Hillbilly Heaven

Constructing a Racialized
Musical Identity in Nashville

By Dusty Altena

“We’ll be so happy beneath the mountain moon
At the hillbilly wedding in June”

Gene Autry – “A Hillbilly Wedding in June”

In 1961, the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee, officially announced its first three inductees—Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Fred Rose. Nineteen years later and just two hundred miles west in the nearby city of Memphis, the Blues Hall of Fame honored twenty members of its own, including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bessie Smith, and Son House. In doing so, Nashville and Memphis effectively cemented their reputations as the de facto homes of country and blues music, respectively.

In the decades before and especially since, country and blues as musical categorizations have undergone a racialized transformation that has ultimately resulted in a clearly marked racial divide; country has become a symbol of whiteness, while blues represents blackness. As the representative cities of these genres, the cities of Nashville and Memphis, despite locations just two hundred miles apart, have created a racialized bifurcation that inherently celebrates the constructed racial and class identities from which these genres originated.

New technological developments introduced an enormous new audience to recorded music in 1920s America, even in the still-agrarian south. Electric record players such as the Victrola, as well as the introduction of more affordable records to compete with the massive popularity of AM radio, resulted in a major increase in the commercialization of music. Accordingly, record companies and radio broadcasters rapidly attempted to capitalize on this new listenership by recording and broadcasting a multitude of niche styles, such as authentic folk, hillbilly, and race records.

The rise of the radio and recording industries were particularly important in the creation of distinct racialized musical identities in Nashville and Memphis. These identities imply an innate authenticity that relies on a constructed, romanticized ideology of working-class whites and blacks as well as an idealization of the Appalachian hill country and slave plantations from which country and blues music evolved. By attaching a racialized musical identity to a geographical space, the cities of Nashville and Memphis are able to appropriate the authenticity of these genres while simultaneously ignoring the racial fluidity that pervades not only the cities themselves, but the early development of country and blues music as well. Using this contextualization, this essay focuses specifically on Nashville and its racialized country music identity; it explores the effects that emanate from Nashville’s implied location as the authentic home of country music, as well as the problematic racial and class issues that arise when fusing a musical identity to a geographic space.

The whiteness surrounding Nashville's musical identity has steadily evolved from country music’s perceived Appalachian hillbilly origins. Not only does this identity whitewash Nashville and divorce it from its black inhabitants,1 it also removes the various ethnic and African American influences from the evolution of country music, creating an inaccurate depiction of both Nashville and the music that defines it. Moreover, this phenomenon allows Nashville as a symbolic place to simultaneously and paradoxically retain the fabricated authenticity of country music’s origins.

Birth of a Country Nation

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “hillbilly” first appeared in print in the New York Journal in 1900. The Journal described the “Hill-Billie” as “a free and untrammelled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.”2 These derisive backwoods connotations continued to define the label throughout the early 1900s, formally entering the world of music in 1925, when producer and talent scout Ralph Peer named an act he was recording the Hill Billies.3 By 1926, Hillbilly as a musical term entered the lingua franca, appearing in Variety and other publications to denote specifically “southern” folk music.4 In December 1926, Variety described the hillbilly musician as “a North Carolina or Tennessee and adjacent mountaineer type of illiterate.…The mountaineer is of ‘poor white trash’ genera….Theirs is a community all unto themselves. Illiterate and ignorant, with the intelligence of morons.”5

Musical categorization is of course helpful and even necessary; however, attaching labels to forms of music that are based on racial and class ideologies poses particular problems, especially when these identities are then attached to specific geographical spaces. Take, for example, a recent interview in which prolific indie musician Bradford Cox discusses his musical influences, lamenting his perceived inability to measure up to their bodies of work:

[Hank Williams, Bo Diddley, and John Lee Hooker] are absolute artists. I can’t hold a match to that stuff and I never will. I’ll never be black, I’ll never have that experience. That’s what’s missing from indie culture, though: Bo Diddley and blackness. There’s a struggle that exists in black music and hillbilly music from a certain era. Old music resonates with me, new music doesn’t.6

