CfP: Real Country? Geographic, Cultural and Stylistic Challenges to the Country Music Genre

International Symposium
Real Country? Geographic, Cultural and Stylistic Challenges to the Country Music Genre
November 13-14, 2013 – Strasbourg, France
Abstract deadline: September 1, 2013

In 2006, an article in the Observer Music Monthly stated, “Country is often seen as the whitest, most segregated of all styles: the redneck soundtrack of the racist South.” First marketed as „old time,“ then as „hillbilly music“ by northeastern music executives in the 1920s and 1930s country music has been branded with the same stereotypes as its region of origin. Perceived as conventional, vulgar and conservative, it has been charged with wallowing in easy patriotism and mawkish sentimentality, based on a homesickness for a lost agrarian past which at times slips into an unquestioning fondness for pre-Civil War Dixie.

Yet country music is hardly homogeneous. For every mainstream singer there are thousands of alternative bands on the margins, challenging conventions and expectations – if only to make their existence more visible. The American South’s geographic monopoly on the music has been challenged time and time again by new local scenes, and there are now country music fans and festivals throughout the world. Yet most country music festivals include line dancing, rodeos and barbecue food, which makes such events imports more than variations on an appropriated tradition. Can the globalization of country truly challenge geographical stereotypes, or does it ingrain them a bit deeper into the fabric of the music?

While there is a strong iconoclast tradition in country music, the artists that depart from the norm seem to face considerable backlash from the music’s establishment. Was the outraged reaction to Brad Paisley’s ‘Accidental Racist‘ only informed by the naivete and awkwardness of the song? During a 2003 show in London that has all but saturated debates on the politics on country, Nathalie Maines, the singer for the Dixie Chicks, stated that the group was „ashamed that the President of the United States (was) from Texas.“ This constituted a clear departure from the attitude of mainstream singers like Toby Keith, who insisted he was proud to be an American right after 9/11 in ‚Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.‘ But the Dixie Chicks were subsequently banned from many country radio stations, heeding the 21% of listeners who according to pollsters didn’t want to hear the band anymore. In this respect, the country music establishment must be distinguished from the audience: since the incident, the Dixie Chicks have become the top selling all-female band and the biggest selling country group in the United States in the history of the Nielsen SoundScan.

As a reaction to Nashville’s politically acceptable standardized stars and records, alt-country and insurgent country have injected dynamism into the genre, and reminded it of its long history of fusing with other musical styles. There once was such a thing as „country funk“ (see Light in the Attic Record’s 2012 compilation Country Funk 1969-1975), and Willie Nelson, the iconic Austin outlaw, recorded a reggae album. Many soul and rhythm-and-blues singers covered country songs and were inspired by the genre, as evidenced by Ray Charles’s 1962 Modern Sounds in Country and Western – which also reflects the many African-American contributions to country. Even under segregation, country was never entirely a white man’s business. The genre has drawn from African-American sounds through gospel and direct contact between white and black musicians. As such, the contribution of black artists cannot be underestimated, from Tee Tot, the black street musician who taught Hank Williams how to play guitar, to Deford Bailey and Charley Pride. Yet today the Black Country Music Association’s main purpose is to help black singers get employment through showcase gigs in an industry that leaves little room for them. Is country as sexist, racist, and homophobic as it is portrayed to be? When Chely Wright came out on the Today Show in 2010, she explained her not talking about her sexual orientation earlier by the fact that it may have hurt her career: „I knew that I needed to hide this to achieve my dreams.“ Is the existence of the Lesbian and Gay Country Music Association a proof of visibility or of the necessity for gay country artists to unite against a conservative industry? When New York Times journalist Jon Caramanica defends Brad Paisley and Chely Wright against the Nashville establishment, should we applaud the move, or should we consider such articles as yet another attack on the genre and a perpetuation of stereotypes? Papers on the representations of country music in the media will be welcome.

This symposium will aim at debunking the stereotypes of country music to expose the contradictions of the genre. It will include three panels in relation to the opposition between the centers and the margins of country music: the geographical tensions (geographic origins of artists, scenes, but also representations such as the image of the cowboy, of the redneck or of the hillbilly in song lyrics as well as dress styles or imagery), cultural (politics, religion, gender, LGBT issues, ethnicity and class), and stylistic (mixing of musical traditions, commercial strategies, majors vs. indies). Throughout these panels, we will try and define the margins of country music as well as their relation to the center and their role in the definition of the genre itself: do they constitute a real threat to conventions, or can they at best confirm the presence and inflexibility of the rules?

The symposium will take place in Strasbourg, France, in the country-friendly Alsace region, on November 13 and 14, 2013. Abstracts (no longer than 500 words) should be sent to Bernard Genton (bgenton@unistra.fr) and Elsa Grassy (grassy@unistra.fr) before September 1, 2013.

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