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date: 31 October 2020

The “Southernness” of Country Music

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents an overview of Bill C. Malone’s “southern thesis,” as first articulated in his 1968 study, Country Music, U.S.A.: A Fifty-Year History, and examines the influential role that this regional interpretation has played in shaping country music scholarship. The chapter surveys some of the major trends in the scholarly literature over the past five decades regarding the music’s perceived southernness. It explores Malone’s problematic presentation of the American South as an exceptional region rooted in a unique rural folk culture, and the resulting historiographical debates. The chapter also identifies some significant topical and interpretative lacunae that now pervade the country music scholarship as a result of Malone’s interpretation, and suggests several approaches to rectifying these omissions, including reinterpreting prewar country music as a commercial product of a modern, urban-industrial America and focusing attention on the American regional traditions and musical tributaries that contributed to its creation.

Keywords: country music, folk culture, historiography, Bill C. Malone, southern exceptionalism, southern thesis

That hillbilly music is a phenomenon solely of the South in general and of the Southern Appalachians in particular is a myth in the best sense of the word. The myth has had its factual aspects—that the music was first recorded in the South, that the musical style was originally Southern. But … [e]‌arly hillbilly performers came not only from the lowland and upland South, but from the Great Plains and the Midwest—and eventually New England, Nova Scotia, and Alberta. That the first important hillbilly radio show originated in Chicago cannot be explained solely by the presence of Southern migrants. Its manifestation was of the South; its essence was of rural America. Southern hillbilly music seems but a specialized and dominant form of a widespread music. …

—D. K. Wilgus, “An Introduction to the Study of Hillbilly Music” (1965)

*Guest editor D. K. Wilgus penned these often-quoted words in his introduction to the 1965 “Hillbilly Issue” of the Journal of American Folklore. Arguably, that landmark issue launched country music studies as a scholarly enterprise, and from its beginning, as Wilgus’s statement makes clear, scholars have grappled with the genre’s regional origins and identity. Of course, since the mid-1920s, record companies and, to a lesser degree, radio barn dance programs, had portrayed hillbilly music, as it was then called, as an expression of the rural American South, particularly a Mountain South. Years later, in formulating their interpretations of the music, many of the first generation of country music scholars embraced this nostalgic idea. But Wilgus cautioned his colleagues to resist the alluring myth of country music’s southernness, and instead argued for approaching the genre as a widely dispersed rural folk music that flourished throughout the United States and even parts of Canada.1 Despite his pronouncement, however, (p. 32) scholars have, over the decades, insisted that this genre is essentially a commercialized form of the traditional white folk music of the rural American South, and that romantic convention now pervades the historiography. Today, the premise that country music is, and always has been, distinctly southern stands as one of the cornerstones of country music studies.

Since the inception of country music studies, its narratives and historiography have been profoundly shaped by the idea of the American South. Specifically, country music studies relies on the scholarly convention of “southern exceptionalism”: the belief that the American South developed outside the main currents of American history, and therefore its past and its culture are separate and distinct from those of the national experience.2 For more than a half-century now, southern exceptionalism has animated southern historiography and has provided many scholars with a conceptual framework for explaining what they perceive as the region’s peculiar history and culture. In recent years, however, this concept has drawn mounting criticism. As editors Matthew D. Lassiter and Joseph Crespino argued in The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism (2010), “the notion of the exceptional South has served as a myth, one that has persistently distorted our understanding of American history.”3 Nevertheless, while under attack in other academic quarters, southern exceptionalism continues to flourish within country music studies in the form of what Roderick J. Roberts, writing in 1978, first identified as the “southern thesis”—that is, the idea that this genre of music developed chiefly out of the traditional white folk music of the rural American South and that it is therefore intrinsically southern.4 Unfortunately, this interpretive concept has a limited, even closed off, examination of certain subjects within the scholarship, resulting in a parochial understanding of country music’s commercial origins and development. Despite its widespread currency within both scholarly and popular discourse, the southern thesis remains problematic, and, over the years, it has sparked, and continues to spark, heated debate.

In this chapter, I examine the longstanding concept of the southern thesis and its influential role in shaping country music scholarship. To do so, I survey some of the major trends that have emerged in the field over the past five decades regarding the perceived southernness of the music. Certainly, the nationalization and, indeed, globalization of country music since World War II have raised important questions about the regional origins and identity of the music. This chapter, however, focuses chiefly on prewar recorded country music, because it was during the formative period between 1922 and 1942 that this genre of commercial music first came to be defined as southern. Moreover, although radio broadcasts and stage shows contributed to country music’s popularization, it was primarily the US recording industry that transformed this music into a discrete genre of American commercial music and, in the process, regionalized it.5 The chapter then goes on to examine some significant topical and interpretative lacunae in the existing scholarship, before concluding with a consideration of some areas that may yield productive research in the future.

(p. 33) The “Southern Thesis”

Since at least the late 1950s, folklorists and other scholars have associated country music with the American South.6 It was historian Bill C. Malone, however, who, in his now-classic study, Country Music, U.S.A.: A Fifty-Year History (1968), first articulated, and remains most closely identified with, the southern thesis. “Modern American country music,” Malone wrote in the first line of his opening chapter, “emerged out of the varied social and musical currents of the South.”7 Oddly, though, he failed to define this wellspring culture region explicitly, in that first as well as in subsequent editions of Country Music, U.S.A.8 But, not unlike the first generation of country blues scholars who preceded him, Malone constructed a grand theory for the historical origins and development of an entire genre of American popular music based on the concept of a distinctive southern rural folk culture, an idea that borrowed heavily from decades of regionalist sociological and, especially, folklore scholarship.9 “Commercial country music developed out of the folk culture of the rural South,” Malone asserted, and then went on to argue that “[t]‌he music developed lineally out of the rural styles of the past, and the bulk of its performers today, in point of origin, are southerners who came from farms or small towns or who are only a generation away from a farm background.”10

Malone also drew, to a lesser extent, on the scholarship of southern history, and in formulating his southern thesis, he identified the specific historical conditions in the American South that gave rise to prewar recorded country music, including a population composed predominantly of white, Anglo-Celtic Protestants—“an agricultural economy” based on African American slavery, a cultural conservatism and commitment to the preservation of tradition, and a “rural way of life.”11 As a result of these combined historical influences, Malone envisioned the American South to be an exceptional place, a land that stood outside of, or at least deviated sharply from, the nation’s mainstream—though, as he conceded, its folk music was deeply influenced by music from outside the region. Anglo-Celtic musical traditions that had once been widespread throughout colonial British North America “endured in the South long after they had ceased to be important elsewhere.” Moreover, “only in the South did they contribute to the creation of a lasting regional music.”12 Later, in Southern Music/American Music (1979), Malone extended his southern thesis to argue that much of American popular music, including jazz and blues, also emerged directly from southern rural folk music.13

From Malone’s southern thesis, several important arguments flowed. Not only did country music represent a commercialized extension of rural southern folk music, but much of the music’s identity and historical development could be explained by its southernness. First, Malone argued that, prior to World War II, the audience for country music consisted almost exclusively of rural and small-town Southerners and, to a lesser degree, Midwesterners.14 Second, he attributed the eventual diffusion of the music across the United States and much of the globe to a southern diaspora. Country music “became a national phenomenon” during World War II, he argued, chiefly as a (p. 34) result of the large-scale migration of Southerners to military bases and defense plants in Midwestern and West Coast cities. In the following decades, during the Cold War, southern servicemen stationed at military bases overseas helped further spread the popularity of the music to Germany, Japan, and other nations around the world.15 Malone’s southern migration theory proved to be an appealing and influential model, and many subsequent studies have adopted its basic premise to account for the national spread of country music, especially during the “Okie migration” of the Great Depression, including James N. Gregory’s The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of White and Black Southerners Transformed America (2005), Gerald W. Haslam’s Workin’ Man Blues: Country Music in California (1999), and Peter La Chapelle’s Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Migration to Southern California (2007).16