Cox’s band Deerhunter plays neither country nor blues, yet this quote unwittingly exposes the romanticized authenticity that has come to define early country and blues music, a sentiment that has been co-opted through the construction of racialized musical identities in cities like Nashville and Memphis. These cities are able to claim the music’s authenticity for themselves while removing the problematic issues of racial and class struggle. Ultimately this allows these identities to exist removed from any semblance of racial fluidity and intercultural interaction. Each identity distills itself down to simply black or simply white. The experience and struggle that Cox is speaking of are actually part of a complex narrative that involves a multitude of race- and class-based issues. There is no single struggle that can be applied to black music; nor can such a concept be applied to hillbilly music. The origins of both country and blues music are brimming with racial intermixture, cross-cultural influences, and musical appropriation. The bifurcation implied by referring to “a struggle that exists in black music and hillbilly music” assumes a neatly divided racial history in music that quite simply did not exist. These performers combined personal experience with geographical influences—often with commercial aspirations—and many did so in a way that crossed both racial and class boundaries. Romanticizing notions of authenticity and purity in early music constructs a false narrative that hinges on an idealized, spontaneous beauty, untouched by the grabbing hands of capitalism and the problematic issues of race relations and class struggle. The reality is much more complicated.

Nashville as a physical place had little more to do with the origins of country music than most other Southern cities. In fact, the first successful country recording artist appeared in Atlanta, not Nashville, and it is Atlanta that has often been described as the cradle of country music—the “pre-Nashville Nashville.”7 Atlanta became the home to the first radio station in the south when WSB went on the air in early 1922, and its broadcasts were quickly heard throughout the region. Renowned local performer Fiddlin’ John Carson saw the expansive opportunity that radio offered, excitedly exclaiming that he “would like to have a try at the new-fangled contraption that had people sitting around everywhere, with earphones clamped to their heads.” His WSB performances were remarkably successful, and within minutes the telephones were “jumping up and down with requests from listeners who liked this return to old-time mountain music.”8

In 1923, record distributor Polk Brockman convinced Okeh Records to release two Carson recordings. Despite Carson’s successful radio appearances, Okeh producer Ralph Peer had to be persuaded to record him, and only reluctantly agreed to produce the initial run of 500 copies. The record, “The Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane” with B-side “The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow,” was a resounding instant success and Carson was given an immediate recording contract, paving the way for other country, folk, and hillbilly performers and recordings.

The radio and recording industries were major benefactors of this early country music. Carson achieved nationwide fame through his radio performances, reaching listeners as far away as New York and Canada. During one appearance, the station received over one hundred telephone calls and telegrams from listeners requesting their favorite songs; by 1927 it was reported that Carson had received “letters of praise from listeners in practically every state in the Union.” In a Radio Digest article, Carson admitted that “radio made me. Until I began to play over WSB…just a few people in and around Atlanta knew me.” His records, meanwhile, were selling out everywhere; Peer claimed Carson’s first record had sold over 500,000 copies. Soon Okeh distributors announced that Carson’s “homely ditties are as much in demand in the Rocky Mountains as in Georgia.”9

Following the record’s success, Peer realized he had discovered an untapped market. Correctly anticipating that an enormous amount of money was waiting to be made from recording original folk material that he could retain the rights to, Peer began searching for hillbilly singers who performed their own songs, a strategy that emphasized an ongoing relationship between producer and performer and ultimately created an industry dependent on the creation and marketing of new musical material that still resembled and sounded like authentic traditional standards. By 1924 country music had its first million-selling record, coming from Vernon Dalhart (born Marion T. Slaughter) of West Texas. In 1925, industry publication Talking Machine World noted the genre’s remarkable success, stating that “the [rural] demand is largely for Blues, Coon Songs, and Hilly-Billy numbers.”10

