Over the years, I've become a fan of country music, from its Appalachian and Black roots to outlaw country and cosmic American. There's so much rich history and culture surrounding the genre(s) that I'm grateful for smart guides to the people, places, and stories behind the sound. Last month, I appreciated Elamin Abdelmahmoud's Rolling Stone piece "Rewriting Country Music's Racist History." And over at Longreads, Aaron Gilbreath curated a collection of some great online writing about country music. Here are three of Gilbreath's picks:
"Push Play" (Chris Dennis, Guernica, April 6, 2020)
Dolly Parton is pure country but bigger than country, because she is bigger than life, and yet, you can't talk about country music without talking about her. And are more sides to her career and influence than a hundred stories can contain. In this personal essay, one young man looks at his past tastes to explore the role Parton played in his ideas of masculinity and difficult coming out. "I think part of my magic, if I have any at all," Parton once said, "is that I look totally fake but am so totally real."
"Branded Man" (Andy McLenon and Grant Alden, No Depression, November 1, 2003)
Speaking of Bakersfield: When you sing "Let's go to Luckenbach, Texas, with Waylon and Willie and the boys," let's never forgot Merle Haggard. Yeah yeah, this song's not about him, but country wouldn't be country without him. For No Depression, the magazine that celebrated outlaw and underground country, two writers celebrated California's rural poet, the son of cotton pickers, who brought a lot of poetry and rebellion to country, and made California a place for serious country music, as much as others had made it a place for pop songs and folk tunes. Here writers Andy McLenon and Grant Alden make a serious case that, in their words, "Merle Haggard is our greatest living singer and songwriter. Country singer and songwriter, if you must limit him. Just do not argue the point." Take that, Waylon and Willie.
"For Women Musicians, Maybelle Carter Set The Standard And Broke The Mold" (Tift Merritt, NPR, August 13, 2019)
"If Maybelle Carter — mother of country music, without whom country and rock and roll guitar would not exist — can't make the great guitar player list, how can women musicians expect to be seen at all?"
Despite her many decades in the business and so many records sold, Maybelle Carter hardly received any honors during the peak of her career. Today, decades later, many, many more women are on the road; I imagine that would make Maybelle deeply happy. Women managers, women running production, sound and lights, women booking venues, women playing bass, women drummers, women rocking, women raising children on the road: We are Maybelle's spiritual granddaughters. In the next 20 years, we will continue to bloom in music. But more and more, the world listens to music without context, without credits — no players, no provenance, no lineage — despite that information being readily accessible to us all. Social media allows everyone their own center stage; self-aggrandizing without depth perception — without a deeper sense of context in the present or in the history that has come before us — is an accepted way of moving through the world. This makes it even more essential to note how deeply the work of Maybelle Carter contributed to the music that follows her — for both women and men. Acknowledgement for the work of women — seen and unseen— is the only way to push this story forward for the daughters to come.
"Cryin', Dyin', or Goin' Somewhere: A Country Music Reading List" by Aaron Gilbreath (Longreads)