Country & Western: Imagining Rural Characters

 

The Carter Family
Uncle Dave Mason

Country music's image had to embody both the traditionalism of "old-time" music and the newness of popular music; it could not have evolved into a viable commercial genre without adopting a marketable image with mass appeal. Early stars like the Carter Family or John Carson evoked an older rural image that matched early marketing strategies, which targeted a local or regional population. Photographs of the Carter Family suggest an almost rustic Victorian image of a farm family in their Sunday best; they carried a sense of a quickly receding past, whether real or imagined, of values centered around family, thrift, religion, and industry. The rural old-timer, even though they carried the suggestion of being dumb or hillbilly, stood in stark contrast to the worrisome depersonalized urban landscape. This image held two important elements: the preservation of a disappearing authentic American culture and the reminder of a life recently left behind by the new urban population. Consequentially, this image was crafted to eliminate authentic sounds and images that conflicted with the necessity of preserving the traditional.

Roy Acuff & band

As the radio came to prominence in the distribution of old-time music, the hillbilly replaced the old-timer. While both images suggested many of the same traits, the old-timer was a relic while the hillbilly could be constantly young and new. While visual appearances seem unimportant over the radio and most stars focused on radio performances, they also had to do live appearances and publicity photos to advertise. For these public displays, their image had to correspond to the rural music. Radio stations often demanded that performers look the part of the characters they played. This became even more important when shows like the Grand Ole Opry began to include live studio audiences. Many of the performers were in fact not rural hillbillies but professional musicians, and so their images were carefully crafted to match the expectations of the audience. George Hay of the Grand Ole Opry was most prominent in fashioning the new hillbilly look, deriving him from the vaudeville "country bumpkin" stereotype. He gave the bands names like The Fruit Jar Drinkers and the Dixie Clod Hoppers and re-christened Dr. Bate and His Augmented Orchestra as the Possum Hunters.

Roy Rogers & Dale Evans

Western films also introduced another character who began to appear with more frequency on the radio barn dances- the singing cowboy. John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and others rose to fame singing Western-themed songs, and they added another element to the rustic variety shows. In addition to the cattle songs, Western Swing began to be popularized by the mid-'30s. The singing cowboy's costume, while possibly derived from some historic source, clearly shows evidence of Hollywood engineering. As producers played with styles to address new trends the loud Cowboy image and the down-home hillbilly images began to merge and create a new, distinct type. The cowboy's hat and the hillbilly's denim blurred the two characters, and as this occurred the performers also wove together elements from Western Swing, cattle songs, old-time string bands, and gospel to produce a new style of music. As the cowboy and the hillbilly merged visually and audibly, regional distinctions began to disappear, and a new national product emerged.

 

Hillbillies on the Radio | Country & Western | A National Culture?


The Carter Family | Bill Monroe | Roy Acuff | Woody Guthrie

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