In addition to his Okeh recordings, Fiddlin’ John Carson’s successful appearances on WSB Atlanta influenced dozens of radio stations throughout the south and the Midwest to broadcast “barn dances” featuring authentic folk or hillbilly music. Nashville’s foray into this market began in earnest in 1925, when local radio station WSM began broadcasting its own WSM Barn Dance. Following the lead of Atlanta’s WSB, WBAP in Fort Worth, WLS in Chicago, and many others, the WSM Barn Dance broadcast folk and hillbilly music to thousands of listeners across the region.11 The program’s creator and announcer, “Judge” George Hay, who already had radio experience in Memphis and Chicago, coined its new name, the Grand Ole Opry,12 in 1927, and the show eventually achieved enormous commercial success by focusing on rural, authentic, down-to-earth performers that portrayed a homely, unrefined persona. This persona was specifically fabricated to exhibit the ideal, pastoral image of the Appalachian hill country.

Fabricating authenticity in this way produced a racialized musical identity that removed itself from the many ethnic and black musical influences that pervaded early country music. Unlike the romanticized bucolic narratives continuously put forth, the roots of country music could not in reality be reduced to a group of fiddling Anglo immigrants dancing in the hollers with bellies full of moonshine. Rather, country music was informed by a diverse mixture of ethnic and black musical influences as well as day-to-day interracial interactions and experiences. Zeke Morris's remembrance of life in rural North Carolina was typical:

Back in those days, we didn’t know what integration was, because we was raised up around black people. We worked together, played together, and often ate at each other’s houses. That’s the way it was back in those days. I’ve seen many a time when black people would come to the white church. So I went to the black church to learn their spiritual singing.13

Jimmie Rodgers, generally considered the father of country music, grew up in frequent contact with African Americans in Mississippi and while working on the railroad across the south. He learned to play the guitar and banjo from a black musician as a child, and was heavily influenced by blues styles, often incorporating them into his own music. Additionally, some scholars maintain that Rodgers’s famous blue yodel evolved from those of Mexican border singers.14 Mexican harmonies and the romantic balladry of the Mexican corrido also influenced many early country performers, particularly in Texas.

Hank Williams likewise learned the guitar from black musicians, some of whom were probably in turn influenced by Rodgers.15 Conversely, blues legend B.B. King remembered working on a Mississippi slave plantation while listening to Williams on the radio: “Hank Williams, man…tunes like that, that carried me right back to my same old blues….’Cause this is a guy hurting. He’s hurting from inside.”16 The Grand Ole Opry employed at least one black musician into the late 1930s—the tremendously popular harmonica performer DeFord Bailey, who played the Opry for over fifteen years. Other performers such as Dr. Humphrey Bate, Uncle Dave Macon, and Sid Harkreader have each recognized the importance of black musical tradition in their upbringing. Bailey, whose father was a fiddler and uncle a banjoist, described his influences as “black hillbilly music.”17 Finally, Nashville’s proximity to the blues traditions of nearby Memphis allowed for even further musical and racial interaction between the two cities.

The banjo, one of the pre-eminent instruments now associated with country and particularly hillbilly music, claims its origins from primitive stringed instruments brought over from Africa via the slave trade. The original crude instruments, which were fashioned from gourds and other vernacular materials, were already popular on slave plantations by the seventeenth century. Ultimately evolving into its modern day form in the 1800s, the banjo gained massive popularity through its use in blackface minstrelsy, a popular type of American entertainment that combined variety acts, musical numbers, and comedic skits by performers in blackface. Ironically, the Irish-born fiddle and the African-born banjo proved to be natural bedfellows, and many minstrelsy troupes and medicine shows frequently included both.

Early country music was heavily influenced by minstrelsy and the medicine show. Jimmie Rodgers himself played banjo in blackface as a part of a traveling medicine show after the First World War,18 and many other early performers carried influences directly from blackface shows to radio barn dance programs; blackface stars Jamup and Honey frequently appeared on the Opry well into the 1930s.

The racial influences of minstrelsy on country music are both significant and hard to define. As Eric Lott and others have convincingly argued, blackface minstrelsy was much more complex than a simple jeering send-up of black music and culture. Minstrel shows included many layers of appropriation, mixing both genuine white and black music with various levels of ridicule, mockery, and satire, which created a distinct form of popular music that included both black and white influences and crossed over multiple racial borders. Musically, the line between genuine and satirical elements could often be rather hard to distinguish.