With the publication of Country Music, U.S.A., the southern thesis soon gained widespread currency within the field of country music studies and beyond. Its acceptance resulted from the book’s scholarly authority and remarkable comprehensiveness, combined with several other factors, including a dearth of competing conceptual frameworks. But as an “origins myth,” the southern thesis also provided an attractive explanation for the birth and development of country music. Informed by an impressive array of historical and folkloristic methodologies, it confirmed what many scholars, journalists, and music fans already believed to be true—that country music was, and is, a product principally of the rural American South. Much of the southern thesis, after all, mirrored the fabricated but appealing regionalized history and imagery of the music propagated by the record companies and radio barn dance programs of the 1920s and 1930s. By and large, succeeding scholars have followed Malone’s interpretive lead, producing monographs that focus on country music in particular southern (or quasi-southern) regions, states, and, in some cases, cities, while also connecting the music intrinsically to rural southern folk culture. Among the more noteworthy of these works are Charles K. Wolfe’s Tennessee Strings: The Story of Country Music in Tennessee (1977) and his Kentucky Country: Folk and Country Music of Kentucky (1982); Ivan M. Tribe’s Mountaineer Jamboree: Country Music in West Virginia (1984); Wayne W. Daniel’s Pickin’ on Peachtree: A History of Country Music in Atlanta, Georgia (1990); and Jean A. Boyd’s The Jazz of the Southwest: An Oral History of Western Swing (1998).17 To be sure, this group of local and regional studies undermined, to a degree, Malone’s premise of a cohesive American South and its pan-southern folk culture by highlighting the social and cultural variations that existed in specific southern locations. In the end, however, most of these studies adhered to the prevailing scholarly interpretation of country music as an inherently southern music derived primarily from rural folk culture.

Other scholars from a variety of academic fields, including sociology and cultural geography, have reaffirmed the southern thesis. Sociologists Richard A. Peterson and Russell Davis Jr., for example, provided quantitative support for the theory in their frequently cited 1975 Journal of Country Music article, “The Fertile Crescent of Country Music.” Based on their study of the birthplaces of 416 “country music notables,” Peterson and Davis concluded that “the South has been, and still is, the cradle of country music,” with nearly 80% of the artists surveyed hailing from what the authors famously described (p. 35) as “the fertile crescent of country music,” a region “beginning with West Virginia in the northeast continuing south and west encompassing most of the Southeast, as well as including Texas and Oklahoma.”18 Moreover, the authors also endorsed Malone’s assertion of the rural roots of the music, citing data that revealed that “country music has been and continues to be most often produced by performers born in rural areas and small towns.”19 While Malone, along with Peterson and Davis, focused on the regional origins of country music performers or musical styles, in the mid-1970s, other scholars began to examine different aspects that also ostensibly demonstrated the music’s southernness. Some, for example, mapped the regional concentration of country music radio stations and audiences, whereas others identified “southern” themes and references in song lyrics.20

Meanwhile, Malone has continued to refine his southern thesis in three revised editions of Country Music, U.S.A. (1985, 2002, and 2010) and in other studies, articulating it with greater nuance and sophistication but always maintaining the central validity of his premise.21 For example, in his contribution “The South and Country Music” to The Encyclopedia of Country Music: The Ultimate Guide to the Music (1998), Malone admitted that, while “[i]‌t may seem foolhardy to attribute a southern identity to country music when we note the music’s strength everywhere in the United States and throughout the world,” the music nonetheless “has always had a special relationship with the South.”22 But in reaffirming the intellectual soundness of the southern thesis, Malone and other scholars have been forced to perform a delicate balancing act, arguing for the essential southernness of country music while simultaneously acknowledging all the ways in which this music has been, at least since the late 1960s, national and even international in scope and content.23 Malone and other southern thesis adherents now acknowledge that country music embodies a certain ambiguous geographical identity, and the relationship of this music to region and nation remains in constant tension, sometimes more “southern” than American, other times more American than “southern,” depending on the historical period under discussion—all of which has resulted in a sort of intellectual confusion that undercuts the authority of the southern thesis as a coherent interpretive model. Indeed, as Malone conceded in 1979 in Southern Music/American Music, “Southern styles have become so enmeshed in American popular culture that it is now impossible to determine where their southernness ends and their Americanism begins.”24

Critiques of the Southern Thesis

Today, most standard histories of country music still echo Malone’s southern thesis, but over the decades a handful of academic and popular writers have strongly criticized this interpretive concept. Beginning in the late 1960s, as country music underwent another surge of national popularity, some sociologists and journalists challenged its enduring southernness. Without denying that country music may have once been a southern (p. 36) music that reflected the perspective and values of white Southerners, these writers tacitly embraced the massification thesis of Theodor Adorno and other “Frankfurt school” theorists, arguing that, by the late 1960s, the homogenizing effects of mass culture had so eroded the diversity of regional cultures in the United States that the music and its audience no longer bore much of an intrinsic relationship to the American South.25 Writing in 1975, for example, Richard A. Peterson and Russell J. Davis contended that, although “its fans come from all walks of life,” country music’s core audience consisted of “middle-aged, white, working-class people irrespective of whether they live in small towns, rural areas, or large cities. Moreover, most of these people have never lived in the crescent-shaped homeland of country music.”26 In explaining contemporary country music’s growing national appeal, Peterson and Davis, along with several other critics of the southern thesis, implicitly advanced what might be described as a competing “Americanization of Dixie” thesis. This argument asserted that, as a result of the gathering momentum of postwar regional transformations and the increasing encroachment of powerful technologies and mass culture, the American South was converging with the rest of the nation socially, culturally, and economically. Significantly, this argument represented the inverse of the “southernization of America” thesis to which Malone and his allies implicitly subscribed.27 Such arguments, it is also worth noting, reflected broader debates in southern historiography at the time when the postwar rise of the Sun Belt and the dismantling of Jim Crow segregation prompted historians to argue whether, as John B. Boles framed the question, the American South was “persisting as a distinct region or vanishing into a great homogenous American culture.”28

Scholars and journalists who championed the concept of homogenization steadily chipped away at the southern thesis during the 1970s and even, as we have seen, forced advocates of the southernness of country music to modify some of their claims as it applied to the postwar history of the music. The most influential and forceful critics of the southern thesis, however, consisted of what I call the “regional revisionists,” a group of primarily folklorists that includes Simon J. Bronner, Roderick J. Roberts, Neil V. Rosenberg, George H. Lewis, Peter Narváez, and, more recently, Paul L. Tyler and Clifford R. Murphy.29 Since the mid-1970s, they have attempted to challenge Malone’s southern thesis, though sometimes only implicitly, by documenting various regional country music traditions that thrived outside the American South before World War II. None of these critics denied the preeminent role of that region in the origins and development of commercial country music. Rather, they took exception to Malone’s argument of a singular country music tradition developing from an exceptional folk culture that existed only in the American South. Writing in his 1978 Journal of Country Music article titled “An Introduction to the Study of Northern Country Music,” Roderick J. Roberts disputed “the Malone premise that in the romantic, mystical cauldron of the South, the imported Anglo-Celtic musical tradition boiled and bubbled, catalyzing in some unique fashion, while throughout the rest of the nation the bemused immigrants blithely forgot their music.”30 If a rural folk culture was prevalent throughout the American South, as Malone asserted, it was never confined solely to that region, these scholars countered, and, in fact, similar grassroots musical traditions flourished (p. 37) throughout the United States and much of Canada, including in New York State, New England, the American Midwest, and even in British Columbia and the Canadian Maritimes. For Roberts, commercial country music “represented one regional development of a deeper underlying Anglo-Celtic tradition that reacted to differing influences in different areas of the continent.”31

Although the scholarly debate about country music’s southernness raged most fiercely between the mid-1970s and the late 1980s, this issue remains one of the primary ongoing concerns of country music studies and recently has been taken up by a new generation of multidisciplinary scholars. In 2014, in one example of how this issue continues to engage scholars, the Journal of American Folklore published a “Country Music” special issue that featured four articles devoted to a reconsideration of the southernness of country music—with Bill C. Malone, among other respondents, offering commentary.32 That same year, Clifford R. Murphy, one of that issue’s contributors, published an extended rejoinder to the southern thesis in his book, Yankee Twang: Country and Western Music in New England (2014). Following a long parade of regional revisionists, Murphy argued that “New England—indeed, much of the North American continent—has a long, rich history and tradition of country and western music that dates back as far as that of its famous southern counterpart.” However, that New England musical tradition, he lamented, “has been buried under a mountain of corporate propaganda that wants you to believe that country music is an exclusively southern cultural export.”33 In challenging the southern thesis, then, Murphy and other regional revisionists advanced what might be termed an “American thesis” or, in some cases, a “North American thesis” for the origins and historical development of commercial country music.

