Scholars Muse About Country Music

A band of scholars subjected country music to a health check this past week and concluded the format is flawed but still fascinating. The diagnosis took place at the 19th annual International Country Music Conference held Thursday to Saturday (May 30-June 1) at Belmont University in Nashville.

“Being that country music sucks anymore,” asserted comedienne and banjoist Roni Stoneman, “that makes people like me more valuable.” Stoneman, whom many will remember as the gap-toothed, hair-curlered, iron-wielding harridan on Hee Haw, didn’t seem to be entirely serious in her withering assessment — but she wasn’t just joking, either.

Stoneman appeared at the conference in league with Dr. Ellen Wright of Northwestern University who is writing the performer’s biography. It is tentatively titled Didya Ever Iron a Dress With a Light Bulb? Wright didn’t have a chance to elaborate on her subject, however, once the irrepressible Stoneman took the floor and began telling stories about her pioneering musical family. All the professor could do from that point on was watch and listen with amused wonder.

One of Stoneman’s most affecting tales was about the Stonemans winning a talent contest in 1947 at Washington, D. C.’s Constitution Hall which landed them a long-term guest spot on a local television station. At the time, she was nine years old. Before the contest got underway, she said she wandered into a dressing room and encountered a man whitening his eyebrows and gluing on a mustache. Her mother rushed in, apologized and attempted to shoo her from the room. But the man assured Mrs. Stoneman that the little girl wasn’t bothering him. He even offered to buy her a hot dog. Stoneman said she could tell by his old, weathered, ill-fitting boots that he was “one of us.” The stranger, of course, turned out to be the already famous Grandpa Jones who was on the bill as a guest attraction. A quarter of a century later, he and Stoneman would be among Hee Haw’s comic mainstays. Stoneman noted that she and her family were on television before they ever saw a television set.

“Obviously I chose to go with oral history [for this biography],” Wright said afterward, “and you can see the reason why.”

Ronnie Pugh, the former reference librarian at the Country Music Foundation who is now with the Nashville Public Library, previewed a segment from his forthcoming book on country music and politics. It focused on a recording made for Columbia Records in Atlanta in 1931 that opposed Prohibition. Attributed to a singer called “Happy Jack” and set to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the song is called “I’m Only Suggesting This.” Pugh, who played the song twice for the audience, explained why it was a perfect model of political rhetoric, even though it was too obscure to have had much to do with the repeal of Prohibition, which would occur two years later.

Pugh lamented that he had not been able to trace down Happy Jack’s identity. Then, in one of those moments that occur only during assemblies of fanatics, Dr. Charles Wolfe raised his hand to say that Happy Jack sounded a lot like Dan Hornsby, who managed Columbia’s Atlanta studio at the time the recording was made and who occasionally sang on records anonymously. Wolfe, who teaches at Middle Tennessee State University, even ventured the name of the musician who was playing steel guitar behind the singer.

Dr. Don Cusic, a professor at Belmont University, explained how he had briefly managed the western music group Riders in the Sky shortly after it was organized in the late 1970s. Cusic is writing a history of the Riders and credited them with “revitalizing the western music scene.” That revitalization, he continued, is evident in the growth of cowboy music and poetry festivals. He maintained that the trio’s superior musicianship, as well as its stewardship of the cowboy music format, gives it a chance of eventually being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. “They’ve never been stars,” he said, “but they’ve somehow become legends.”

Dr. Richard Peterson, recently retired from Vanderbilt University, told how the Internet has created virtual communities that support the spread of alternative country music. Members of these communities, he said, are united in their contempt of the country music now being made in Nashville, preferring grittier, bleaker and more blue-collar sounds and poses. These fans, he added, are extremely well-versed in music, opinionated and argumentative — all qualities that raise the excitement level for the music they admire. He cited Wayne Hancock, Gillian Welch and Iris DeMent as examples of the performers these cranky fans favor.

Other subjects covered during the conference included Willie Nelson ’s duet recordings, pop singer Tom Jones’ foray into country music, the songwriting team of Jim McBride and Alan Jackson, the 75th anniversary of the Bristol Sessions (at which the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers made their first recordings), Tex Ritter’s run for the U. S. Senate, country music in the movies, the night Hank Williams died, early country radio, regionally popular country performers and country music’s Scottish roots.

Dr. James Akenson, of Tennessee Technological University, gave one of the most delightful and optimistic presentations, in which he demonstrated how country music can be integrated into the classroom. He played a video that showed him teaching a geography lesson to third graders in which he used Lefty Frizzell ’s recording of “Saginaw, Michigan.” Each time Frizzell uttered the name of that city, the students pointed as one to its place on the Michigan peninsula (peninsula being the particular geographical concept they were studying). Akenson was also able to work in Frizzell’s references in the song to Alaska, goldmining and deception. The most amusing part, however, was when Akenson asked the class to recite the saying that Frizzell had made “world famous,” to which the tots roared, “If you’ve got the money, honey, I’ve got the time!”

Maybe country music has a future after all.