A few weeks back, a relative of mine wrote to me: “I’m so excited about your new career as a country-western singer.”
I wrote back to clarify that I’m a country singer now, not a country-western singer. Earlier this week, when I again found myself explaining this distinction, this time to an old friend, I decided that this was what I should talk about this week in these pages.
The question of what it is that Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash did for a living was a valid one in their day, and remains one today. The phrase “country music” didn’t exist until around 1949, and if you had asked Rodgers, he’d probably have said he was a blues singer. He didn’t think of himself as a genre singer, though, and saw himself as competing with Al Jolson and Rudy Vallee, not with the Carter Family or Vernon Dalhart.
As the genre that we call country emerged in the 1930s, growing out of the work of the Carters and, especially, of Rodgers, the question of what to call it became pressing. The 1920s boom in recorded music (including the birth of the first true record stores) and in radio made genres important markers of identity. By the 1930s record labels were specializing in particular types of music, as were record stores and radio programs, even whole radio stations. You couldn’t really specialize in a type of music, though, unless you had a name to call it.
By the mid-1930s, the prevailing terms were folk music or hillbilly music. Both terms would have legs—when Billboard first launched what would become its country chart, in 1944, it called it Folk; the magazine changed the chart’s name to Hillbilly in 1947, to Country-and-Western in 1949 and finally to Country in 1962—but both came with some problems.
“Folk” was popular with many people, and Hank Williams identified himself as a folk musician. However, it didn’t go over well in Nashville’s emerging Music Row, because it suggested that the music was primarily reworkings of traditional songs. This had been a fair assessment in the days of Rodgers and the Carters, but by the end of the 1930s Nashville had a booming songwriting community, and they didn’t like to think of themselves as recycling old warhorses.
Billboard’s change from “Folk” to “Hillbilly” gratified the Music Row publishers and reflected the rural focus of much of the music’s subject matter, but a group of artists—led by Ernest Tubb, whose career was at its height in 1947—felt that the term “hillbilly” was derogatory. (Tubb, who was from a spectacularly flat portion of Texas, may also have felt that it simply wasn’t descriptive of his own style.)
They petitioned for a change to Country, which Billboard didn’t mind doing, but Columbia Records had an objection. The company was anxious to find a chart for their popular ensemble the Sons of the Pioneers (whose lead singer, Roy Rogers, would soon emerge as a top movie star), and felt that the Sons (pictured above in the 1940s) would perform better against the likes of Tubb and Roy Acuff than, say, against Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. They convinced Billboard to adopt the portmanteau designation “Country and Western,” which stuck for the next 13 years and, as my own experience demonstrates, remains influential to the present day—even though Billboard itself abandoned the term in 1962.
OK, so what do I have against “Country and Western?”
Let me emphasize, to begin with, that I have nothing against western music—that is to say, cowboy music—as such. I have several Sons of the Pioneers CDs, for example, and I think their “Cool Water” (1948) is one of the best recordings ever, in any genre. The other day, on a visit to the indispensable Mr. Cheapo used-record store, I picked up Columbia Records’ “The Essential Gene Autry.”
I like many kinds of music besides country. I love Gilbert & Sullivan, Broadway, Mozart and Graham Alexander. If, however, someone suggested changing the name of country music to “country and Broadway,” I’d be strenuously opposed. To do that would be to cause people who didn’t know either genre well to suppose that they must be related to one another, to the extent that they’d hear someone singing “Consider Yourself” and say, “Country music again, eh?” It would cause aspiring country singers to try to act, dress and sound like Broadway stars, and vice versa. It would muddy the waters, in short.
The idea of “country and Broadway” is ludicrous, of course, but country music—which arose out of a fusion of Anglo-Scots mountain ballads with African-American blues—and western music really have little in common. The suggestion that they are in any sense parts of a coherent whole ill-serves both forms, and country music has been significantly harmed by the association.
To understand why this is the case, it’s important to realize what “cowboy music” is. To begin with, it has little to do with what ranch hands sang or played in the latter half of the 19th century in the American West. There’s been some excellent work done on this subject, but it’s under the rubric of historic folk music. The culture of the Old West was as dead in the 1940s as it is today.
What we think of as western music is, overwhelmingly, a creation of Hollywood and the “singing cowboy” movies of the 1930s, especially those starring Autry and Rogers. Neither Autry nor Rogers was in any meaningful sense a cowboy: They were professional singers who experimented with various different styles (Autry started as a Jimmie Rodgers imitator, while Rogers briefly fronted the Hollywood Hillbillies) before finding their niches as movie cowboys. It was a pre-existing niche that had been defined by such earlier stars as Ken Maynard and Bob Steele; even John Wayne did some singing-cowboy movies–for example, as Singin’ Sandy Saunders in Riders of Destiny (1933)–early in his career, though his singing was always dubbed.
