

PS:  The main title of your book “Country Soul” comes from the term “country-soul triangle,” which you use in your book. Where did that phrase come from, and why is it so appropriate?

CH: I developed the term “country-soul triangle” to refer to a network of recording studios in Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. At legendary places like FAME and Stax, black and white musicians produced a wealth of classic recordings in the 1960s and 1970s. Each city had its own successful scene, of course, but I’m interested in exploring the many connections between them—sounds and players traveled back and forth between these three cities, leading the triangle to become a center of the era’s music industry and turning each city’s signature “sound” into an internationally-recognized symbol of quality. Musicians in the triangle recorded with a wide variety of artists, but they were most associated with country, soul, and their stylistic blends. So it felt appropriate to term it the country-soul triangle.

PS:  Who are some of the prominent artists who recorded in the country-soul triangle that you talk about in the book?

CH: The list of artists who recorded in Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and Nashville during this period is truly overwhelming. Even in a book like this, I could only scratch the surface. Still, I tried to discuss as many performers as possible. I talk about soul stars from Aretha Franklin to the Staple Singers to Joe Tex; country artists including Willie Nelson, Charley Pride, and Dolly Parton; and pop and rock artists ranging from the Osmonds to the Rolling Stones to Dusty Springfield. The artists who recorded hits in the country-soul triangle—whether homegrown artists or visiting stars—form a constellation that demonstrates just how significant Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and Nashville were to the era’s popular music. It’s really exciting to spotlight them in the book.

PS:  Although you talk about many of the famous artists who recorded in the triangle, you focus primarily on the behind-the-scenes musicians at these studios. Why did you choose this approach?

CH: These musicians were the most important reason for the triangle’s success in so many genres. Their versatility and efficiency made them some of the most in-demand players of their era, and they established Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and Nashville as places where a wide variety of artists could go to cut successful records. They were also central to the way that country and soul developed artistically and culturally—not only did they develop the actual music, but they established the genres as symbols of race and politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Relatedly, they also dealt with racial politics on the most concrete level, thanks to their ongoing collaborations in the studio. Whether they were well known (like Stax’s Booker T. and the MGs) or less famous (like the FAME Gang in Muscle Shoals), the musicians dealt with the complex realities of racialized sound and an interracial workplace on a day-to-day basis. The results weren’t always positive, and certainly weren’t always equitable, but they were pivotal to understanding their larger historical importance. For that reason, I found them to be the most illuminating people to anchor my discussions.

Charles Hughes author photoPS: Many readers of Country Soul will be familiar with the 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals. What is your own personal response to the film? What do you think it got right, and what else would you like fans of the movie to know?

CH: I really enjoyed Muscle Shoals, and I was particularly happy to see the Shoals musicians get their due credit for their significant role in shaping American popular music of the last 50 years. To see and hear them discuss their achievements, along with so many of the artists they worked with and influenced, was a welcome confirmation of their importance and a wonderful tribute to their accomplishments. On top of that, the film was filled with great footage and sounds, so—as a fan of the music—I was thrilled to watch it. At the same time, Muscle Shoals also reflects a common simplified narrative, particularly in terms of race, that I’m trying to complicate with the book. It presents the Shoals studios (particularly in the early days) as something of a utopia where race wasn’t an issue, but I discuss numerous racial conflicts and more broadly demonstrate that race was a central concern of the musicians working in the Shoals. Additionally, the film focuses largely on white men—most prominently FAME Studios founder Rick Hall—while marginalizing the accomplishments (and criticisms) of the many black artists who participated as both studio musicians and performers. (For that matter, many of the important white contributors got minimized too.) As I discuss in Country Soul, this reflects a larger tendency to credit white people as the visionary heroes and treat African Americans as passive or secondary participants. I not only discuss the historical roots of this narrative, but address its continuing implications.

PS: How did you get interested in this topic?