Lott notes that “we might say that minstrel men visited not plantations but racially integrated theaters, taverns, neighborhoods, and waterfronts—and then attempted to recreate plantation scenes.”19 Many of the best banjo performers in nineteenth-century minstrelsy troupes learned to play the instrument by traveling to plantations and listening to black musicians. In 1897, the minstrel Ben Cotton recalled that as a youth along the Mississippi River he visited slaves “in front of their cabins” so as to hear them “start the banjo twanging.” Banjoist Joel Sweeney “would hang around the negroes at all times learning some of their rude songs and playing an accompaniment on a gourd banjo.”20 Many minstrel songs did in fact remain faithful to the original incarnations despite the mocking satirical pretext, while other styles and forms were used piecemeal throughout the shows, ultimately creating a mélange of racially mixed music that was hard to distinguish through a strictly defined black and white racial dichotomy. By the 1920s, then, many early hillbilly performers were already adrift in a sea of racial musical styles and forms.

Nashville Skyline

Despite its irrefutable importance in the history of country music, the Nashville elite at the time originally wanted nothing to do with the Grand Ole Opry. The program’s heavily lower-middle class, rural audience was at odds with the new urban image the city was trying to cultivate in the decades following the First World War.21 The sound and stigma of southern hillbilly music was considered embarrassing, and the city did not want to be associated with it. Steel guitarist and industry executive Joe Talbot explained:

Nashville simply did not want this trash in this town. The city of Nashville, as an entity, was very embarrassed and ashamed of this bunch of hillbillies that were wandering around here…this city was principally an educational, religious institutional, and financial town and a country music show simply wasn’t relevant to [any] of these things.22

Jack Harris further explained, “when the Grand Ole Opry started there was an immediate protest from the Nashville citizenry. Old Judge Hay was accused of making the city the laughing stock of the nation—the hillbilly capital.”23 In October, 1943, Tennessee governor Prentice Cooper was invited to the Ryman Auditorium to celebrate the Grand Ole Opry’s coast to coast hookup, but he declined, stating “he wanted no party to a ‘circus’,” further grumbling that Opry star Roy Acuff was “bringing disgrace to Tennessee, by making Nashville the hillbilly capital of the United States.”24

The Nashville bourgeoisie wanted to distance themselves from the “unsophisticated roots” of those who were associated with country music.25 The city’s image as the “Athens of the South” was hardly compatible with the rural flavor of the Opry’s audience and performers. Nashville’s elite preferred to focus on finance and educational institutions in the 1920s and 30s; after the war, schools such as Vanderbilt were receiving millions of dollars from various endowments and philanthropists. Meanwhile, other elites referred to the city as the “Wall Street of the South,” due to its immensely successful insurance26 and banking industries; Nashville’s bank clearings topped one billion dollars in 1929.27

Despite the reluctance of city officials, however, the Grand Ole Opry could not be suppressed. Its popularity was tremendous and the Opry was arguably the single most important factor in the creation of Nashville’s musical identity. Eventually increased to 50,000 watts, WSM was capable of reaching a massive part of the country, and dozens of musicians would later recall the importance of listening to the Grand Ole Opry in their formative years. Roy Acuff explained, “there’s no question, it helped to popularize country music. It carried ‘hillbilly’ music far beyond the hills and into the living rooms of people everywhere, and turned it into ‘country’ music.”28 As writer Paul Hemphill later recalled,

Once the chores were done and night began to close in, the entire family would huddle around the big Zenith radio in the living room, and the old man would start hunting for 650 on the dial…for the Grand Ole Opry. Then, until midnight, weary legs and cracked hands and broken spirits would be resurrected by the familiar sounds crackling over the radio.29

Indeed, the incredible popularity of the program was the impetus behind the decision of hundreds of up-and-coming country performers to relocate to Nashville in the coming decades.

