Combating the Sound of Whiteness
Amanda Petrusich, "Mickey Guyton Takes On the Overwhelming Whiteness of Country Music" (2021, 15 pp.); Geoff Mann, "Why Does Country Music Sound White?: Race and the Voice of Nostalgia" (2008, 28 pp.)
In the June 14 New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich published a profile of Black, Texas-raised country singer Mickey Guyton, whose pointed and unprecedentedly race-conscious “Black Like Me” had become a breakout phenomenon during the Black Lives Matter protests of a year before. Sung thoughtfully over a spare, piano-based orchestral arrangement, such lyrics as “Daddy worked night and day/For an old house and a used car, hmm/Just to live that good life, hmm/It shouldn’t be twice as hard” added economic dimension to “If you think we live in the land of the free/You should try to be black like me,” expanding music’s racial consciousness from the hood to the oppressed lower-middle class. But that wasn’t the main reason that I tweeted the piece before I’d even finished reading. It was to let my cohort know that Petrusich had unearthed a 2008 journal article by Canadian scholar Geoff Mann—a geography professor who describes his current focus as “the politics and political economy of capitalism”—on what Petrusich calls “the resentful whiteness baked into the genre a Black artist like Guyton nonetheless wants to be part of.”
Having now read both essays twice, I say begin with Petrusich. Not only does she write more fluently and know the contemporary music world where Guyton is making her brave and newsworthy advances, she gets blunter, sharper, and more timely material out of Mann interviewing him for her Guyton profile than he could manage himself in a jam-packed but also circumspect piece of scholarship completed not just pre-Trump but pre-Obama. For instance: “In the South, especially, from Brown v. Board of Education on, the whole kit and kaboodle of American history seemed to be a story of increasingly besieged ‘average’ white folks and their families.” And then, a little later: “It pretty quickly became a situation in which the music didn’t describe how white people felt, but instead described how whiteness felt. And in that sense, it is, or at least often is, a big cultural-reproduction machine, not only narrating the ongoing siege of simple, innocent white folks—this is why nostalgia is so absolutely essential to the genre—but also performing a resistance to this siege in the experience of a supposedly simple, unrepentant white normal that is basically a big ‘fuck you’ to anyone who celebrates the forces behind that siege.”
Although the politics Mann laid out so candidly to Petrusich in his interview are more muted in his article, they’re unquestionably there. It’s not Mann’s mission to make the obvious point that country music assumes a harmonically “standardized, more or less ‘square’ song structure with generally perfect rhythmic consistency,” as most country partisans would concede with a few pet exceptions. What clinches the thesis of “Why Does Country Music Sound White?” is that these songs are delivered in “an accent that has been declared a non-accent,” a way of music-making colored and grounded by a “diphthongization” in which one vowel or instrumental sustain glides toward another vowel or sound, adumbrating the “twang” as opposed to drawl that Mann argues serves as a racial signifier that marks all country singing and playing.
Country music needs that signifier, Mann goes on, to shore up an origin myth in which it was “born of the hardships and everyday struggles of the poor southern ‘hillbilly’ culture that subsisted in the shadow of the plantation mode, and which, against the very dictates of history, survived into the present in a modified, but still more or less pure, stream of ostensibly ‘authentic’ white culture.” Nor does country music merely reflect this culture, as its partisans still argue it did back in its 1920s youth, never mind Jimmie Rodgers’s stint as a blackface minstrel or onetime minstrel interlocutor Bill Monroe interpolating jazz usages into the avowedly superwhite as well as avowedly traditional “mountain” style he invented and dubbed bluegrass. It produces it. And thus the music becomes a crucial and indeed generative locus of the white resentment that along with country radio itself has in this fraught era spread to suburbias all across this great land of ours.