CH: I came to this story through the music. Country, soul, and their hybrids have long been among my deepest musical loves. From Dolly Parton and Charlie Rich to Otis Redding and the Staple Singers, I’ve realized that many of my favorite artists and recordings are products of the country-soul triangle. I also grew interested in the musicians and songwriters working behind-the-scenes, people like George Jackson, Dan Penn, and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who helped create so many great records, in so many different genres. As a historian of race and the South, I became fascinated by the existence of these interracial collaborations that existed in the heart of racial turmoil. I wanted to explore the story of how this occurred and try to illustrate these musicians’ importance to the broader story of race in the United States.

If you’re interested in hearing some of the music Dr. Hughes discusses in his book, he’s put together a playlist on Spotify.  Click playlist.  He’s also created a playlist on YouTube.

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Have Y’all Heard? Voices from the Southern Blogosphere

The Pop South Rooster Word Cloud

Writing posts for Pop South has been an enjoyable experience, and it’s also provided a means for connecting with the larger public about the ways in which the American South is represented in popular culture. This is especially important for folks like myself who work in academia, where our critics suggest that we exist in a bubble and are out of touch with the “real world.”

I, for one, have always wanted to burst that bubble and bridge the gap that exists between academia and the broader public. To put it plainly, I’ve long felt that I should be able to explain what I write about in terms that members of my family, who never went to college, can understand.

My work as a public historian–working for museums and writing exhibit text–helped me to bridge that gap. Today, my blog serves that purpose and not by “dumbing down” the intellectual considerations. A person doesn’t have to have a college degree to be smart, but I find that dispensing with the academic jargon that can separate “us” (the academics) from “them” (the general reader) is especially important in a blog whose purpose is to communicate about topics in a way that most people can understand and appreciate.

I’m happy to say that I am not alone here in the southern blogosphere, as equally like-minded folks are adding their unique take on the region and its culture. If scholars want to be relevant beyond the academy, and if southern studies wants the same, then we must take advantage of new forms of communication in order to reach the broadest possible audience.

I look forward to others joining the mix, because there’s plenty of room for new voices. For now, here’s an introduction to some southern blogs and bloggers whose writing I think you’ll enjoy:

Civil War Memory–So much of what is written about Civil War memory concerns the South and how memory of the war has shaped, and continues to shape, southern culture. In this long-running blog, historian and teacher Kevin Levin explores this topic with his readers by examining everything from new books, to popular media, to the never-ending divisiveness of the Confederate battle flag.

Cobbloviate–This is a blog hosted by James C. Cobb, Professor and Spalding Distinguished Research Professor and Spalding Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Georgia.  Dr. Cobb offers his own special take on the South and southerners and generally with a healthy dose of humor.

Field Trip South is the official blog of the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina. It is a feast for the eyes and the ears as the SFC shares the archival resources of its phenomenal collection of materials that explore “the emergence of old-time, country-western, hillbilly, bluegrass, blues, gospel, Cajun and zydeco musics.”

Interpreting Slave Life–Nicole Moore, public historian and consultant, hosts this blog on one of the South’s most prickly historical issues–slavery.  She does so without sticking her head in the sand, addressing head-on the issue of slave interpretation at historic sites across the South.

New South Negress–Zandria Robinson’s blog offers a no-holds-barred approach to issues of region, race, and culture. Dr. Robinson is a professor of sociology at the University of Memphis who teaches courses in southern studies and who offers a fresh voice on southern black cultures.  Her observations on southern hip-hop are a must read.

Off the Deaton Path–Stan Deaton, Senior Historian at the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah, is one of the newest to this genre of writing.  You may know him from his Emmy-winning role as host of Today in Georgia History, but he’s recently added blogging to his repertoire. Dr. Deaton’s blog isn’t southern specific; still, his explorations into regional issues (especially as they relate to Georgia) are worth your time.

Red Clay Scholar–Regina Bradley has a Ph.D. in Literature from Florida State University and she writes about hip hop culture, race, and the U.S. South.  She also has a great video interview series called Outkasted Conversations.  You should definitely check it out!

Southern Foodways Alliance–The SFA blog has several contributing authors who offer readers everything from a good southern story to a delicious southern recipe. You’ll learn new twists on southern foodways and discover things about the region you didn’t even know existed.

