The One and Indispensable

When Bill C. Malone’s Country Music, U.S.A. first appeared in 1968, it was obviously the most careful, well-researched, judicious, and accessible book on any kind of American popular music, including jazz, that had been published up to that time.  Three revisions later, and a passing of the torch by Malone to a successor charged with future expansion and revision, it still is.

Perhaps the book owes its persistent high quality to the fact that Malone isn’t a professional musician, critic, musicologist, or even sociologist.  He’s an historian, who fondly recalls the “milestone . . . in my own discipline” represented by his November 1977 “lecture-concert on country music . . . at the opening session of the Southern Historical Association.”  Note the context of his treasured professional memory.  Malone is a Southerner, hailing from Galena in East Texas, “a little community, now vanished, . . . about twenty miles west of Tyler.”  The “little Philco battery radio” that first brought professional country music into the family farmhouse arrived there more than 70 years ago, he says.

Regional patriotism and nostalgia aren’t all that sustains his argument throughout the book that country is the music of Southern working people.  Human reality does, too, for country’s performers have been and are overwhelmingly Southern, overwhelmingly working-class,...

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