Of all the regional revisionist studies published since the mid-1970s, undoubtedly the most influential have been those of Simon J. Bronner, who in his 1987 book, Old-Time Music Makers of New York State, and a series of preceding articles, offered the most direct and compelling challenge to Malone’s southern thesis. Without denying “the large shadow cast by the South over country music,” Bronner insisted that the history of country music was “a more complicated story than the outline that has been previously drawn in works such as Malone’s of a national musical foliage growing from a single southern root.”34 Bronner also criticized what he called Malone’s “migration thesis,” which, as we have seen, attributed the growing national popularity of country music during World War II to a southern diaspora, while ignoring similar grassroots musical traditions in other regions that could also help account for the nationalization of country music.35 In the end, Bronner concluded “that the story of old-time music is not a simple plot of a nationalization of southern music, as Malone has called its development into country music, but rather it is a saga of complex regionalization, and later commercialization, out of the folkways of a nationwide regional experience.”36

Collectively, the regional revisionists attempted to reorient the scholarship of country music beyond the American South, and their examinations of how local musical and cultural practices shaped the development of regional music traditions have served to complicate prevailing understandings of country music in both its vernacular and its commercial forms. But these scholars nevertheless remained trapped within Malone’s (p. 38) conceptual framework. In making their cases for a more complex, multiregional history of country music, they adopted both Malone’s definition of the music as a rural, folk-derived music and his theoretical paradigm for its historical development, and then simply transposed them onto other states or regions. Writing in Old-Time Music Makers of New York State, for example, Bronner agreed with Malone about the “historical conditions that helped to perpetuate a rurally based music that later developed into country music”; but he disputed Malone’s claims “that these conditions and the old-time music associated with them are unique to the South.”37 As communications studies scholar Brian Rusted has noted of Malone’s critics, “Rather than saying that the problem is in how he conceives of place, their challenges reframe his southern thesis as a sin of omission. … For all intents and purposes, the spatial accounts of country music by authors following and even critical of Malone’s thesis are the same: only the region and the names of the performers have changed.”38 In the end, then, much of this revisionist scholarship is constrained by the same conceptual frameworks of region and folk culture found in the very argument it sought to overturn. So far, despite this still-growing body of literature, the fundamental outlines of the southern thesis remain largely undisturbed.

Whether it be the American South, the Midwest, New York State, the Canadian Maritimes, or elsewhere, geography remains central to country music studies, and much of its scholarship, including studies of both historical and contemporary traditions, reflects a local or regional approach (See Jada Watson’s chapter 5 on cultural geography in this volume).39 Even “country music” and especially its former marketing label, “country and western music,” conveys a sense of place. In his provocative chapter in Challenging Frontiers: The Canadian West (2004), however, Brian Rusted questioned the fundamental usefulness of geographical place as an analytical tool for understanding the history of this music because of what he described as “the ambivalent relation between the spatialized performance of traditional country music and its recording and subsequent deterritorialized diffusion.”40 Instead, Rusted advanced the concept (borrowed from cultural anthropologist George Marcus) that “culture is increasingly deterritorialized.” As Rusted, quoting from a 1994 article by Marcus, explained, “many cultural phenomena and processes can no longer be contained by the conventions that fix place as the most distinctive dimension of culture. Merely historicizing local culture … or describing the depth and richness of tradition fails to capture the side of culture that travels, its production in multiple, parallel, and simultaneous worlds of variant connection.”41 In introducing this concept of “deterritorialized” culture to country music studies, Rusted subverted the fundamental premise of Malone’s southern thesis and, significantly, pointed the way toward a more nuanced and satisfying interpretative model for understanding the origins and development of commercial country music.

As Rusted indicated, the regional focus of Malone’s southern thesis remains riddled with problematic assumptions. Not only does this concept tend to ignore or downplay the ways in which highly mobile, mass-mediated cultural elements traverse space and time to become embedded in multiple local cultures, but it also obscures the resulting connections of those cultures across regional and even national borders. To be sure, (p. 39) Malone attempted to present rural southern folk culture historically as neither static nor isolated.42 He recognized, for example, that country music “has absorbed styles, songs, instruments, and influences from a multitude of nonwhite and noncountry sources.”43 In particular, he stressed the myriad northern, urban influences on southern folk music. Chief among these were nineteenth-century songs derived from the minstrel stage and popular songwriters, and Malone later elaborated on the profound influence that this body of songs exerted on country music in a long chapter in Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers: Southern Culture and the Roots of Country Music (1993).44 Nevertheless, despite countless examples of adaptations and borrowings of such songs and even in the face of the disruptive forces of technology and commercialization, Malone insisted that rural southern folk music somehow remained distinctly “southern.”45 But if, as he conceded in the first revised edition of Country Music, U.S.A., “much of this music came from nonsouthern sources, a very large percentage, in fact, from the North,” then to what degree can we still consider country music, even its prewar traditions, to be intrinsically “southern”?46

Judging from the first decade of commercial recordings, it appears that hillbilly music emerged from the intermingling of local vernacular traditions and an assortment of mass-mediated national and global musics, as Brian Rusted and Karl Hagstrom Miller, among others, have demonstrated.47 Certainly, by the 1920s, as various kinds of commercial music—via sheet music, traveling shows, phonograph records, radio broadcasts, and, eventually, talking motion pictures—circulated throughout the American South and were adapted and reworked within the musical cultures of local communities, they eroded the distinctiveness of Malone’s rural folk culture even as they reshaped it. How else can we account for small-town Southerners such as Frank Hutchison, Jimmie Tarlton, and Howard Dixon who, on prewar hillbilly records, demonstrated a mastery of the Hawaiian steel guitar, an instrumental style created some five thousand miles away on a set of small Pacific Islands? Although these artists’ exposure to the Hawaiian guitar often came to them second-hand, as it were, their fascination with and eventual adoption of this instrument and its attendant style reveals, as musicologist Charles Hiroshi Garrett has noted, “the international, ethnically diverse, and multicultural roots of American music”—in this case, specifically hillbilly music.48 But in presenting the American South as an exceptional region rooted in a persistent and unique, rural folk culture, Malone essentially sealed it off from outside musical influences, although this was not his intention. As a result, his southern thesis obscures much of the cultural interplay and exchange that connected the American South and recorded hillbilly music to a variety of different regions and musical traditions.49 Indeed, his claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the southern thesis actually ends up depicting southern folk culture as relatively static, isolated, and largely unaffected by the mainstream mass culture that had engulfed much of the nation by the 1920s. It is therefore problematic to situate the origins of an entire commercial genre in an imagined, culturally constructed geographical region and its purportedly distinctive folk culture that, by the advent of the hillbilly recording industry, were profoundly implicated in a broader, mass-mediated world of diverse commercial musics.