Joli Jensen points out that country music “celebrates a world that is, by its own definition, different from the rest of society. The world it celebrates is easily denigrated by outsiders as backwards and uncultured. The issue of social class haunts country music.”30 Assuredly, the very definition of “hillbilly” was based on these characteristics. This “world,” however, was already undergoing a process of fabricated authenticity as early as the 1920s. Louis Kyriakoudes explains:

The “authenticity” on which country music performers prided themselves and which their audiences demanded was based upon a fabricated vision of rural life—a “misremembered” past that [Judge] Hay manipulated to create an image of rural white rusticity on the radio.31

Judge Hay specifically emphasized the hillbilly ideal in his broadcasts. The group Dr. Bate and His Augmented Orchestra, for example, became the Possum Hunters, complete with hillbilly garb including overalls, straw hats, and hay bales.32 Other “cornpone names,” such as Fruit Jar Drinkers and Clodhoppers, were devised as well—each attempting to portray an “authentic” depiction of rural, hillbilly life.33

This constructed depiction of hillbilly life, however, romanticized the extreme difficulties faced by the people who actually lived it, fetishizing the rural lifestyle as something to be yearned for, rather than accurately portraying it for the arduous existence it really was. Ralph Stanley of the Stanley Brothers described southern Appalachia with nothing but gloom: “There’s always been a lot of murder, a lot of death, and heartache in these mountains. Life was very, very hard here. It was all you could do to get through it.” Accordingly, he freely admitted to attempting to commercialize his music, noting that “we come to think we could make a career out of playing. We knew we didn’t want farm work and we darn sure didn’t want the mines.”34 Comments like these are abundant among Appalachian musicians, and serve to dispel the myth of spontaneous purity in early country music as it is so often portrayed.

By appropriating country music’s beginnings but removing the class-based stigma of performers like Stanley, Nashville is able to divorce itself from these elements of racial and class struggle and yet, paradoxically, retain an idealized authenticity as the birthing grounds of country. Romanticizing this now-displaced struggle allows the idea, rather than the reality, of Appalachian hillbilly music to be fetishized as something beautiful a priori. This portrayal ignores the actuality of so many lives filled with death, loss, and heartache and reduces it instead into a simplified, constructed narrative of bucolic idyll—even in its sadness. Through the success of the Grand Ole Opry and the far-reaching recording industry, Nashville unwittingly claimed this romanticized construction as its own musical identity.

As Joli Jensen has observed, “Those who create, perform, and market country music work hard to maintain a rural, pastoral image, an image that appears detached from, and utterly uninterested in, the technology and economics of commercial music.” Put more simply, country music “is commercially constructed to evoke and to honor uncommercial natural origins.”35 This construction is necessary to resolve the conflict that has always existed vis-à-vis the commercialization of country and its homespun, spontaneous appearance. In reality, country music did not evolve solely in the pastoral rural hills of Appalachia. Nor did it develop specifically in the Nashville area, or even in the southeast in general. Rather, it was a commodified form of music that matured in different ways in multiple geographic locales. Performers like the Stanley Brothers didn’t live lives of serene purity in the rustic mountains of Appalachia; they tried to make a living with their music to escape the incredible toil of an extremely difficult life, as did many other country performers throughout the United States, many of whom were thousands of miles away from both Appalachia and Nashville.

In fact, both Texas and California figure prominently in the history of country music, incorporating influences from a rich mixture of cultures and styles, including Appalachian fiddling, Dixieland jazz, German and Bohemian polkas and waltzes, Mexican norteños and corridos, and Hawaiian, Cajun, and African-American music. The diversity was notable even at the time—in 1940; Variety advised bandleaders coming to Texas to be prepared to play “1) Viennese waltzes 2) the schottische 3) the polka 4) the varsovienne. To be perfectly safe, [they] should have ‘Get Along Sally,’ ‘Turkey in the Straw,’ ‘Little Brown Jug,’ and other Ozark items in [their] repertoire.”36

As many musicians relocated to further their careers, these diverse influences would, in turn, shape the music coming out of Nashville. The process of creating Nashville’s musical identity was not, as its status as the symbolic home of country music would suggest, reduced to broadcasting a regional sound to the rest of America, but in fact a complex relationship that was ultimately informed by a multitude of regional and ethnic styles which combined to reify a musical identity that was then re-broadcast outward.