Talk About the South–Dayne Sherman is a Louisiana native and an associate professor of library science who blogs about southern history, politics, folklore and religion with a particular focus on his home state. And he has the enviable Twitter handle @TweettheSouth.

When You’re Lookin’ at Her, You’re Lookin’ at History

Note: This blog post first appeared on the UNC Press Blog on March 21, 2011. I post it here in honor of Loretta Lynn who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom this past week.

Loretta Lynn, Charlotte, NC, March 2011.
Loretta Lynn, Charlotte, NC, March 2011.

Whenever I visit the Thirsty Beaver, a local honky tonk in my neighborhood in Charlotte, I always find something new on the wall that catches my attention—a velvet Hank Jr. picture here, a child-size set of overalls done in Hee Haw fabric there. This time, it was a metal serving tray on which there was an image of Loretta Lynn.  Someone heard me comment on it and offered that Ms. Lynn’s tour would be coming to town.  I was so excited by that news that on the day the tickets went on sale, I beat a path to the ticket counter and had seats on the third row with a great view of the Queen of Country Music.

She sounded terrific as she sang hit after hit, and as I looked around the audience I noted that while there was strong representation from the senior set, there were also people who ran the gamut in age from teens through middle age.  My mother saw her in concert with Conway Twitty years ago, and here I was, a generation later, thrilled to hear her perform.  Loretta Lynn has experienced something of a renaissance.  Her work with Jack White, who produced her Grammy award-winning album Van Lear Rose (2004), as well as 2010’s tribute album marking her fifty years in country music, has garnered new fans for Lynn. Having her songs covered by artists ranging from young country music’s Carrie Underwood to rockers Paramore is indicative of Lynn’s broad appeal.

I also realized as I sat there enjoying her music and singing along with favorites like “Fist City” and “You’re Lookin’ at Country,” that I was bearing witness to a woman who serves as a link to country music’s past and its future.  Her first singing partner was Ernest Tubb, an icon of early country music, and her most recent partner was Miranda Lambert who, along with Sheryl Crow, re-recorded “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

Loretta Lynn should also be understood as an important figure in women’s history.  Since she emerged on the country music scene in the early 1960s, she’s been unafraid of speaking on issues that affect women, though hers is more of a working-class feminism.  Her song “The Pill,” controversial for a country music artist, spoke of reproductive choice and being able to decide (through birth control pills) when to be pregnant.  “One’s On the Way” about those stream of pregnancies, also showed Lynn’s keen observation about how different the lives of women “here in Topeka,” (or any other small town for that matter) were from the feminists about whom we often read, write, and teach as these lyrics demonstrate:

The girls in New York City they all march for women’s lib
And Better Homes and Gardens shows the modern way to live
And the pill may change the world tomorrow but meanwhile today
Here in Topeka the flies are a buzzin’
The dog is a barkin’ and the floor needs a scrubbin’
One needs a spankin’ and one needs a huggin’ Lord one’s on the way

As we mark Loretta Lynn’s 50th anniversary in country music, I think it’s important to recognize her not only for her contributions to country music, but also for her role in women’s history as a troubadour for working-class women everywhere.

Who’s Gonna Fill Your Shoes, George Jones?

News recently broke that George Jones, whose distinctive voice and behavior made him a legend in country music, died today at the age of 81.  I have fond memories of listening to his music with my Maw Maw Crum back in West Virginia.  His nicknames “the possum” and “No Show Jones” hinted at his looks and the impact his alcoholism had on his performances.  Yet no one can dismiss his unique voice or his impact on country music.  Rest in Peace, George Jones.

Reese Witherspoon and the Fallibility of the Southern Woman as “America’s Sweetheart”

Celebrity culture is an interesting phenomenon.  We come to know a celebrity’s public persona and many people assume they “know” the person.  And in some cases, the celebrity assumes that “the people” know him or her.

Reese Witherspoon's "sweet" mugshot.
Reese Witherspoon‘s “sweet” mugshot.

