God and Country Music: The Gentrification of Country Music?

Each week in God and Country Music, Nick Rynerson gives country music a chance and examines the world of Americana, folk, alt-country, and popular country music. 

For a time, American folk music was for the poor by the poor, written to escape the hardships and express the pain of rural brokenness. From this pain came the blues in the black community and bluegrass in the white community. Both of these styles reached the deepest and darkest places of the American landscape and made country music what is today. The roots to that tree were these obscure, impoverished musicians.

But almost as soon as it started, another demographic began to take notice of this great music. Men like W.C. Handy and Harry Smith, professional “big city, white collar” musicians started digging around the coal mines and cotton plantations for hidden musical diamonds and then bringing this music back to the bourgeois.

Lets take Harry Smith, for example. Harry Smith is one of the greatest things to happen to folk music and maybe one of the oddest. He became a bohemian hero when in 1952 he put out a compilation of old folk music between 1927 and 1932 that he had collected. It sounds odd now, a guy changing the music world with a mix tape of old tunes, but that’s how it happened. This mix tape, The Anthology of American Folk Music became the building blocks for the folksinger movement in New York City that produced the likes of Bob Dylan and influenced countless outlaw, acoustic and alternative country acts. And it is a truly amazing compilation. A music lover can get lost in the eighty-something tracks performed mostly by poor reverends and coal miners.

Middle Class white-collar folks (like me) who have never known the troubles associated with a life of aimless wandering and sharecropping have taken over country. It’s like this at most Americana/country shows that I get the chance to go to. And I’ve sometimes wondered to myself  if my love of this music cheapens the value of it. Should I be able to take part in this music with my lack of social identification.

I’ve come to a conclusion that is as much theological as it is musical and I believe that this “gentrification” is not gentrification at all. It is really all about identification. We should not be shocked or put off by a crowd that doesn’t look much like the storyteller because the stories being told are universal. It doesn’t take a rambling Mississippi sharecropper to relate to “James Alley Blues”, just someone who has been hurt before.

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God has wired man a certain way and certain stories, particularly musical stories, have appeal to each and every culture. It’s been said that music is the universal language, so when the songs speak truth it is due to expect universal response. Just like the Greek response to the Jewish Messiah, Yeshua in the New Testament, men with seemingly nothing in common with the source are drawn to something so unlike themselves because the message somehow seems so deeply relatable that it resonates in the innermost parts of the soul. So don’t be afraid to resonate with truth from some far and distant culture, chances are it has something to say to you right where you’re at.

About Nick Rynerson

Nick Rynerson lives in Normal, Illinois (no, seriously). In his free time, He writes, attempts to play mandolin, reads and hangs out with his groovy wife. Nick has a soft spot for any song with a banjo and thinks Bruce Campbell is the best actor on earth. However, he is a terrible golfer and has particular distaste internet controversy . Nick is passionate about the Church, (lower case) orthodoxy and whatever he's been reading about recently.

Follow Nick on Twitter: @Nick_Rynerson
or at his website: nickrynerson.com

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    Nick very interesting stuff. I was unaware of this album and the effect that it had on the folk music movement of the 1960s. I also find it interesting when the music of one social class crosses over into another but I wonder if there are any examples of the reverse where music created for the bourgeois has become the music of the poor. I would doubt there are many instances of such an occurrence but it would be a fascinating case study.

  • Larry Prater

    Thank you for highlighting the Harry Smith anthology. Hal Willner’s The Harry Smith Project, recorded by various (and diverse) artists over a decade ago highlights, I think, the universality of the music Harry Smith recorded. Just listening to Nick Cave’s rendition of John the Revelator conveys conveys, again, to me, the share experience of all humanity conveyed in song. Rather than gentrifying country music, there is a genuine sympathy for the music and the muscians that created it, even to empathize with those musicians and the social milieu that produced their music. If there is any danger of gentrification of country music, then it comes in the mainstreaming efforts of Music Row producers in Nashville. Just give a listen to George Strait’s Murder on Music Row.

  • Larry Prater

    Apologies for the extra “conveys” and leaving the “d” off of “share” in my comment. Virtual keyboards are not my friends.

  • Fred Smith

    This is absolutely true–music speaks to the universal experience in all of us. This is because we are all created in the image of God. (We are also all fallen, which is a factor as well.)

    It is a myth that each of us is unique. We are not, really. We are all much more alike–at core–than we are different. This is because we are in God’s image–and there is only one God.

    The result is that middle class people who have never been poor, never lived in the country, never been the victim of unscrupulous landowners etc. can still appreciate the music that world produced–we’ve all been hurt, all seen injustice if not been victims of it, all been scared for the future. The music, in its depiction of particular experiences, evokes universal experience.

    This is also why an audience in 21st Century Japan can revel in the music of 19th century German composer Beethoven. He touched something universal, something found in every soul, and thus can transcend the decades/centuries and even culture and language.

    So, why do some people like one kind of music and others like other kinds of music? I think that is culturally conditioned, but normally, even then, what I like in Bluegrass is the same thing that another finds in Pop or disco, or Hip-hop. What I thrill to in Beethoven is found–in lesser degree–in pop or country.

    So why does Beethoven speak across centuries and across cultures, when so much of what we normally listen to is “dated” ten years later. The key is in the term “lesser degree”. Beethoven, Mozart, and a few others, tap more deeply into the human soul than Frank Sinatra or even Bill Monroe or Ernest Tubb. Even they tap into it more deeply than the average Garage Band. People are a lot more allike than we think–even people who live centuries apart, on different continents and vastly different cultures.

    BTW, the appeal of folk music is that, like Beethoven and Mozart, it has lasted through time. It is why some of us at least can enjoy American folk, Irish folk, Japanese folk, Ukranian folk and other kinds of folk music. All of it touches the universal in all of us. (But I don’t particularly care for Ukranian folk music, though I like some American folk–doesn’t that prove you wrong?) Glad you asked. No it doesn’t–remember that for most music, cultural conditioning causes us to appreciate some music better than others. Folk music transcends that conditionin more easily than pop (and classical, only at its best, does it better still), but we need to train our ears to hear these other forms. When we do so, we find that the appeal of Ukranian folk music is, for us non-Ukranians, much the same thing, in a different package, that appeals to us in Bluegrass, or folk or country, or even Beethoven.


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