There were, of course, connections between country music and Hollywood cowboy music. The guitar-based instrumentation was one, and the personal histories of such stars as Autry and Tex Ritter, whose roots were in country, was another. Some legitimate country stars were fascinated by cowboy music—most notably Johnny Cash, but also Jimmie Rodgers and Marty Robbins. (Rodgers is probably responsible for the idea that cowboys in the American West yodeled, which almost certainly they didn’t, since it would have spooked the cattle.)
At its heart, however, cowboy music lacks the one element most central to country music: authenticity.
Rodgers, Cash, Tubb, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, the Carter Family et al. were from the dirt-poor rural culture that they sang about. Their audience connected to their music because they could recognize the voice of experience. There were, obviously, elements of artifice to their music, as there are to any work of art, but the core of their success was a deep connection between singer, song and audience.
That wasn’t the case with cowboy music. There’s no authentic sense of the western experience in cowboy songs, because the songs were written by professional songwriters, most of them based in Los Angeles, who had no personal experience with life on the range. They could only recycle musty images of saddles, Stetsons, six-guns and tumbleweeds cribbed from old movies and dime novels. Nor could the singers impart any immediacy to those songs, because they didn’t write them and had never spent time in the world represented in those songs.
The cowboy song is a Potemkin village of authenticity, an artfully rendered mockup of the lives lived by real people in incredibly different circumstances two or three generations before the songs were ever written. What more need be said than that arguably the most iconic of all western songs, “Don’t Fence Me In” (1934), is the work of Broadway’s most urbane and sophisticated songwriter, Cole Porter?
None of which makes cowboy songs any worse as songs—as mentioned above, many of them are brilliant. It simply puts them outside the framework of the best country music.
Unfortunately, the association of country music and cowboy songs had a deleterious effect on country music, especially as to the question of authenticity. It was bad enough when country artists started affecting cowboy hats in the 1940s, earning the derogatory nickname “hat acts” (it was always affectation—if authenticity were the goal, today’s country artists would wear John Deere baseball caps), and when artists such as Hank Williams (out of Chapman, Alabama, some distance from the Wild West) started using band names like “the Drifting Cowboys.”
By the 1950s, however, Nashville was being choked by the heavy hand of Hollywoodization, most notably in the form of rhinestone-crusted, elaborately stitched Nudie suits—the work of Nudie Cohn, proprietor of Nudie’s of Hollywood (later Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors).
Cohn (who was even less authentic a westerner than his name suggests, having been born Nuta Kotlyarenko in Ukraine) began as a maker of showy cowboy suits for the movie studios, but found a new market in Nashville. Country stars, trying to be more visual in the dawning years of television, vied to outshine each other in the garishness of their costumes and their elaborately decorated guitars and cars. Great artists such as Patsy Cline, Ray Price, Porter Wagoner and even Hank Williams continued to sing music of deep authenticity—but it was harder to take it seriously when they were togged up like a late-stage Elvis Presley (whose ludicrous jumpsuits were, of course, the work of Nudie Cohn).
If country music became something of a joke in the 1950s and 1960s, in other words, it’s partly due to the pernicious influence of Hollywood cowboy stylings, the result at least in part of the “country and western music” nomenclature. It wasn’t until the “outlaw country” movement of the 1960s and 1970s that country said, “Hey, what the hell are we doing? We look like a bunch of pimps!” and went back to real clothes.
Country music was built on people such as the Carters, Rodgers, Acuff, Tubb, Williams and Hank Snow singing songs about real life, dressed in clothes that were slightly smarter versions of what their audience was wearing. (The iconic photo of Rodgers in a brakeman’s costume is a publicity shot for his movie, The Singing Brakeman (1929)—in real life he performed in natty suits and straw hats.)
It would be ridiculous to say that the use of the phrase “and western” was the death knell to authenticity in country music. Cowboy hats and Nudie suits were small parts of an effort to make the genre more palatable to mainstream show business, meaning movie executives, television producers and urban record-buyers. The most substantial part of that effort was the so-called “Nashville Sound,” which took country away from the live-in-the-studio sound of its early decades and toward the lush orchestrations, sweet harmonies and percussion-driven production more characteristic of pop and rock music.
Nonetheless, “and western” was a straw in the wind, and what it represents has done a great deal of harm to the music that I love. No cowboy songs for Tennessee Walt, friends, and no Nudie suits. The hat and jeans I wear onstage on Saturday night are the same ones I wear when I go to the newsstand on Tuesday morning; if I’m a hat act, it’s because I’m a hat guy.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go listen to “Cool Water.” It isn’t country, but it’s one heck of a song.