Review of Patrick Huber, Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008). Published in Popular Music 29/2 (2010): 320-22.
It is an interesting feature of country music that, despite the continued projection of the rural in the music and its accompanying discourse, the genre has always relied on urban centres for its dissemination. From the recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee that constitute the moment when what we now recognise as country ostensibly came into being to the concentration of the country music industry in Nashville, urban performers, executives, broadcasters and audiences have played crucial roles. This importance is highlighted in Patrick Huber’s Linthead Stomp, which concentrates on the emergence of country music (then referred to as ‘hillbilly music’) among millworkers in the Piedmont area. The Piedmont was the most heavily industrialized and urbanized area in the US South during the first half of the twentieth century due to a massive concentration of textile mills (in 1927 the Southern Piedmont became the largest centre of textile production in the USA).
Huber’s thesis is summed up in the following sentence: ‘the commercial broadcasting and recording of hillbilly music between 1922 and 1942 marked the first time that the southern white working class played a central role in shaping American popular music and mass culture, and no other group of southern industrial workers did more to create this commercial music than Piedmont textile millhands.’ (p. 22) Huber tells his story via biographical accounts of a handful of musicians – Fiddlin’ John Carson, Charlie Poole, Dave McCarn and the Dixon Brothers – who alternated work in the Piedmont mills with performing and recording hillbilly music. Of particular value are the accounts of McCarn and the Dixons, whose stories are less often told than those of Carson and Poole (the subject of a new double CD by Loudon Wainwright III and an accompanying documentary film). Huber gives generally sympathetic accounts of his subjects, taking pains to present them as modern urban subjects who were familiar with the latest trends (particularly jazz), techniques (Carson providing a case study in the tactics of creating and maintaining a star persona) and technologies (Poole learning his banjo techniques from phonograph recordings of Fred Van Eps and others).
In addition to the fascinating biographical accounts of these musicians, we learn about wider contextual issues too, such as the role of religion and politics and music industry practices (or malpractices). The textile companies emerge in both negative and positive ways. On the one hand, they provided steady work for thousands of working-class families and sponsored musical education programmes and competitions, some of which Charlie Poole participated in. On the other, they were hotbeds of labour unrest, fuelled by low wages and exploitative conditions. The chapter on McCarn, whose ‘Cotton Mill Colic’ gives a poetic snapshot of working life at that time, provides an account of these conditions, which led to increased organisation and major strikes between 1929 and 1931. The chapter on the Dixon Brothers focuses in part on the role of religion and event songs, with country music emerging as an arena for staging both a longstanding nostalgia for an earlier historical period and almost instant responses to new events.
Huber does not neglect the contradictions embodied by many of these musicians: Fiddlin’ John Carson was influenced by African American music while being a member of the Ku Klux Klan, creating promotional material for the Klan and for race-baiting politicians; Charlie Poole and his band the North Carolina Ramblers would open and close concerts with gospel numbers while performing all manner of risqué material in between; McCarn composed labour songs while avoiding work whenever possible. As Huber notes, such contradictions reflect the complications of southern working-class life more generally and highlight the tendency towards what historian Nancy Maclean calls ‘reactionary populism’, the transference of an anti-elitist populism into an anti-Other ideology (p. 86). Distinction is crucial here but it is important to note that distinction was operating across the board, not only as a strategy of identification for races, classes and genders, but also as a marketing strategy for the promotion of music. As with the slightly earlier ‘race’ records that were marketed in the wake of Mamie Smith’s unexpectedly popular ‘Crazy Blues’, there was a need to distinguish what would become ‘hillbilly’ records from other options in the market. This meant a reliance on romantic and stereotypical imagery associated with the simplicity and primitivism of the South in the promotion of hillbilly musicians. While this image had little to do with the realities in which urbanites such as John Carson lived, many (including Carson himself) were willing to foreground it as a promotional strategy. What is clear from Huber’s account (as with Tony Russell’s Country Music Originals) is that those performers who could come up with a unique selling point or a distinctive image were likely to receive more attention in a recording market that was already becoming crowded. To make this point is merely to note that the operation of a star system and of popular music marketing strategies with which we are familiar today have a well-documented history and were present at the inception of the post-phonographic popular music industry. Hillbilly musicians, these supposedly unsophisticated pre-moderns whose value is often seen to reside in the ‘mere’ carrying of a musical tradition into the era of recording, emerge in fact as a vital part of the conditions of possibility for the recording industry itself.
Beyond these contradictions are the sad stories of skilled working-class performers seemingly condemned to the deceitful practices of the recording industry or the well-meaning but often belated interest of folklorists and collectors. The stories of Dave McCarn and Dorsey Dixon are particularly moving, the former a skilled and intelligent artist let down by his own demons and his situation, the latter led to depression by the feeling that he had never fulfilled his potential. McCarn, interestingly, refused to be ‘revived’ by the folklorists of the 1960s, preferring to live out his time away from music. Dixon longed for such recognition but was swindled by those who were better able to play the games of marketing and copyright; he watched Roy Acuff re-work his ‘I Didn’t See Nobody Pray’ as ‘Wreck On The Highway’ and enjoy phenomenal success from it. McCarn’s response lay in alcohol, Dixon’s in God: both men passed on largely unrecognized by the wider world. One of the most important aspects of Huber’s splendid book is the provision of space to tell the stories of these men’s lives; one of its principle achievements, due to its author’s subtle but insistent writing, is to encourage the seeking out of their work. Huber provides a very useful discography, rightly flagging up the sterling work done by labels such as Document, County and Bear Family in the dissemination of early country music recordings.