(p. 40) The “Southern Thesis” and Lacunae in Country Music Scholarship

For nearly five decades now, the southern thesis has structured much of country music scholarship, and as a result of its interpretive dominance, it has inadvertently produced several significant lacunae within the scholarly literature that should be explored. First, and perhaps most obviously, the southern thesis has created a seductive but false dichotomy between an authentic, musically superior, rural folk culture unique to the American South and an inherently inferior, modern, mass-mediated culture common to other regions of the United States.50 Indeed, Malone has argued as much, noting that, during the 1920s, the northern record producers and talent scouts who ventured into the American South found “southern rural music” to be “both different and more interesting than the rural music forms of the North,” and, furthermore, that “southern string bands” in particular possessed a “vitality and rhythmic punch that set them apart from other rural bands in America.”51 In presenting the American South as an exceptional place where a rural folk culture continued to flourish into the 1920s and beyond, Malone established the region as a bastion of folk authenticity and traditionalism in a modernizing nation. It alone, according to him, gave birth to commercial country music and its subregional offshoots of western swing, honky tonk, and bluegrass. The southern thesis, then, is dismissively negative and intrinsically counterproductive because it implies that other regional musical traditions are somehow less significant or culturally resonant than those of the American South. As a result, comparatively few studies of non-southern country musicians and musical traditions have been produced, and those handful that do exist have been marginalized as somehow less relevant to the nearly one-hundred-year development of commercial country music.

At the same time, the southern thesis, with its focus on country music as a commercial variant of rural white folk music, has portrayed hillbilly recording artists as “tradition-bound rural southerners who came of age in the countryside and mountain hollows, often isolated from or little influenced by the main currents of modern urban life and mass culture,” as I argued in Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South (2008).52 Such romanticized portrayals, however, have impeded the advancement of more complex and sophisticated scholarly interpretations of this music as a modern phenomenon produced by residents of an emergent urban-industrial America who were demonstrably influenced by its mass culture.53 Perhaps even worse, these pastoral depictions have also perpetuated pernicious stereotypes of the music and its performers as being artistically and culturally backward. Thus, in the fifth edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (2007), Michael Kennedy and Joyce Bourne Kennedy could define “hillbilly songs” using language that smacks of condescension: “The traditional songs (largely of European origin) of the primitive peoples of the mountain regions (e.g., Appalachians) of the S.E. parts of the USA.”54

(p. 41) The southern thesis has also hampered efforts to chronicle country music’s evolution in more historically accurate ways. Take, for example, the attempt to identify the commercial origins of this music. Today, most scholars credit A. C. “Eck” Robertson and Henry Gilliland’s “Sallie Gooden,” backed with “Arkansaw Traveler,” waxed in June 1922 for Victor, as the first country music record.55 This historic claim, as Simon J. Bronner noted in a 1979 Journal of Country Music article, rests on the premise that this record represented “the first combination of Southern folk music performed by true practitioners of the tradition on commercial recordings catering to a general market.”56 But such a definition excludes the “traditional and ‘old-time’ music present on discs prior to June of 1922,” Bronner argued. In his article, he went on to survey nearly twenty older Edison recordings of the same or similar material by popular artists such as Billy Golden, the Edison Male Quartet, and John J. Kimmel. The only salient difference, it seems, is that these earlier recording artists were not native Southerners who could be considered “true practitioners” of the region’s folk music.57

Furthermore, the interpretation of country music as intrinsically southern has also biased understandings of other aspects of the genre’s history, including the constituency of its prewar audience and the causes for its unprecedented national popularity during World War II. Perhaps less directly, it has also obscured much of the extraordinary ethnic and racial diversity found on hillbilly recordings, particularly African Americans’ significant but largely unrecognized involvement in this genre, due to its emphasis on the Anglo-Celtic folk roots of prewar commercial country music.58 Thus, scholars have tended to ignore or downplay the popular and vernacular musical tributaries from outside of the American South that fed and influenced hillbilly music. All of which is to say that the southern thesis has narrowed the genealogy of the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century sources of this music and closed off a broader, more inclusive discussion of its precommercial roots and commercial origins.

In formulating the southern thesis, Malone helped enshrine the interpretive concepts of “folk” and “traditional” as the touchstones by which to assess the authenticity of country musicians and styles. “One cannot join the ‘folk’; one must be born into the culture,” Malone asserted in the first edition of Country Music U.S.A. Thus, a whole parade of country recording artists and radio entertainers, “[n]‌o matter what their talents might be, and regardless of the skills they might possess in imitating folk styles,” he argued, “can never be considered as authentic folk performers.”59 Although the now outmoded, intrinsically problematic concepts of “folk” and “traditional” have largely been abandoned in folklore studies, they continue to be deployed as evaluative standards within country music studies. For instance, in his 2014 response titled “ ‘The Southern Thesis’: Revisited and Reaffirmed,” in the “Country Music” special issue of the Journal of American Folklore, Malone dismissed professional New York studio singers such as Vernon Dalhart and Carson J. Robison as “imitators of the rural musicians who were beginning to appear in American entertainment at that time.”60 Nevertheless, these so-called citybilly artists made thousands of profitable hillbilly recordings, that were advertised and marketed as such. To marginalize Dalhart, Robison, and other citybillies, who collectively accounted for as much as one-third of the estimated 11,000 hillbilly releases (p. 42) between 1924 and 1932, seems an ahistorical exercise based solely on arbitrary definitions of who and what are authentically “folk” and “traditional.”61

Perhaps the most significant blind spot of Malone’s southern thesis, however, is that it almost completely disregards the business history and commercial dimensions of country music. Since the inception of the field, scholars have largely studied country music in isolation from both the broader history of the US recording industry and of other contemporaneous genres of American popular music, because of their southern-thesis-inspired interpretation of it as essentially a rural southern folk music outside of, and separate from, the commercial world of capitalist imperatives and profit-driven motives.62 As Bill Ivey, then director of the Country Music Foundation, complained in a 1986 review of Malone’s first revised edition of Country Music, U.S.A., “Businessmen, songwriters, and other players have walk-on parts or a quick scene here and there, but the roles of law, institutions, and commercial alliances are virtually ignored.”63 To conceptualize the hillbilly music of the 1920s and 1930s as simply a commercialized variant of southern folk music disregards the numerous ways in which record producers, for example, defined, shaped, and otherwise influenced this music: through, for instance, their decisions regarding the selection of field-recording locations; artists, songs and tunes; release takes; and series assignments. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, record company officials “influenced the scope and sound of hillbilly music in so many ways that it simply cannot be considered a pure, unmediated expression of southern culture.”64 Even though most corporate records of the prewar companies involved in the hillbilly recording industry are no longer extant, some source material regarding the business practices of these early firms do still exist. Few such business histories have been produced, however, and at least some of this inattention can be blamed on scholars’ persistent focus on country music as a rural folk tradition and their attendant preoccupation with chronicling its precommercial folk genealogy.65

Areas for Future Research

The dominance of the southern thesis has inadvertently created gaps in the scholarly literature that now provide significant opportunities for researchers to advance the field of country music studies. For example, since the 1970s, regional revisionists and other scholars have produced biographical studies of various New England and Midwestern fiddlers and string bands who made prewar commercial recordings, including Alanson “Mellie” Dunham, Jasper “Jep” Bisbee, John Baltzell, the Plymouth Vermont Old-Time Dance Orchestra, and John Wilfahrt’s Concertina Orchstra.66 But more studies are needed of such non-southern musicians and of their musical traditions and music scenes, both in historical and contemporary settings, all of which, as Paul L. Tyler has recommended, “should be considered in writing the full history of American country music.”67 Also needed are more detailed and insightful comparative analyses of American regional musical styles, especially “northern” and “southern” fiddling and (p. 43) string band music, so that scholars are equipped with a better sense of what elements constitute these regional styles and what distinguishes them from one another. Scholars should be careful, however, to avoid essentialist arguments in their approach. Terms such as “northern fiddler” or “midwestern string band” are just as intrinsically problematic as “southern musician.” Scholars also need to approach geographical place as more than just what Brian Rusted has called “a mere setting, the nominal locale where certain historical actions occurred.” In particular, scholars must “treat region as a dynamic concept,” as Robert H. Ferguson has advised, in a way that appreciates not only “vibrant cultural exchange” across regional boundaries but also how such interactions link a particular region to other regional, national, and global forms of culture.68 Furthermore, scholars should avoid the inclination to “just add and stir” (to borrow a phrase from women’s studies) non-southern musicians into otherwise conventional, southern-thesis-driven histories. Rather, the inclusion of these musicians requires scholars to, at long last, abandon the southern thesis and to fundamentally reinterpret country music and the multitude of American regional traditions and musical tributaries that contributed to its creation. In short, as regional revisionists have long argued, the time has arrived to embrace the broader, multiregional traditions of American country music and to fully integrate them into a comprehensive, truly national master narrative of country music.

