By James Mack Adams
It is time to confess. I plead no contest and throw myself on the mercy of the court of public opinion. I am a life-long fan of country music but I must admit I no longer watch the televised annual Academy of Country Music Awards show. Four years ago, I watched about an hour of the production before switching channels. I haven’t made it through an entire show since.
Country music? Really? I challenge whether some of what is called country music today deserves the label. That opinion comes from an octogenarian (me) who grew up a few miles from the “Birthplace of Country Music” (Bristol) and who once lived within a short drive of “Music City” (Nashville).
Before I get into more trouble with some readers let me say there are some modern country entertainers whose music I enjoy. Others not so much. Not everyone who puts on a cowboy hat, straps on a guitar and screams some unintelligible lyrics into a microphone qualifies for the title of “country artist.” Again, that’s one person’s opinion…mine.
When it comes to music and art I suppose some could accuse me of being a purist. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” Sometimes the original, using art and music as examples, is better than any attempt to improve on it.
I accept that personal tastes in music are often generational. Has any parent ever understood the music to which his or her child listens? Probably not. My parents lived through the big band era of the 1930s and 1940s. They had trouble understanding my fascination with 1950s “classic” rock and roll. It was their opinions that Elvis and The Beatles were just passing fads and would not make it far in the music business.
Mountain, country, hillbilly, roots music, whatever you choose to call it, is an integral part of the fabric and history of Appalachia. Early settlers came to these mountains with instruments that were often homemade. They also brought with them music traditions that have evolved over the years but have in large part remained true to their origins. Traditional Appalachian music is said to be based on Anglo-Celtic folk ballads and dance tunes.
I was glad to read in this newspaper that the First Annual Upper East Tennessee Fiddler’s Convention is scheduled for April 29 at the old Flag Pond School. The event will celebrate Unicoi County’s and Northeast Tennessee’s rich musical heritage. It is written that East Tennessee’s own David Crockett was known for his fiddle playing. Let’s hope the event is a huge success.
It was not unusual for those early mountain musicians not to read music. The same was often true for later performers. Appearing on a late-night television talk show many years ago, country singer Jimmy Dean was asked if any of the musicians in Nashville could read music. “A little but not enough to hurt their playing any” was his reply.
I might insert a footnote here. Some may know Jimmy Dean more for his sausage than his singing.
In 1927, Ralph Peer, a record executive with the Victor Talking Machine Co. came to Bristol, set up a temporary recording studio in a building on State Street, and invited local musicians to come and record for him. He recorded 76 songs by 19 different acts. Among performers who accepted the invitation were The Carter
Family and Jimmie Rodgers. The commercial success of the recordings would many years later lead to Bristol being named the “Birthplace of Country Music.”
One of my favorite country singers was a Bristol native. His name was Ernest Jennings Ford, better known as Tennessee Ernie Ford. Some of my uncles were Southwest Virginia coal miners. Ernie’s song, “Sixteen Tons,” was special to me. As a child, I witnessed how my uncles toiled underground with pick and shovel to earn meager livings for their families. Yes, I do remember the company store to which many a coal miner owed his soul.
Someone once described country music as three guitar chords and the truth. The songs tell stories of everyday struggles and sometimes of overcoming personal demons. Over the years, favorite lyric subjects have been such things as home, family, faith, trains, trucks, drinking, honkytonks, divorce, prison, etc.
I grew up in Appalachia bombarded from all sides by country (hillbilly) music. I have always liked country, but at times during my life I hesitated to admit it for fear of being called a hillbilly hick. As country entertainer Barbara Mandrel sings in one of her signature songs, “I was country when country wasn’t cool.”