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, and Southern manners, mores, and religion continually inform it.  Malone characterizes hundreds of performers in evidence of his thesis, and those sketches provide the book’s most immediate gratification, for by exploiting a 38-page Index primarily of names, fans can browse away countless hours.  Similar pleasure is to be had, however, with the many available country-music encyclopedias of varying degrees of scholarship and illustration.  Better to read Malone straight through and enjoy his equally close attention to the country-music business.

Most historically minded fans know that business, in the form of record-company talent scout Ralph Peer, reached out to the country and recruited the music’s first stars, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.  Malone adduces instances of the country coming to the business, most momentously the case of Texas fiddler Eck Robertson, who in 1922 jaunted up to New York City from a gig at a Confederate soldiers’ reunion in Virginia, insisted on recording, and set down his still-astonishing, 14-variation “Sally Gooden,” considered the first recorded country-music song.  The point Malone makes with such cases is that early country musicians’ rurality did not mean they were unaware of commercial-technological developments throughout the United States.  They wanted the larger audiences and performance opportunities records and radio might bring them, and they preferred music-making to laboring for a living.  (Which doesn’t mean they all left the farm, then or now.)  Hence, the Carters and Rodgers hightailed it to Bristol, Tennessee, when Ralph Peer showed up to record.  The discovered made sure they were.

As relations between anything and its business are wont to, those between country and business soon became fraught, and a leitmotif in Country Music, U.S.A. has always been sounded by musicians who feel the business is ignoring them or thwarting their creativity and by fans of older styles bemoaning the imminent demise of their favorite flavor.  An admirer of the old styles, Malone shares these concerns, but feeling obliged to savor the new, he faithfully listens for evidence that every kind of country that ever was still is.  In his last chapter of the book, he happily notes Nickel Creek as revisers of the now 40-year-old revision of bluegrass called newgrass.  His successor, music professor Jocelyn R. Neal, keeps faith with him in this regard in her first chapter, “A New Century,” revealing the traditional elements in the music of college-educated Brad Paisley and Josh Turner (a striking bass-baritone, fashion-model good-looking, with a taste for religion-tinged songs like “Long, Black Train” and “Me and God”) and points out the Bakersfield shuffle of Buck Owens in the stylings of Darius Rucker, former lead singer of popsters Hootie and the Blowfish and the newest black country star.

Inevitably, the book is not perfect.  Three revisions haven’t removed egregious errors, factual (Frank Walker was first president, not owner, of MGM Records, when it signed Hank Williams and assured its place in country-music history) and typographical.  Bluegrass great Ralph Stanley’s discovery of future stars Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs is recounted three times.  Yet that’s about all there is to carp about.

Country Music, U.S.A. is the one indispensable book on its subject.  If you can, read it Wednesdays between 9 a.m. and noon, Central Time, when you can stream Malone’s marvelous program Back to the Country on WORT in Madison, Wisconsin.  Of course, you may not be able to concentrate on reading.  But you won’t mind.


[Country Music, U.S.A., by Bill C. Malone and Jocelyn R. Neal (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press) 686 pp., $34.95]