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Country music and the working class

Porter Wagonner and Dolly Parton

This is a transcript of a Radio Labour Canada report recorded on Friday, May 21st, 2021.

Host Mark Belanger
Country music has traditionally been related to the struggles of working people, but is it now changing?

That is one of the issues to be considered by Tim Fowler in his course this July at Brock University in St. Catherine’s Ontario called Class, Country Music and Social Change.

Tim Fowler  
Country music has always reflected the lives of working people. The genre has always told stories. The songs almost always have a story element to them and can hear songs of miners, of oil patch workers, farmers, truckers. There’s this whole sub genre that popped up about trucking songs. Most recently, stories of retail workers, and the way that working people’s lives have changed across time gets reflected in country music songs.

You get songs about changing nature of rural life, about workers moving to cities, to finding jobs, how people have responded to these changes shows up a lot in the lyrics too. You get songs where people living in cities and they’re thinking about what rural life back home once was.

It’s a really, to me, interesting reflection of the lives that working people and mostly in the United States, but sometimes in Canada too, have gone through for the past a hundred or so years,

What topics and issues will the course address?

Tim Fowler
The course is a one hundred year history of the genre of country music.

As I studied it, I noticed there’s sort of these two movements that take part in country music. There’s always been a more radio-friendly version of the genre that seems to broadly try to appeal to the middle classes. It might just be mistaken for pop music. There’s not a lot of country twang element to it.

And at the same time, there’s always been a movement for a more harder country sound. That’s less concerned with getting play on the radio. And I found that type of music frequently has more of a political or more of a working class bent to it.

So I traced these two histories of country music from the 1920s to about today. And I look at things like the way gender has been portrayed or not portrayed and country music.

Gender problem

We’ve seen a lot of women country music stars in the past few years say there’s a gender problem in country music country songs written by women aren’t being played on the radio anymore. And that’s true.

It’s always struck me that as one of the first acts we can really call country was the Carter family and two women in that. So how do we get from one of the first country bands being two-thirds women to women aren’t on country radio today?

I look at the history of race and country music and how early country music drew on influences of black Americans. You know, the banjo and blues style music to country music today is very white.

And then I dip in and out of some of the more overt political statements that country bands have made and country artists made.

Class reduced to culture

Country music gets wrapped up in the culture wars in the United States, for lack of a better term where class gets reduced to this purely cultural variable. It’s not a lot of an economic element to it at all. And country music gets pointed to as sort of this thing that, you know, quote unquote real Americans are real working. People listen to. And it’s a signifier of this somewhat reactionary, somewhat populist nature of, you know, right wing politics.

And I’m not sure that mainstream country music today is reflective of working Americans.

The genre is really quite white and we know that the working classes in north America are rather ethnically diverse and racially diverse. If you think of country songs, a lot of people think of, to the point of cliche, songs about trucks. I’ve got a friend who pointed out that average sale price of a Ford F-Series truck is about $55,000 pops out at about $80,000.

And that’s used as a signifier of, you know, working class identity. With that money you could go out and buy a BMW and no one would think of that as an identifier of working class identity.

So I think country music today is reflective of a very narrow segment of the population. And in some ways is not as reflective of social change in America and in Canada, as it used to be.

You suggested that the working class in the United States has been increasingly aligned with the Republican party and the its right-wing stances, which has resulted, I’m assuming in fewer left-oriented, union-positive music. Is that true? Is that what’s happening?

Tim Fowler
I think so. I think we have a bunch of mainstream country stars who are proudly Republican, proud to align themselves with conservative causes and, you know, sing these songs that certainly have some pride about working, but it’s in that sort of bootstrapism: the ideas that everyone should be proud to work and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

If you look for it, there is a left-wing tradition in modern country. I find it today in the sub genres of alternative country, sometimes called Americana, which has a more overtly left-progressive political view and challenges some of these assumptions.

I think in mainstream country, we can point to few progressive or left voices. I can think of Maren Morris. I can think of The Chicks, maybe Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson. But yeah, largely the country music you hear on the radio today is really closely aligned with populous conservative Republican movements.

The course Class, Country Music and Social Change is being conducted for two weeks, starting July 12th, 2021. You can find more information about the course by emailing Tim Fowler tfowleratbrocku.ca.

Class, Country Music and Social Change

Jason Isbell

Sturgill Simpson

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