Beyond reconceptualizing country music as an American music, the time has also come, in this age of globalization, for scholars to traverse national boundaries (see Nathan D. Gibson’s chapter 24 on global country music in this volume). Regional styles of country music around the globe have multiplied prolifically since World War II, as a 2015 New York Times article profiling the country music scene in Kenya suggests.69 With the exception of country music in Canada and Australia, however, the international presence of this music has received surprisingly little attention until recently.70 One of the most important and welcome recent trends in country music studies is a focus on the music’s global popularity and the ethnographic documentation of traditions in such countries as Brazil, the Czech Republic, Japan, and Thailand; scholars would profit from redoubling their efforts in this exciting subfield.71 Most such studies chronicle postwar musical traditions and scenes, but the reality of country music’s international diffusion stretches back to the 1920s when, as American cultural imperialism expanded around the globe, US record companies marketed 78-rpm recordings of this music throughout the British Empire, including in South Africa and India, and even in Japan, Sweden, and Portugal.72 As yet, though, scholars have conducted far too few analyses of American country music’s prewar global dimensions.73

Conversely, the field of country music studies will also profit from additional accounts that explore the significant but understudied influence of global musics on country music in the United States. Provocative studies of the Hawaiian guitar’s impact on American music by Brian Rusted and John W. Troutman serve as excellent models for this kind of scholarship, as do Robert B. Klymasz’s and James P. Leary’s pioneering accounts of the influence of various eastern and central European immigrant traditions on country music in western Canada and the upper American Midwest, respectively.74 (p. 44) Much more remains to be done, though, in this productive field, and this kind of work will undoubtedly help reorient standard narratives by connecting country music, both as a commercial genre and a performative tradition, to broader global music traditions.

Scholars must also focus more attention on prewar country music as a product of a modern, urban-industrial America. Not only did record companies employ progressive business practices and state-of-the-art technology to record, manufacture, advertise, and distribute this music, but the lived experiences and musical influences of the artists who made these records were deeply shaped by a modern world and its mass culture. Even though many hillbilly singers and musicians spent much of their lives in small towns or even rural areas, their contact with the powerful mass media of commercial radio and phonograph records enabled them to participate in a broad national mass culture. As I argued in Linthead Stomp, these artists were “children of the modern age, for they were among the first generation of southerners to be deeply influenced by automobiles, movies, radios, phonograph recordings, and mass-circulation newspapers and magazines.” Although rooted in local and regional vernacular cultures, much of prewar hillbilly music reflected the modernizing forces of industrial development, urban growth, and farm-to-factory migration that engulfed the American South during the half-century before World War II. Scholars, thus, should view this music as being as “thoroughly modern in its origins and evolution as its quintessentially modern counterpart, jazz.”75

Most of all, scholars need to approach prewar country music principally as a commercial music and devote greater attention to the influential role of the U.S. recording industry in creating it. Although some scholars—notably Archie Green, Charles K. Wolfe, Tony Russell, Richard A. Peterson, and Barry Mazor—have published important studies in this area, a significant amount of research remains to be done on the business, advertising, and marketing practices of the hillbilly recording industry.76 As I have argued elsewhere, country music, like all other genres of American popular music, is a commercially constructed category that, since its inception in the 1920s, has been continuously redefined by, among others, record company officials who were charged with producing and promoting recordings that would enjoy brisk sales among the nation’s record buyers.77 Conceptualizing hillbilly music as primarily a commercial product can help us understand how corporate recording practices, advertising strategies, and marketplace concerns, along with the constraints of technology, transformed the hybridized music of ordinary Americans—albeit chiefly white, rural, and working-class Southerners—into the appealing and profitable regionalized genre that we recognize as the precursor of modern country music.

In particular, a business-focused approach reorients the discussion of country music’s southernness by placing the emphasis more properly on the commercialization of the music. Doing so reveals that the music’s regional identity was not the product of some unique folk culture that supposedly existed only in the American South, as Malone has argued. Rather, its southernness resulted chiefly from the prewar recording activities and advertising campaigns of the New York-based record companies that produced and sold these records. During the 1920s, fiddle and string band music flourished (p. 45) throughout much of the United States, but, as folklorist Norm Cohen has suggested, the US recording industry regionalized this music by intentionally concentrating its field-recording sessions in the American South and by affixing to this music particular southern descriptions and images in its advertising, both of which formed much of the basis for what Simon J. Bronner has called country music’s “myth of southern origin.”78 In short, approaching country music as a commercial genre helps explain its southernness more accurately and historically as a product of the US recording industry and refocuses our attention squarely, though not solely, on its business dimensions. In doing so, this advantageous approach can remedy significant lacunae that exist within the current scholarship and, in turn, advance the field of country music studies in new and provocative directions.


Country music studies now stands at a pivotal moment. A series of important recent books and articles by scholars working in a variety of academic disciplines are beginning to push the field beyond the decades-old constraints imposed on it by the influential but problematic concept of the southern thesis. Creative approaches to non-southern musicians and musical traditions; an appreciation of the reciprocal influences of American grassroots music and national and global musics; a recognition of the modern, urban-industrial sources of prewar hillbilly music; and an increased focus on the business history of country music have all yielded, and will continue to yield, revelations long precluded by the basic premises of the southern thesis. Country music studies, I believe, has arrived at the beginning of a post-southern thesis era, and much of the scholarship produced in this field in the next ten years will almost certainly differ dramatically from the more traditional, southern-focused interpretations of the last five decades.

Despite the promise of post-southern thesis scholarship, a number of obstacles remain in the dismantling and clearing away of this stubborn concept. For example, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, through its exhibitions and some of the books published under its imprimatur, contributes significantly to the perpetuation of country music’s southern identity. Indeed, local civic leaders and tourism officials have transformed Nashville into “Music City, U.S.A.”—or simply “Music City,” as the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau now officially bills the city. In Nashville especially, there are few indications that the entrenched myth of country music’s southernness will be replaced with a more inclusive and historically accurate interpretation. Record executives, radio program directors and deejays, museum and tourist attraction staff, historical reissue producers, fans, and even many scholars are far too deeply invested, both emotionally and financially, in the romantic notion of country music as a rural, folk tradition of the American South and of Southern Appalachia in particular. From a strictly commercial perspective, one cannot deny that selling such a myth makes good business sense. But the progress of country music studies depends on a (p. 46) penetrating examination of country music, in full historical perspective, within larger national and global contexts.

Writing a new master narrative of country music poses a number of challenges to scholars, including finding new answers to “perennial questions” that Bill C. Malone himself, the principal architect of the southern thesis, has, over the years, raised “about country music’s alleged southernness, identity, and authenticity.”79 At a 1989 conference held to celebrate the opening of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Southern Folklife Collection, Malone, reflecting on his thirty years of scholarship, asked rhetorically, “Is the music Southern in either origin or ultimate meaning? … Is country music a direct outgrowth of folk music? Or is the music preeminently a product of commercial developments and decisions? And is country music truly a reflection of the society in which it exists? Too often,” he went on to lament, “the answers to such questions have been presented simply and accepted with little challenge, and only rarely have they inspired the kinds of rigorous debate that any field of serious scholarship deserves.”80 Over the course of his fifty-plus years as a scholar, which have yielded more than half a dozen books and a multitude of articles, Malone has offered his own responses to these questions. But there are undoubtedly other ways to answer them.