The cowboy image, for example—now a staple of the country identity—was actually popularized in the southwest by Pee Wee King before being brought east to the Opry, where it quickly displaced the hillbilly as the costume of choice for many country musicians. Performers on both the east and west coasts soon began to adopt names that depicted an authentic western, rather than hillbilly, persona—epitomized by Hank Williams’s Drifting Cowboys.37

The mythic cowboy represented the same type of romanticized authenticity the hillbilly image had previously fulfilled but with a less complicated resolution to issues of class confict. Fascination with Buffalo Bill Cody and the frontier produced an idealized vision of the cowboy that was in fact far removed from reality and ignored the difficult struggles of day-to-day frontier life. The symbolic cowboy, as the definitive image of white masculinity, further removed the already-whitened category of country music from its roots.

Like that of the hillbilly, the fetishization of the cowboy is based on an isolated culture that lives in a lawless, unschooled freedom typified by an appetite for unchecked violence and liquor. Each of these cultures lives in dangerous but beautiful country, refusing to change for the modernizing world around them. Unlike the lazy, backwoods image of the hillbilly, however, the cowboy is based on Colonial and Imperialist notions that are even further removed from any semblance of racial fluidity. Moreover, the cowboy was revered, avoiding the negative stigma that had come to define the hillbilly. This projected masculinity, steeped in racial subjugation, offers an extreme, idealized extension of the rural life that so many country music listeners were familiar with. As such, this construction attached itself to Nashville, forming an image of vaguely rural manliness and ruggedness that was based on colonial images of whiteness. The admiration for the cowboy allowed Nashville to disconnect its identity from the ignorant hillbilly while maintaining many of the same positive connotations.

The cowboy image was naturally quite popular in western cities like Bakersfield and Los Angeles, each of which unquestionably affected country music. Los Angeles in particular, as the home of Capitol Records and dozens of television and film studios, was a major country music hub in the early postwar years, even rivaling Nashville in prominence. Performers like Cliffie Stone and Gene Autry were significant figures in California’s country music scene, appearing on and creating several country radio and television programs. Broadcasts like the Dinner Bell Round-Up, the Hollywood Barn Dance, and Stone’s television fixture, Hometown Jamboree, were major successes, entertaining a huge segment of West coast residents and recent migrants.38 Other television programs such as Town Hall Party, broadcast from Compton, California,39 continuously featured a host of major performers, including Tex Ritter, Merle Travis, and Lefty Frizzell. As the nexus of television and film production, Los Angeles simply dominated Nashville in this respect. As Cliffie Stone bragged, “The West Coast resented the hell out of Nashville [for] saying they were the home of country music, because they really weren’t, you know, but they were smart.”40

Nashville’s musical identity was thus not based off of true representations of the city and its people, but from a plethora of outside influences, fabrications, and appropriations—each of which become obscured by its symbolic geographic representation as the “home of country.” As Jensen notes, the “country” in country music, “is both a real and imaginary landscape, one the people actually know and live in but also one that is invented to symbolize other things.”41

Claiming Country

Following a huge increase in the popularity of country music during World War II as well as several commercial developments, the 1950s witnessed the city of Nashville finally claiming country music as its own. It is no coincidence that this occurred at a time when the sound of country music was going through a dramatic change, shaped by developments in California and Texas, that removed many of its more rural and unrefined hillbilly influences in favor of a more homogenized and commercial country pop approach, referred to as “the Nashville sound.” This musical shift finally allowed Nashville to complete the process of removing class and racial struggle from country music while retaining the implied authenticity of its origins in the Appalachian foothills, or, in the case of later cowboy-flavored country music, the Western frontier.

