Back in 2007, when Travis Stimeling was casting about for an anthology of primary sources about country music, he had some difficulty finding one. So, he set out to put together and publish his own. He faced two challenges: “How could I pull the most evocative readings to use?” and “How could I contextualize the pieces and get readers to think about bigger themes?”
In The Country Music Reader, Stimeling has more than answered his own questions, producing an invaluable resource for fans of country music, historians, teachers, and popular music scholars. With deft skill, he draws on sources from fan magazines and fan club newsletters to trade publications and artist’s autobiographies to present the voices of session musicians, songwriters, engineers, producers, and fans. The articles, interviews, and excerpts in that volume cover over 100 years – the earliest piece is an excerpt from John Lomax’s Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910), and the latest piece is Skip Hollandsworth’s 2011 profile of Miranda Lambert, “The Girl Who Played with Firearms.”
The volume gathers the voices of many familiar music writers or historians, from George Hay and Alan Lomax to Alanna Nash, Craig Havighurst, and Chet Flippo. Persistent themes arise, notably the future of traditional country music and fears that it’s been “murdered on Music Row” – a threat felt by every generation, as this collection reveals. Stimeling eloquently sets each primary source in context with a brief introduction to the piece’s chronological and historical setting, and provides biographical information about the piece’s author.
The Country Music Reader offers a deep well into which readers can dip again and again for refreshment and sustenance. This is the kind of book that does what all good music books should do: lead readers to pick up their favorite artist’s album, drop the needle, and sit back to read the deep background about her or him.
I caught up with Stimeling by phone at his office at West Virginia University in Morgantown, WV, for a chat about The Country Music Reader.
Henry Carrigan: What prompted you to write this book?
Travis Stimeling: It actually grew out of my teaching. I always like to include primary sources in my teaching, and it became really clear that there weren’t many good materials—I mean collections of primary sources—for students studying the history of country music. I thought this would be a really fun project to work on, though it was on the back burner for a few years because I was trying to finish other projects.
How long did it take you to put it all together?
It took me almost seven years. I started back in 2007. I did put it aside for a long time while I was working on Austin stuff [Cosmic Cowboys and New Hicks: The Countercultural Sounds of Austin’s Progressive Country Music Scene, Oxford University Press, 2011], and I finished it in November or December 2013.
How did you select the articles you ended up including in the Reader?
First, I had a couple of outstanding graduate assistants who collected a treasure trove of source materials from both general interest and music magazines. I knew I wanted pieces on topics that were missing from the conversation, generally, and from other collections—such as women in country music, and articles written by women, and pieces on session musicians, engineers, and producers, the people who are so seldom featured yet without whom we wouldn’t have this music. As I started considering which pieces I would include, I applied four criteria to the pieces. First, the article needed to be evocative, provoke a conversation, or to be representative of a particular way of writing about country music. Second, I looked a lot through other writers’ footnotes to see what writings influenced them or that were important to them. Third, the writing and the subject matter needed to be very accessible to readers. Finally, and most practical, I needed to be able to get permissions for the pieces.
Any pieces you wanted to include but had to leave out because permissions were too costly?
Yeah, there were a couple from Rolling Stone, but they were the hardest source with which to work. There’s a piece in Time from around 1974 on the Austin music scene I wish I could have included.
Do you have a favorite article?
There’s a series of letters to the editor about country music fan clubs called “Ask Trina.” With the help of a friend, Blanche “Trina” Trinajstick founded The K-Bar-T Country Roundup and helped fans connect with their favorite artist’s fan clubs, as well as dispensing advice about the daily details of running a fan club. In every issue Trina would answer questions from women asking for guidance about how to manage a mailing list but also how to balance being a housewife with the business of running a fan club. I love that chapter because it is a remarkable document about how women are trying to navigate country music in the ‘60s.
How has the character of writing about country music changed over the years?
I don’t think it has that much. It seems to me that writers are obsessed with many of the same themes over time. Are country music people just like you and me? There are some early essays on fiddlers’ conventions that try to address this question in fascinating ways. Many of the articles ask how people make money off this stuff [playing country music]. In addition, these pieces deal with the authenticity question. Is the country music I’m seeing on TV or hearing on the radio the same country music I’d hear in a backwoods rural setting or up in the hollers? There’s this almost anthropological need to discover the authentic in country music. I think what’s changed are that the contexts in which the questions are asked are different.
What do you think is the state of country music writing today?
I have some grave concerns. We are suffering in some ways from the death of print journalism and the absence of long form journalism where you can tell the story of an artist or the development of a music form. We have a strip-mining culture in which mainstream music magazines are digging for audiences they haven’t yet reached. Rolling Stone is an example of trying to tie into a market and not the music. In their pages country music is portrayed as this weird white Southern other presented as part of the mainstream of popular American culture. We’ll be fascinated with country music for now, these magazines are saying, but they’re not committed to the genre. We need more daily coverage of country music in newspapers, and we need more beat reporting, who are telling us what’s happening on a daily basis in country music.
Who are some of your favorite country music writers today, and where is some of the best writing being done?
Well, there is a lot of great writing going on out there, and I know as soon as I mention names I’ll leave folks out. I think Peter Cooper, Jewly Hight, and Barry Mazor are doing really great work tracking down stories and bringing artists to people’s attention. Some of the best writing today, I think, is being done in Bluegrass Unlimited, the Oxford American music issue, and in No Depression, and I’m not just saying that because we’re talking (laughs); No Depression has been a go-to for as long as I can remember.
What do you hope readers take from your book?
I hope that people will use it as a way to get a little more depth from the music they already appreciate. I hope they’ll pull out some of the key themes and see the ways that such themes help deepen our understanding of country music and all music.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a book on Nashville session musicians.