With country music studies now entering its sixth decade as an academic discipline, as scholars, we must critically reevaluate what we know, or think we know, about country music and engage in “the kinds of rigorous debate” that Malone called for to advance the field interpretively. Only by asking such probing questions will scholars be able to extend the discussion of country music in exciting new directions, beyond the narrow, restrictive paradigms and concepts that have structured it for the last five decades, especially the binaries of “northern/southern,” “rural/urban,” “folk/commercial,” and “authentic/inauthentic.” Surely Malone’s questions, posed more than a quarter century ago, provide a useful starting place to begin achieving these goals. At the same time, however, current and succeeding generations of scholars, informed by new sources and insights and armed with new theories and methodological approaches from an ever-widening array of multidisciplinary fields, will need to formulate new questions about, among other things, the southernness of country music and its rural folk origins. Despite the demonstrated staying power of the southern thesis, serious and thoroughgoing future scholarship, I predict, will reflect as well as foster an increased appreciation for conceptualizing country music principally as the commercial global enterprise that it has always been.


(*) For critical reading, encouragement, and suggestions in the preparation of this chapter, the author wishes to thank Kathleen Drowne, Travis Stimeling, Tony Russell, Ronald D. Cohen, Bill C. Malone, James E. Akenson, Brian Ward, Kevin Fontenot, Paul Gifford, Lance Ledbetter, and the late Archie Green.

(1.) D. K. Wilgus, “An Introduction to the Study of Hillbilly Music,” Journal of American Folklore [JAF] 78, no. 309 (July–September 1965): 196.

(2.) Monroe L. Billington, “Introduction,” in The South: A Central Theme? ed. Monroe L. Billington (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), 1.

(3.) Matthew D. Lassiter and Joseph Crespino, “Introduction: The End of Southern History,” in The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism, ed. Matthew D. Lassiter and Joseph Crespino (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 7. The scholarly literature on southern exceptionalism is extensive; for more on the concept, see, for example, James M. McPherson, “Antebellum Southern Exceptionalism: A New Look at an Old Question,” Civil War History 29, no. 3 (September 1983): 230–244; and Laura F. Edwards, “Southern History as U.S. History,” Journal of Southern History 75, no. 3 (August 2009): 533–564.

(4.) If Roberts did not coin the term “southern thesis” as it applies to Malone’s regional argument, at the very least he can be credited with one of its first printed usages. See Roderick J. Roberts, “An Introduction to the Study of Northern Country Music,” Journal of Country Music 7, no. 4 (January 1978): 26.

(5.) It is worth noting that for the sake of convenience in this chapter, I employ the labels prewar country music and hillbilly music interchangeably, if anachronistically.

(6.) For examples of this regional interpretation in country music scholarship that precedes even the Journal of American Folklore’s 1965 “Hillbilly Issue,” see Fred G. Hoeptner, “Folk and Hillbilly Music: The Background of Their Relation,” Caravan 16 (April–May 1959): 16; and D. K. Wilgus, Anglo-American Folksong Scholarship since 1898 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1959), 433.

(7.) Bill C. Malone, Country Music, U.S.A.: A Fifty-Year History (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968), viii.

(8.) Ibid. 5. The context of Malone’s discussion, however, implies that he meant roughly the eleven states that once constituted the Confederate States of America (“[t]‌he socially ingrown rural South, from the tidewater of Virginia to the pine barrens of East Texas”).

(9.) In formulating his theory, Malone identified the persistence of a unique rural folk culture to explain the distinctiveness of the American South, an idea first advanced by the eminent southern historian David M. Potter in a 1961 article, “The Enigma of the South” (though Malone does not cite this work in his footnotes or bibliography). David M. Potter, “The Enigma of the South,” Yale Review 51 (October 1961): 142–151. For a fuller analysis of Potter’s concept, see Charles Winston Joyner, “The South as a Folk Culture: David Potter and the Southern Enigma,” in The Southern Enigma: Essays on Race, Class, and Folk Culture, ed. Walter J. Fraser Jr. and Winfred B. Moore Jr. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983), 157–167; and Charles Joyner, Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture (Urbana–Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 141–150.

(11.) Ibid. 3–4. See also Simon J. Bronner, Old-Time Music Makers of New York State (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1987), 41.

(12.) Malone, Country Music, U.S.A., 3–5.

(13.) Bill C. Malone, Southern Music/American Music (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1979), esp. 1–5, 18, 153; Bronner, Old-Time Music Makers, 195, n. 37. Malone advanced this same argument in his introductory essay to the “Music” section in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, ed. Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 985–992; as well as in his expanded introduction to the stand-alone volume, The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, ed. Charles Reagan Wilson, vol. 12, Music, ed. Bill C. Malone (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 1–17.

(15.) Ibid. 185, 192–193.

(16.) James N. Gregory, The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of White and Black Southerners Transformed America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Gerald W. Haslam, with Alexandra Haslam Russell and Richard Chon, Workin’ Man Blues: Country Music in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Peter La Chapelle, Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Migration to Southern California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). For other studies that employ a similar explanation to account for the spread of country music traditions, see James N. Gregory, American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Nicholas Dawidoff, In the Country of Country: People and Places in American Music (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997); and Chad Berry, Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles (Urbana–Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000).

(17.) Charles K. Wolfe, Tennessee Strings: The Story of Country Music in Tennessee (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1977); Wolfe, Kentucky Country: Folk and Country Music of Kentucky (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982); Ivan M. Tribe, Mountaineer Jamboree: Country Music in West Virginia (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984); Wayne W. Daniel, Pickin’ on Peachtree: A History of Country Music in Atlanta, Georgia (Urbana–Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1990); Jean A. Boyd, The Jazz of the Southwest: An Oral History of Western Swing (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998).

(18.) Richard A. Peterson and Russell J. Davis, “The Fertile Crescent of Country Music,” Journal of Country Music 6, no. 1 (Spring 1975): 19, 21, 26.

(19.) Ibid. 23. It is worth mentioning, however, that on the point of country performers’ rural origins, Peterson and Davis’s results were skewed toward that conclusion due to the fact that they defined “cities” as urban places with only extraordinarily large populations (“greater than 250,000”; Ibid. 20). Cultural geographers George O. Carney and Paul Fryer reached the same conclusions in their respective studies: George O. Carney, “T for Texas, T for Tennessee: The Origins of American Country Music Notables,” Journal of Geography 78, no. 6 (November 1979): 218–225; and Paul Fryer, “Local Styles and Country Music: An Introductory Essay,” Popular Music and Society 8, nos. 3–4 (1982): 63–76, reprinted in All That Glitters: Country Music in America, ed. George H. Lewis (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Press, 1993), 62–74. It should be noted, however, that much of Carney’s article was plagiarized from that of Peterson and Davis.

(20.) See, for example, George O. Carney, “Spatial Diffusion of the All-Country Music Radio Stations in the United States, 1971-74,” John Edwards Memorial Foundation Quarterly 13, no. 46 (Summer 1977): 58–66; Carney, “From Down Home to Uptown: The Diffusion of Country-Music Radio Stations in the United States,” Journal of Geography 76, no. 3 (March 1977): 104–110; Carney, “Country Music and the South: A Cultural Geography Perspective,” Journal of Cultural Geography 1, no. 1 (Fall/Winter 1980): 16–33; Billy D. White and Frederick A. Day, “Country Music Radio and American Culture Regions,” Journal of Cultural Geography 16, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 1997): 21–35; Stephen A. Smith, “Sounds of the South: The Rhetorical Saga of Country Music Lyrics,” Southern Speech Communication Journal 45, no. 2 (Winter 1980): 164–172; and Melton A. McLaurin, “Songs of the South: The Changing Image of the South in Country Music,” in You Wrote My Life: Lyrical Themes in Country Music, ed. Melton A. McLaurin and Richard A. Peterson (Philadelphia, PA: Gordon and Breach, 1992), 15–33.

(21.) Bill C. Malone, Country Music, U.S.A., rev. ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985); Bill C. Malone, Country Music, U.S.A., 2nd rev. ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002); Bill C. Malone and Jocelyn R. Neal, Country Music, U.S.A., 3rd rev. ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010); Paul L. Tyler, “The Rise of Rural Rhythm,” in The Hayloft Gang: The Story of the National Barn Dance, ed. Chad Berry (Urbana–Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 31.