In 1942, Roy Acuff teamed up with songwriter Fred Rose to form Acuff-Rose publishing in Nashville—America’s first publishing house dedicated specifically to country music.42 Meanwhile, throughout the 40s and 50s, the Grand Ole Opry continued to rise in popularity,43 with over half of the country records sold in 1954 coming from performers on the Opry tour.44 By the mid-50s, major producers such as Chet Atkins (RCA), Owen Bradley (Decca), and Don Law (Columbia) relocated to Nashville, bringing with them a penchant for a more urban, commercialized sound. The Nashville sound’s commercial viability resulted in a huge influx of industry moguls taking up residence in the city, with many studios and businesses starting up in what is now known as Music Row. Charlie Louvin of the Louvin Brothers explained, “we felt that Nashville was where it was at. If you weren’t in Nashville, you were just almost next to being out of the business.”45 According to Ernest Tubb, “you had to be back in Nashville every Saturday night, come hell or high water, for the Opry.”46

Time magazine dubbed Nashville “Tin Pan Valley” in 1951, and Opry announcer David Cobb coined the term “Music City, U.S.A.” around the same time.47 By 1961, when the Country Music Hall of Fame was created, Nashville was fully ingrained as the official home of country music, boasting nearly a dozen recording studios and talent agencies, four record pressing plants, over two dozen record labels, and thousands of musicians and performers.48 As Nashville's legacy as the symbolic home of country music grew, thousands of performers relocated there from various regions of the country, bringing a diverse blend of local influences with them, all of which would in turn play a part in producing a singular, racialized musical identity.

But the construction of Nashville’s identity left out the myriad ethnic and black influences from which country music originated—the blues, blackface minstrelsy, Mexican norteños and corridos, Hawaiian music, and countless other styles and forms. The contributions of blacks and other ethnic groups that resulted in the inclusion and co-optation of elements such as the banjo, the yodel, and various blues forms were increasingly removed from country’s origins as Nashville’s musical identity grew whiter and whiter.

By appropriating these influences as its own through its symbolic status as the home of country music, Nashville was able to retain a constructed authenticity without the burdensome issues of racial and class struggle, ultimately producing a whitewashed narrative of bucolic hillbillies dancing in the moonlight and roughneck cowboys singing on the range. Not only are the racial influences of country music ignored under this construction, but, so too, are the tens of thousands of Nashville’s black inhabitants. In claiming country music’s origins, Nashville creates a representation of itself as an idyllic, naturally evolved white musical heaven—existing simultaneously in the hollers and the wild west. And yet, it exists in neither.