So as the Deep South-branded yet trap-beat-appropriating and rapper-featuring Florida Georgia Line put it: “May we all grow up in a red white and blue little town/The kind of place you can’t wait to leave and nobody does/Cause you miss it too much.” Or how about supposedly disgraced, actually thriving red-letter redneck Morgan Wallen’s “Long live this way of life/Long live the Wal-Mart parking lot/Turned into the midnight party spot/Long live hard work when it pays off/And living it up on your days off”? But “Why Does Country Music Sound White?” argues that these snatches of verbiage, redolent though they may be, are illustrative rather than constitutive, because country music produces whiteness aurally and hence preverbally and there’s nothing any lyricist can do about it. Although clearly influenced as well by his respect for the martyred communist-humanist Gramsci, Mann’s worldview and his musical thesis were formulated in the late heyday of cultural studies’ post-structuralist hegemony, as he signals by citing Big A’s Adorno, Althusser, and Attali early on. So his thesis takes on a fatalistic, all-is-lost finality. For Mann, anomalies like the great Black country singer Charley Pride—a magnificently endowed vocalist who dwarfs such lesser exceptions-to-the-rule as jolly pop crossover Darius Rucker and the breathtakingly bland Kane Brown—or racially enlightened lyrics like Merle Haggard’s Black-white marriage tale “Irma Jackson” or Tom T. Hall’s just barely allegorical “The Man Who Hated Freckles” or Tony Joe White’s neighborly “Willie and Laura Mae Jones” or Garth Brooks’s generalized “We Shall Be Free” are powerless against the twang and all it signifies, embodies, and makes happen.
In 2021 there’s no trace of music in Mann’s impressive dossier of contributions to such journals as London Review of Books, Foreign Policy, Boston Review, and Dissent. But I couldn’t help noticing when he told Petrusich that he was hoping for “a future in which country music challenges some of its own mythologies,” citing Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Maren Morris where I’d name Isbell, Angeleena Presley, Margo Price, and the stalwart if fading Brad Paisley, whose politically charged and unfailingly woman-friendly lyrics on 2009’s perfectly turned American Saturday Night, 2017’s brave if awkward Love and War, and several lesser albums are unequaled in mainstream country. Not that he’s as conscious as onetime Drive-By Trucker Isbell, though I’d say he’s every bit as humane, but that isn’t really the point. Because unless I’m missing something, it isn’t Isbell’s transcendence of the twang that attracts Mann. It’s lyrics like “I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes/Wishing I’d never been one of the guys/Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke.” Repeat: it’s lyrics. Without question mainstream country’s naturalization of whiteness as Mann lays it out has fed an ominous political and cultural bifurcation rooted in a racism that was weakened but not eradicated by the Civil War or the civil rights movement either. But neat and also frightening as it may be to believe that this bifurcation is powered by sound not sense, I’m not ready to believe that words are altogether powerless against it.
Mickey Guyton’s debut album, Remember My Name, won’t be released till September, which seems kind of late given the fuss Nashville has been making over its new Grammy-nominated cynosure, including co-hosting the CMAs with New Zealand-born Nashville fixture Keith Urban. The album will include “Black Like Me”—which earlier this year rose to number four on Billboard’s Country Digital Song Sales chart as well as 27 Adult Contemporary—and according to Petrusich “is loaded with sounds and images that feel traditionally country—pedal steel, Guyton’s Texas drawl, recollections of church pews and dance floors and Friday-night football.” But after bearing down on her six-track 2020 Bridges EP, which also includes “Black Like Me,” I wonder just how country it will sound. Bridges has grown on me since I wrote an admiring brief about it last December. I’m especially taken with the unrelentingly witty and perky gals-out-drinking song “Rosé” (although note that Guyton told Petrusich she and her lawyer husband, who have an infant son, have quit drinking). But in fact I enjoy every track: the she’s-a-heartbreaker “Salt,” the God-beseeching “Heaven Down Here,” the humanity-beseeching “Bridges,” and especially the disabused teach-your-daughters “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” But to me it sounds just about devoid of, well, twang.
To a lesser extent this is also true of the more formulaic but far from dislikable songs of the solo Darius Rucker, who sold plenty of “‘cause they don’t look like me” T-shirts back when Hootie and the Blowfish were selling umpteen million copies of Cracked Rear View in 1996 and was quick and forthright in his support of Black Lives Matter in 2020. But as I listen to Bridges yet again it sounds to me as if the main reason Guyton is country is that she wants to be. A drawl that’s gentle not pronounced, a timbre that’s soft not textured, and a high end that’s jubilant not piercing add up to a conversational voice more musical than talky and a church voice more songful than powerful. Could all of this, properly framed and/or nuanced in ways I’ve missed or can’t foresee, add up to a new and idiosyncratic “country” voice? A reconstituted or reimagined traditional one? Or is Guyton’s modest adult contemporary success, which goes back to 2015, a more accurate harbinger of how she’ll end up?
From here there’s no way to know, and to be honest I have my doubts that the deeply reactionary and geographically disparate country radio audience will take much of a shine to new material by that good-looking “Black Like Me” gal. But that’s all the more reason to root for her. Every setback for white supremacism, however tiny and symbolic, is a another step toward the humanity in general we wish we could be part of.