(22.) Bill C. Malone, “The South and Country Music,” in The Encyclopedia of Country Music: The Ultimate Guide to the Music, ed. Paul Kingsbury (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 529.

(23.) See, for example, Bill C. Malone, “Country Music, the South, and Americanism,” Mississippi Folklore Register 10, no. 1 (Spring 1976): 54; and Malone, Don’t Get above Your Raisin’: Country Music and the Southern Working Class (Urbana–Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2002), esp. 13–15.

(24.) Malone, Southern Music/American Music, 153.

(25.) Richard A. Peterson and Paul DiMaggio, “From Region to Class, The Changing Locus of Country Music: A Test of the Massification Hypothesis,” Social Forces 53, no. 3 (March 1975): 503–504.

(26.) Peterson and Davis, “Fertile Crescent,” 19.

(27.) On these two concepts, see John Egerton, The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America (New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974).

(28.) John B. Boles, “Introduction: The Dixie Difference,” in Dixie Dateline: A Journalist Portrait of the Contemporary South, ed. John B. Boles (Houston, TX: Rice University Studies, 1983), 1.

(29.) For examples of these and other regional revisionists’ studies, see Robert B. Klymasz, “‘Sounds You Never Before Heard’: Ukrainian Country Music in Western Canada,” Ethnomusicology 16, no. 3 (September 1972): 372–380; Neil V. Rosenberg, “‘Folk’ and ‘Country’ Music in the Canadian Maritimes: A Regional Model,” Journal of Country Music 5, no. 2 (Summer 1974): 76–83; Michael Taft, “‘That’s Two More Dollars’: Jimmy Linegar’s Success with Country Music in Newfoundland,” Folklore Forum 7, no. 2 (1974): 99–120; Simon J. Bronner, “Woodhull’s Old Tyme Masters: A Hillbilly Band in the Northern Tradition,” John Edwards Memorial Foundation Quarterly 12, no. 42 (Summer 1976): 54–63, reprinted in Exploring Roots Music: Twenty Years of the JEMF Quarterly, ed. Nolan Porterfield (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2004), 127–134; Simon J. Bronner, “Country Music Culture in Central New York State,” John Edwards Memorial Foundation Quarterly 13, no. 48 (Winter 1977): 171–182; Paul F. Wells, booklet notes to New England Traditional Fiddling: An Anthology of Recordings, 1926-1975 (John Edwards Memorial Foundation, Inc. JEMF-105); Roberts, “Northern Country Music,” 23–28; Simon J. Bronner, “The Country Music Tradition in Western New York State,” Journal of Country Music 7, no. 4 (January 1978): 29–46, 55–59; Peter Narváez, “Country Music in Diffusion: Juxtaposition and Syncretism in the Popular Music of Newfoundland,” Journal of Country Music 7, no. 2 (May 1978): 93–101; James P. Leary, “Ethnic Country Music on Superior’s South Shore,” John Edwards Memorial Foundation Quarterly 19, no. 72 (Winter 1983): 219–230; Bronner, Old-Time Music Makers; George H. Lewis, “A Tombstone Every Mile: Country Music in Maine,” in Lewis, All That Glitters, 102–115; James P. Leary, Polkabilly: How the Goose Island Ramblers Redefined American Folk Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Paul L. Tyler, “Hillbilly Music Re-Imagined: Folk and Country Music in the Midwest,” JAF 127, no. 504 (Spring 2014): 159–190; Clifford R. Murphy, Yankee Twang: Country and Western Music in New England (Urbana–Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2014); and James P. Leary, Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946 (Madison and Atlanta: University of Wisconsin Press and Dust-to-Digital, 2015).

(31.) Ibid. 26.

(32.) Conceived of as a sort of (belated) sequel to the journal’s 1965 “Hillbilly Issue,” the 2014 “Country Music” special issue featured articles by Ronald D. Cohen, Patrick Huber, Paul L. Tyler, and Clifford R. Murphy, with comments by Bill C. Malone, Erika Brady, and Norm Cohen. See Thomas A. DuBois and James P. Leary, “Country Music,”, JAF 127, no. 504 (Spring 2014), special issue.

(33.) Murphy, Yankee Twang, 1, 13.

(35.) Ibid. 46–47. For other critiques of Malone’s migration thesis, see Roberts, “Northern Country Music,” 24; and Peterson and DiMaggio, “From Region to Class,” 500–502.

(37.) Ibid. 41. See also Bronner, “Country Music Culture,” 171; Lewis, “Tombstone Every Mile,” 105.

(38.) Brian Rusted, “Hank Snow and the Eastern Frontiers of Western Music,” in Challenging Frontiers: The Canadian West, ed. Lorry W. Felske and Beverly Rasporich (Calgary, Alberta, Canada: University of Calgary Press, 2004), 184.

(39.) Contrary to Rusted, other scholars have explicitly argued for the importance of geographical place in any serious understanding of country music. See, for example, Wolfe, Tennessee Strings, vii–viii.

(40.) Rusted, “Hank Snow,” 184–186, 187.

(41.) Ibid. 185–186.

(42.) Malone, Country Music, U.S.A., 18–19; see also ibid. rev. ed., 5, 27.

(44.) Ibid. 18–19, 22–23; Bill C. Malone, Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers: Southern Culture and the Roots of Country Music (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993), 43–68.

(46.) Ibid. rev. ed., 29.

(47.) Rusted, “Hank Snow,” 191–195; Karl Hagstrom Miller, Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Popular Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), esp. 215–217.

(48.) Charles Hiroshi Garrett, Struggling to Define a Nation: American Music and the Twentieth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 168.

(49.) Robert H. Ferguson, review of Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South, by Patrick Huber (2008), H-Southern Music at H-Net Online, accessed January 5, 2015,

(51.) Ibid. 16.

(52.) Patrick Huber, Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), xiv.

(53.) Ibid. esp. xiv, 6.

(54.) Michael Kennedy and Joyce Bourne Kennedy, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, 5th ed. (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2007), 347, s.v. “hillbilly songs.”

(55.) Malone and Neal, Country Music, U.S.A., 35.

(56.) Simon J. Bronner, “Old-Time Tunes on Edison Records, 1899-1923,” Journal of Country Music 8, no. 1 (May 1979): 95. See also Roberts, “Northern Country Music,” 26.

(57.) Bronner, “Old-Time Tunes on Edison Records, 1899-1923,” 95.

(58.) Patrick Huber, “Black Hillbillies: African American Musicians on Old-Time Records, 1924-1932,” in Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music, ed. Diane Pecknold (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 19–81.

(59.) Malone, Country Music, U.S.A., x.

(60.) Bill C. Malone, “‘The Southern Thesis’: Revisited and Reaffirmed,” JAF 127, no. 504 (Spring 2014): 228, and the article to which he was responding: Patrick Huber, “The New York Sound: Citybilly Recording Artists and the Creation of Hillbilly Music, 1924-1932,” JAF 127, no. 504 (Spring 2014): 140–158. See also Norm Cohen, “A Few Thoughts on Provocative Points,” JAF 127, no. 504 (Spring 2014): 233–234, in which he notes other country music scholars’ similarly dismissive comments about Dalhart’s recordings.

(61.) Huber, “New York Sound,” 145.

(62.) Huber, “New York Sound,” 148. Two important studies that do situate hillbilly music within broader commercial contexts are Norm Cohen’s liner notes to Minstrels and Tunesmiths: The Commercial Roots of Early Country Music (John Edwards Memorial Foundation, Inc. JEMF-109) and Miller’s Segregating Sound.

(63.) Bill Ivey, review of Country Music, U.S.A. (rev. ed.), by Bill C. Malone in The Country Reader: Twenty-Five Years of the Journal of Country Music, ed. Paul Kingsbury (Nashville, TN: Country Music Foundation Press and Vanderbilt University Press, 1996), 290. Originally published in Journal of Country Music 11, no. 2 (1986): 91–93.

(64.) Patrick Huber, “Before ‘The Big Bang of Country Music’: Recording Hillbilly Music on Location Prior to the 1927 Bristol Sessions,” International Country Music Journal 2016, ed. Don Cusic (2016), 31–32.