  1. Nashville’s black population was nearly 43,000 (28%) in the 1930s, and was as high as 43% in the 1960s.
  2. Julian Hawthorne, “Julian Hawthorne Tells How Unpurchasable Alabama ‘Hill Billies’ Upset the Railroad Magnate’s Effort to Defeat Morgan to Satisfy His Grudge Against the Veteran Senator,” New York Journal, April 23, 1900, 2.
  3. When Peer asked bandleader Al Hopkins what his group should be called, Hopkins responded, “Call the band anything you want—we’re nothing but a bunch of hillbillies from North Carolina and Virginia, anyway.”
  4. Jeffrey J. Lange, Smile When You Call Me A Hillbilly: Country Music’s Struggle For Respectability, 1939-1954 (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2004), 23.
  5. “Hill-Billy Music,” Variety, December 29, 1926, 1.
  6. Larry Fitzmaurice, “Deerhunter: Bradford Cox is one of indie rock’s most unpredictable frontmen, but as Deerhunter release their sixth album, are his antics overshadowing his art?” http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/9122-deerhunter/.
  7. Wayne W. Daniel, “Fiddlin’ John Carson: The World’s First Commercial Country Music Artist,” Bluegrass Unlimited (1985): 40.
  8. Ibid., 40-42.
    » Listen to Fiddlin’ John Carson - “The Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane”
  9. Ibid.
  10. “Edison Cylinder Sales Gain in Rural Districts,” Talking Machine World 21, no. 11 (1925): 186.
    » Listen to Vernon Dalhart - “The Wreck of the Old 97”
  11. Lange, Smile, 27.
  12. Quite interestingly, this famous name was coined following a performance of black musician DeFord Bailey’s “Pan American Blues.”
  13. Wayne Erbsen, “Wiley and Zeke: The Morris Brothers,” Bluegrass Unlimited 15, no. 2 (1980): 46.
  14. George H. Lewis, “Mexican Musical Influences on Country Songs and Styles,” in All That Glitters: Country Music in America, ed. George H. Lewis (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1993), 97.
  15. Jay Caress, Hank Williams: Country Music’s Tragic King (New York: Stein and Day, 1979), 16.
  16. Richard Leppert and George Lipsitz, “’Everybody’s Lonesome for Somebody’: Age, the Body, and Experience in the Music of Hank Williams,” Popular Music 9, no. 3 (1990): 270.
  17. Louis M. Kyriakoudes, “The Grand Ole Opry and the Urban South,” Southern Cultures, Spring (2004): 80.
  18. Bland Simpson, “Blue Yodeler: Jimmie Rodgers,” Southern Cultures, Winter (2006): 93.
  19. Eric Lott, Love & Theft: Blackface, Minstrelsy, and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 41.
  20. Philip F. Gura and James F. Bollman, America’s Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 24-25.
  21. Lange, Smile, 29.
  22. Joe Talbot, “Interview by Douglas B. Green, May 3, 1974,” Country Music Foundation Oral History Collection.
  23. Jack Harris, “True Story of the Famous WSM Grand Ole Opry,” Rural Radio 1, no. 10 (1938): 30.
  24. Maurice Zolotow, “Hillbilly Boom,” The Saturday Evening Post, February 12, 1944.
  25. Lange, Smile, 62.
  26. Ironically, it was the National Life and Accident Insurance Company who first broadcast the WSM Barn Dance, hoping to increase sales.
  27. Don H. Doyle, Nashville: In the New South 1880-1930 (Knoxville, Tennessee: The University of Tennessee Press, 1985), 212-18.
  28. Roy Acuff, Roy Acuff’s Nashville: The Life and Good Times of Country Music (Perigee Books, 1983), 43.
  29. Paul Hemphill, The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music (New York: Ballantine, 1970), 187-88.
  30. Joli Jensen, Nashville Sound: Authenticity, Commercialization, and Country Music (Nashville, Tennessee: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998), 14.
  31. Kyriakoudes, “The Grand Ole Opry and the Urban South,” 71.
  32. Lange, Smile, 29.
  33. Kyriakoudes, “The Grand Ole Opry and the Urban South,” 71.
  34. Ken Ringle, “The Natural King of Bluegrass; Virginia’s Ralph Stanley, the Old- Timey Singer Whose Time Has Come,” The Washington Post, March 20, 1993, D1.
  35. 35. Jensen, Nashville Sound, 9.
  36. “Texas Hoofing Can’t Make Up Its Mind—Hillbilly or Waltzes,” Variety, January 3, 1940, 217.
  37. Lange, Smile, 91.
  38. Ibid., 222.
  39. This example further illustrates the problematic issues of fusing a musical identity with a geographic space. Compton is now infamously known as a hopeless gang-infested ghetto, epitomized musically by NWA’s landmark album, Straight Outta Compton, in 1988.
  40. Cliffie Stone, “Interview by John W. Rumble, Nashville, March 27, 1992,” Country Music Foundation Oral History Collection.
  41. Jensen, Nashville Sound, 9.
  42. Lange, Smile, 188.
  43. Ninety-five percent of American households had a radio by 1950.
  44. Lange, Smile, 190.
  45. Charlie Louvin, “Interview by Douglas B. Green, Nashville, November 30, 1977,” Country Music Foundation Oral History Collection.
  46. Marshall Fallwell, “E.T. Remembers,” Country Music 2, no. 8 (1974): 72.
  47. “Tin Pan Valley,” Time, August 13, 1951.
  48. Jensen, Nashville Sound, 77.