The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry

April 3, 2008

The Selling Sound is a fascinating and wide-ranging account of the rise of the country music industry. This is not a dry economic discussion of an emerging section of the cultural industries, but a wonderful exploration of the many factors that contributed to the development of the most popular radio format in the US and one of the country's leading cultural exports.

The book offers a critical history of how different types of music were brought together as country music and how this led to the establishment of a tradition outlining the supposed inevitability of what is included and what is excluded from the genre.

On a personal note, it explained to me why I have been able to hear recordings of Louis Armstrong and Jimmie Rodgers performing together, while only Rodgers is now part of the country tradition.

Diane Pecknold demonstrates how the concepts of the commercial and the authentic - often presented as a binary opposition with the latter always under threat from the former - offer little explanatory power when trying to understand country music.

In fact, according to Pecknold's account, the commercial itself becomes at times a sign of the authentic. Instead of the simple idea that success means a compromise of authenticity, she shows how it was celebrated as a recognition that the authentic was being accepted by a wider audience.

She details how the work of the Country Music Association and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and their claims for the authenticity of the music, depended on the industry's commercial success.

Pecknold also provides a persuasive account of the changing nature of the audience for country music. Although the stereotype is that country music is white music of the political right, she shows how this was not inevitable. Her discussion of the politics of the music includes a fascinating account of the industry's changing articulation of whiteness.

More generally, she outlines the many ways in which country music has been employed by politicians as a means to mobilise the silent majority, while at the same time they sought to prevent the development of "country and western Marxism". This sometimes took the form of racism, as in the campaign strategies of William Wallace.

At other times, it was an attempt at mobilising support for a right-wing agenda through forms of cultural populism. Richard Nixon made various attempts to associate himself positively with the music, including issuing a national proclamation in 1972 that October was to be a Country Music Month.

The Selling Sound will be of obvious interest to those who study popular music, especially country music. But it should also be of interest to those who are interested in questions of cultural economy, the cultural industries, the politics of culture and audience studies.

The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry

By Diane Pecknold
Duke University Press
ISBN 9780822340805
Published 15 February 2008

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