(65.) Huber, “Black Hillbillies,” 58, n. 9. Whereas scholars have failed to undertake many studies of the prewar country music industry, a rich literature exists about the music’s postwar business history. For examples of such studies, see “The Unseen Hand: How Producers Shape the Country Sound: A JCM Special Report,” Journal of Country Music 12, no. 2 (1987); Bill Ivey, “The Bottom Line: Business Practices That Shaped Country Music,” in Country: The Music and the Musicians, ed. Paul Kingsbury, Alan Axelrod, and Susan Costello, rev. and updated ed. (New York: Country Music Foundation and Abbeville Press, 1994, 280–311; Joli Jensen, The Nashville Sound: Authenticity, Commercialization, and Country Music (Nashville, TN: Country Music Foundation Press and Vanderbilt University Press, 1998); Diane Pecknold, The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); and Michael Jarrett, Producing Country: The Inside Story of the Great Recordings (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2014).

(66.) See, for example, Sally Thompson, “Plymouth Old-Time Dance Orchestra,” Vermont History 40, no. 3 (Summer 1972): 185–189; Paul F. Wells, “Mellie Dunham: Maine’s Champion Fiddler,” John Edwards Memorial Foundation Quarterly 12, no. 43 (Autumn 1976): 112–118; Simon J. Bronner, “John Baltzell: Champion Old Time Fiddler,” Old Time Music 27 (Winter 1977/78): 13–14; Howard L. Sacks, “John Baltzell, A Country Fiddler from the Heartland,” Journal of Country Music 10, no. 1 (1985): 18–24, 33–35; David Sanderson, Mellie Dunham, A Remembrance (Waterford, ME: Norway Downtown Revitalization, 2003); Howard L. Sacks, “From the Barn to the Bowery and Back Again: Musical Routes in Rural Ohio, 1800–1929,” JAF 116, no. 461 (Summer 2003): 314–338; Paul Gifford, “Jasper E. ‘Jep’ Bisbee: Old-Time Michigan Dance Fiddler,” Old-Time Herald 9, no. 6 (Winter 2004/2005): 30–34; and Tony Russell, “Nicholson’s Players,” Old-Time Herald 13, no. 5 (March 2013): 28–35.

(67.) Tyler, “Hillbilly Music Re-Imagined,” 160. Indeed, Peter Narváez specifically argues for the importance of studies of “regional and local performers, well outside of the southern ‘fertile crescent’ of country music” as being “essential to an understanding of the diffusional processes whereby the music has spread.” Narváez, “Country Music in Diffusion,” 93.

(68.) Rusted, “Hank Snow,” 185; Ferguson, review of Linthead Stomp.

(69.) Isma’il Kushkush, “Country Music Finds a Home Far from Home, in Kenya,” New York Times, July 1, 2015.

(70.) In addition to the Canadian studies cited in endnote 29, see, for example, Tim B. Rogers, “Country Music Bands during the 1950s: A Comparative Survey,” in Ethnomusicology in Canada, ed. Robert Witmer (Toronto, Ontario: Institute for Canadian Music, 1990), 225–235; Linda Jean Daniel, “If You’re Not in It for Love: Canadian Women in Country Music,” in The Women of Country Music: A Reader, ed. Charles K. Wolfe and James E. Akenson (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003), 161–185; Andrew Smith, “The Yodeling Cowgirls: Australian Women and Country Music,” in Wolfe and Akenson, Women of Country Music, 186–201; Graeme Smith, Singing Australian: A History of Folk and Country Music (North Melbourne, Australia: Pluto Press, 2005); Daniel Fisher, “Mediating Kinship: Country, Family, and Radio in Northern Australia,” Cultural Anthropology 24, no. 2 (May 2009): 280–312; Byron Dueck, “Civil Twilight: Country Music, Alcohol and the Spaces of Manitoban Aboriginal Sociability,” in Music, Sound and Space: Transformations of Public and Private Experience, ed. Georgina Born (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 239–256; Sarah Baker and Alison Huber, “Locating the Canon in Tamworth: Historical Narratives, Cultural Memory and Australia’s ‘Country Music Capital,’” Popular Music 32, no. 2 (May 2013): 223–240; and Toby Martin, Yodelling Boundary Riders: Country Music in Australia since the 1920s (University of Melbourne: Lyrebird Press, 2015).

(71.) Among such works are Tōru Mitsui, “The Reception of the Music of American Southern Whites in Japan,” in Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined, ed. Neil V. Rosenberg (Urbana–Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 275–293; Alexander Sebastian Dent, River of Tears: Country Music, Memory, and Modernity in Brazil (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009); Jane M. Ferguson, “Another Country Is the Past: Western Cowboys, Lanna Nostalgia, and Bluegrass Aesthetics as Performed by Professional Musicians in Northern Thailand,” American Ethnologist 37, no. 2 (May 2010): 227–240; Lee Bidgood, “Performing Americanness, Locating Identity: Bluegrass and Ethnography in the Czech Republic” (PhD dissertation, University of Virginia, 2010); Amporn Jirattikorn, “Lukthung: Authenticity and Modernity in Thai Country Music,” Asian Music 37, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2006): 24–50. For a brief overview of the history of global country music and a selected bibliography, see Nathan D. Gibson, “Sound Review: International Country Music,” JAF 127, no. 504 (Spring 2014): 236–242. See also Gibson’s chapter 24 in this volume.

(72.) Gibson, “Sound Review,” 236; Tony Russell, Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921-1942, with editorial research by Bob Pinson, assisted by the staff of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 9–33, 44–45.

(73.) See, for example, Bob Coltman, “Habitantbilly: French-Canadian Old Time Music,” Old Time Music 11 (Winter 1973): 9–13 and Old Time Music 12 (Spring 1974): 9–14; Graeme Smith, “Australian Country Music and the Hillbilly Yodel,” Popular Music 13, no. 3 (October 1994): 297–311; Rusted, “Hank Snow,” 181–200; Melissa Bellanta and Toby Martin, “The Sins of the Son: Country Music and Masculine Sentimentality in 1930s to 1940s Australia,” Australian Feminist Studies 27, no. 74 (December 2012): 355–372; Martin, Yodelling Boundary Riders, 11–80; and Andrew Smith, “Tex Morton: Australia’s Country Music Pioneer,” International Country Music Journal 2016, ed. Don Cusic (Nashville: Brackish Publishing, 2016), 83–108.

(74.) Rusted, “Hank Snow,” 181–200; John W. Troutman, Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016); Klymasz, “ ‘Sounds You Never Before Heard,’ ” 372–380; Leary, “Ethnic Country Music,” 219–230; Leary, Folksongs of Another America.

(75.) Huber, Linthead Stomp, xiv, 37, 39.

(76.) See, for example, Archie Green’s pioneering series of “Commercial Music Graphics” articles that appeared in the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Newsletter (later the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Quarterly) between 1968 and 1985; Charles K. Wolfe, “The Legend That Peer Built: Reappraising the Bristol Sessions,” Journal of Country Music 12, no. 2 (1989): 24–35, reprinted in The Bristol Sessions: Writings about the Big Bang of Country Music, ed. Charles K. Wolfe and Ted Olson (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2005), 17–39; Tony Russell, “Country Music on Location: ‘Field Recording’ Before Bristol,” Popular Music 26, no. 1 (January 2007): 23–31; Tony Russell, “Aftershocks: Location Recording after the Bristol Sessions,” in Cusic, International Country Music Journal 2016, 57–65; Richard A. Peterson, Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); and Barry Mazor, Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2014).

(77.) Huber, “Black Hillbillies,” 52–53.

(78.) Cohen, “A Few Thoughts,” 233; Bronner, Old-Time Music Makers, 41.

(79.) Malone and Neal, Country Music, U.S.A., xviii.

(80.) Bill C. Malone, “Country Music and the Academy: A Thirty-Year Professional Odyssey,” in Sounds of the South, ed. Daniel W. Patterson (Chapel Hill, NC: Southern Folklife Collection, 1991), 54.