Enter Reese Witherspoon, or better yet a drunk Reese Witherspoon, whose celebrity persona is “America’s sweetheart.”  Except that this past week the nation learned something about her true personality when, while driving in Atlanta, her husband James Toth was pulled over and arrested for drunk driving.  She was in the passenger seat and instead of keeping calm and letting the officers do their job she got out of the car to announce to the officer “Do you know my name?” This was followed by “You’re about to find out. . .”  Blah, blah, I’m an entitled Hollywood actress who should get special treatment and I have lawyers.  Um, Reese, this is being videotaped.

Since this is a blog about the South, I wonder why it is that southern women often get the title of “America’s sweetheart?” We’ve had Mary Lou Retton (West Virginia), Julia Roberts (Georgia), Taylor Swift (from rural Pennsylvania–also known as North Alabama–and in country music she might as well be from the South), Britney Spears (Louisiana) and Reese Witherspoon (Tennessee). There have also been a number of beauty queens from the South who’ve won Miss America.

After shaving her head, Britney Spears had this "umbrella incident."
After shaving her head, Britney Spears had this “umbrella incident.”

I have a theory that white southern women who supposedly exhibit a certain feminine innocence and charm, not unlike the southern belles of old, are still held up as models of femininity for the nation.  Even if their private behavior isn’t innocent, very often their public personas suggest that they are well-behaved, models of traditional womanhood.  So, when they show their human frailties (Britney Spears) or that they aren’t sweet at all (Reese Witherspoon) it seems like they’ve taken a big tumble from their pedestals.  Except they shouldn’t have been placed there to begin with. It’s a precarious perch and they were bound to fall.

It is inherently problematic to assign southern women the title of “America’s sweetheart.” Southern women are not the mythic creatures of traditional femininity, nor do they embody the behavior that Americans and the media continue to portray them as having.  They are, like other American women, fallible human beings who can sometimes behave poorly.

“Accidental Racist”: Brad Paisley & LL Cool J’s Folly

Brad Paisley‘s controversial new song “Accidental Racist” is causing a media stir and backlash creating what is euphemistically called a “shit storm.” Essentially, the song is that of a good ol’ boy who wants to show his southern pride and not have to apologize to the black guy who is waiting on him at Starbucks for doing so.  He’s “just a white man, living in the Southland” who wants to wear his red shirt emblazoned with that innocuous symbol (not), the Confederate battle flag, because really, he’s just a fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd and his generation didn’t own slaves. Damn, Brad, even Lynyrd Skynyrd attempted to remove the flag from their concerts because of the flag’s ugly history–you know, the one associated not just with slavery, but with segregation and let’s not forget the Ku Klux Klan.  Although in the end, Skynyrd’s legions of white fans shamed them into keeping it because it’s about “heritage, not hate.”

This is essentially Brad Paisley’s argument.  Poor guy feels caught between “southern blame” and “southern pride.”  Well, Brad, there’s a good reason for that and if you had done your homework, which you said you’re just doing now in order to defend yourself, you wouldn’t have written lyrics asking a black man to give you a pass for wearing that battle flag on your t-shirt with all of the political baggage that it carries.  And why THAT symbol of southern pride above all others? Can’t you pick another one? Did you have to choose the one co-opted by hate groups? And why is a guy from the northern neck of West Virginia defending his southern pride?

And teaming up with LL Cool J did not help matters.  He’s drifted a long way from “Mama Said Knock You Out,” which would have been a more appropriate response to Paisley’s lyrics.  Instead, he joins in with ridiculous rhymes of his own like “The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin'” and “If you don’t judge my do-rag, I won’t judge your red flag.” LL, don’t you think you’re making a sweeping generalization suggesting that all black men wear do-rags and gold chains? Then, incredulously, he gives a shout out to Robert E. Lee, offering a “RIP.”

Take a listen.

The one line LL has correct is “can’t re-write history, baby.”  No, you can’t. And these two men should have familiarized themselves with the history of this country and of contentious symbols like that “red flag” before releasing this song.