If you’re thinking about the birth and development of country music, let us recommend a few texts for your Christmas holiday.
First of all, with congratulations on its 50th anniversary edition, there’s Bill Malone’s Country Music USA (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018), updated and with new material by Tracey E. W. Laird. For some writers and thinkers, it’s the Bible of the field, but it’s not without its shortcomings—at least as far as the early years are concerned. Bill’s influence is enormous; he was a prominent consultant on Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary.
The July-September 1965 special “Hillbilly Issue” of the Journal of American Folklore (Vol. 28, No. 309) is a goldmine of early thinking about the questions surrounding the emergence of country as a genre of recorded music. Includes indispensable articles by Norm Cohen, L. Mayne Smith, Ed Kahn, D. K. Wilgus, but features most prominently the now-classic “Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol” by Archie Green (pp. 204-228).
Another special issue of the Journal of American Folklore (Vol. 127, No. 504) from Spring 2014 revisits some of the questions raised in 1965 and especially debates the so-called Southern thesis present throughout Bill Malone’s work. Key insights are to be found by Patrick Huber in “The New York Sound: Citybilly Recording Artists and the Creation of Hillbilly Music, 1924-1932” (pp. 140-158), and articles by Ronald D. Cohen, Paul L. Tyler, and Clifford R. Murphy are also not to be missed. Brief commentaries by Bill Malone, Erika Brady, and Norm Cohen, along with a sound review by Nate Gibson, round out this essential volume.
Finally, to understand the outsized role of the A&R men and location recordings on country’s origins, check out Barry Mazor’s Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2015). The history wasn’t quite as “organic” as one might have thought!