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Our Country’s Music

Photograph of a mic

Written and Photographed by Raymond Thompson Jr.

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Claps, hoots and hollers greeted Kathy Mattea as she stepped on stage at the Lyell B. Clay Concert Theatre at West Virginia University. The warmth of her singing voice enraptured the audience as she sang the first few songs of her setlist. Later during the performance, Charlie McCoy, who has an honorary doctorate of music arts from WVU, begins to strum the first few chords of a song written by Mattea three decades ago when she was a sophomore at WVU. The song is the tale of regional migration, place and belonging that haunts her native state to this day.

Mattea, who has an honorary doctorate from WVU, wrote “Leaving West Virginia” at a crossroads in her young life. She had a choice: stay or leave. From the porch of her apartment in Morgantown, she pondered her future as a college student. Soon, dreams of a musical career in Nashville led her to end her academic career early.


This country song, like so many others, attempts to document the story of the Appalachian diaspora.


Well, I’m leaving West Virginia in the morning 
And I’m headin’ out that California way 
I don’t know what I’ll find but baby it’s my time 
And I’ll surely leave my heart below the Mason-Dixon line

“The form comes from the tradition and the tradition comes from a rural folk tradition writing and singing about the nooks and crannies of everyday life. I think that tradition has been a center point for country music for a long time,” Mattea says.


These tunes can be a catalyst for understanding. They open pathways for people to see themselves in the musical verses delivered from the single perspective of a songwriter. If you record enough of these stories by enough musicians from enough places, you begin to weave a story of a nation.


In between the verses of these country songs, you can find the ingredients that can produce universal understanding.


A photograph of instruments
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) controller and lap dulcimer (right)

Mattea and McCoy were on stage to help launch Ken Burns’ new 16-hour series “Country Music,” which debuted Sept. 15. The documentary filmmaker has already produced episodic films on many important cultural institutions that strike at the core of what it means to be an American: jazz, World War II, the Civil War, baseball and much more.


The film explores the wide-ranging cultural and artistic influences that coalesce to create country music. Burns argues that those influences move beyond race, gender and class.


Burns’ films aren’t meant to change minds. They are meant to introduce the audience to ground-level characters, the individual fabric patches that make up the quilt of American history. This storytelling strategy leaves room for the viewer to directly engage with various actors and come to their own complex understanding.


The questions that define what country music is and what it isn’t speaks to what it means to be American. The cultural influence of Burns’ films ultimately means it will play some role in the general public’s understanding of country music.


But it is still a single story.


County music is one of those American idioms that everyone has an opinion about. You know it when you hear it, right? But, what is country music?


THREE CHORDS AND THE TRUTH

Harlan Howard famously said country music is “three chords and the truth.”


That truth varies.


“Sonically, country music tends to follow a 15- or 20-year lag on whatever the mainstream of popular music was,” said Travis Stimeling, WVU assistant professor of music history, who consulted on the project early on.


“Country music has also been described as the music of working people. But I think that’s an oversimplification. There are lots of different kinds of working-class music in the United States. Country music is a part of that fabric,” Stimeling said.


The definition of country music is hard to pin down. Susan Shumaker, BA ’87, English, a story producer for Burns’ production company Florentine Films, points out that the music at its core acquires meaning from a certain level of emotional simplicity. “It has a lot to do with truth-telling, with music that comes from the heart,” she said.


Vocal twang, old-time instruments, boots and cowboy hats are some of the stereotypical characteristics that define popular country music. “Just because you have a twang it doesn’t make it country,” said native West Virginian Shirley Stewart Burns, BSJ ’93, MSW ’95, PhD ’05, History.


Stewart Burns sees country music as the fraternal twin of blues music and she suggests the marriage of the two genres combined to form rock ‘n’ roll. Her father was a songwriter, and she grew up surrounded by music. She can remember hearing traditional Appalachian folk songs like “In the Pines,” made famous by country musician Bill Monroe and blues musician Lead Belly. The playlist in her childhood home also included the rhythm and blues music of Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin.


Photograph of a banjo and a sound effects petals
Guitar pedal board (left) and a five-string open-back banjo

She began writing and performing songs at 10 years old. A medical condition has curtailed her singing career, but she continues to write songs. She argues that country music is a way for rural Americans to communicate their lived experiences and that this type of country music is not necessarily the same music that rises to the top of the Billboard charts.


“I think that what country music does is give us an outlet,” she said. “Someone’s listening to us. Someone’s hearing us. Someone’s caring about us. Someone gets us. But one of the most important takeaways for the country music fans may be in its ability to connect. They want to know that ‘I have been down that same dirt road.’”


Despite the mutability of country music, there is one characteristic that might define the genre: storytelling.


“The story gets used in some really fascinating ways in country music,” Stimeling said. “Historically, country music’s been used to document events. Whether it’s in ballad singing or a song like Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,’ country songs have been used to spread the news like newspaper headlines.”


In regions that have historically been marginalized in economic and social ways, country music offers an opportunity to respond creatively to the issue of the time, as well as a way to mobilize social movements.


“There’s a lot of focus on just plain folks,” Shumaker said. “Folks that don’t get a lot of attention in our culture. People who feel they don’t have a voice and that they aren’t powerful. But I think ultimately a lot of the emotions that are discussed in country music are things that everybody experiences. Loss, joy – these are key ingredients in country music songs.”


Stewart Burns realized the power of the medium while performing her song “Leave Those Mountains Down.”


Leave those mountains down, boys
Leave those mountains down
Don’t tear up what the heavens bore
And leave those mountains down

My dad was a miner
And my granddads, too
They crawled inside the bowels of earth
Digging coal and paying union dues

They’ve long since died for King Coal
Lay buried in the ground
But if they were here, they’d tell you
Leave those mountains down

Stewart Burns wrote this song after realizing the landscape of her childhood home was being changed forever by mountaintop removal mining.


“When I started to sing it at these rallies and people humming it with me or asking to hear it, then that’s when I knew that my music could make a difference as well,” Stewart Burns said. “Politically, if nothing else, it could be a rallying point that people would get around and say, ‘Yes, what she’s saying in this is true.’”


THE RUB

For Shumaker, what she thought she knew about country music dramatically shifted after working on Ken Burns’ film.


“I had no idea just how much of an expression of America country music was,” she said.


After graduation, Shumaker started her own multimedia production company and then landed a job with Florentine Films. She has worked on a number of Ken Burns’ documentaries and is part of the team that developed the individual story arcs featured in this film. In her research, she discovered that many of the musical genres created in the South heavily influenced and cross-pollinated each other.


“It was a big surprise to me just how much influence African-American music has had on country music, and I would say continues to have on country music,” she said. “I thought that country music was music by white people, about white people’s concerns.”


While conducting her research she discovered a musical weave that connects country music legends like Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash to African-Americans artists.


Ken Burns’ film devotes an entire chapter to this musical fusion that crossed American racial lines.


“It’s about that rub between black and white,” Shumaker says, pointing to a quote from Ketch Secor, a musician from Old Crow Medicine Show, to explain the importance of this interaction in the spark of what we know now as American music.


On the ground and across neighborhoods in the United States, country music was being consumed by many people across racial categories. It was what was on the radio. Radio waves allowed for more democratic pathways to consume musical content, and those patterns of consumption were beyond the control of market forces.


A guitar
Guitar

“There were some powerhouse rhythm and blues stations in the ’40s and ’50s in Nashville that had these remarkably powerful radio stations, and they were white kids tuning in and listening to race records, to rhythm and blues music and a lot of them learned how to play rhythm and blues by listening to the radio,” Stimeling said. “The southern rock movement in part emerged out of all of that. It’s always been marketed as white musicians for white audiences, but it’s not always been consumed that way or even produced that way.”


Though country music is a mix of people and cultures, the marketing of it tells us that it’s by and for a certain group of people. According to Stimeling, in 1958 the Country Music Association, a trade organization, was formed to assist marketers in accessing middle class, white suburban audiences. Today, those market forces continue to play a powerful role in how we understand the social and cultural definitions of the country music genre.


“If we were to come into a new world where all of the music industry had disappeared and we needed to rebuild it, country music might not exist as we know it. We might have a totally different taxonomy to explain these sounds,” Stimeling said.


“American music is the way it is because so many different groups of people have come here either by choice or by force and live together side by side. It made sounds together.”


APPALACHIAN ROOTS

Country music has its roots in Appalachia. The musical form borrowed many of its characteristics from the richly diverse mix of people who settled the region. In the 1920s, during the rise of the country music industry, regional musicians began to travel and record traditional songs and fiddle music in New York City. This began a migration loop that saw music and ideas flowing back and forth. In the following decades, music from the region spread nationally.


As it spread, the imagined characteristics and values of Appalachia have become a cultural commodity.


Todd Burge, who studied psychology at WVU, is a veteran musician who has performed on the live performance radio program Mountain Stage. He saw how Appalachia’s musical culture has spread to places where he did not expect to see it.


Burge has struggled to define his musical style for much of his career. He has swung to punk, rock ‘n’ roll, bluegrass and country. But ultimately these labels don’t mean much to him. Early in his career, he left West Virginia to pursue a punk rock career on the West Coast.


“I found that it surrounded me everywhere I went. When I crossed the country and it was in California and San Francisco. You know it was there in the suburbs. It was all there,” he said.


Stewart Burns says this telegraphed image of Appalachia can lead to stereotypes.


“People totally romanticize this place, these rugged people, these ‘Oh my God’ salt-of-the-earth people. No, we are not necessarily weak. Some of us are rugged. Some people are salt- of-the-earth people. Some of us are bastards,” she said.


Whatever the definition of country music feels the most authentic to you, at the heart of the genre we can begin to explore the unique story that forms the myths and histories of this country.


“It’s quintessentially American,” Mattea says. “The music tells the story of America.”