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Wednesday, September 9, 2:00pm - 3:00pm (Panel)

Country’s Benjamin Button Syndrome 

  • What Is Youth? Country Music’s Child Neglect, David Cantwell (The New Yorker)
  • Baby, You a Song: The Arrival of Country-Pop's Young, Macho Accent, Jewly Hight (NPR Music)
  • Suburban Struggle: Conflict Between Punks and Urban Cowboys in Early 1980s Costa Mesa, California, Amanda Marie Martinez (UCLA)
  • G.I. Blues:The Military Roots of Country’s Teenage Rebellion, Joseph Thompson (Mississippi State U)


Presentation Descriptions


What Is Youth? Country Music’s Child Neglect, David Cantwell (The New Yorker)

Country music doesn’t do “youth.” Granted, the genre’s commercial history has witnessed more than its share of young performers: For examples, better-now-than-ever legends Tanya Tucker and Marty Stuart both began their careers in 1972 when they were just 13 and 12 years old, respectively. Country also persistently adopts once popular but now unfashionable and, in a sense, orphaned sounds: Country has absorbed many youthful earlier styles—taking in rock-and-roll repertoire and British Invasion licks, southern rock, arena rock and even old-school couplet-favoring hip hop—after the kids associated with those earlier sounds grew up and moved on. And country story songs, of course, have included every possible vintage of young characters, from children who serve up one form or other of object lesson for their parents, to grown-ups recalling some heartache or big game experienced by their younger selves, to whole cemeteries of both long-gone youth mentors and dead babies who were barely here in the first place.

A younger audience has emerged in our century as a sought-after country music demographic, but for the preceding three-quarters of a century, commercial country was not only understood as “grown-up music” but as, in many respects, anti-youth—all its babies and kids and childhood memories were inevitably encountered from an older-but-wiser stance. Similarly, “youth,” as in “youth culture,” or as in a “troublesome, paradigm shifting force in music and politics,” as the CFP phrases it, continues to be all but entirely absent from the country tradition—and is typically reprimanded, mocked or condescended to when it shows up at all. To help sort out these complexities, this paper will offer a brief survey of the ways the genre’s longstanding uses of children and teenagers has been coupled with an absence of actual youthful points of view—and how this child neglect has tended, even as country has grown more youth-centric, to reinforce both country music’s whiteness and its endorsement of traditional gender roles. The result is a music that, at least in its most recent mainstream radio manifestation, has traded grown-up for a studied adolescence.


Baby, You a Song: The Arrival of Country-Pop's Young, Macho Accent, Jewly Hight (NPR Music)

Throughout the long history of country music’s relationship to pop, the borrowing of smooth sounds and upscale modes of presentation has tended to reinforce country’s identity as adult music. The lush orchestrations of the Nashville Sound era were a way to attract a broad audience without having to compete with the youth appeal of rock and roll, and Chet Atkins, the producer of so many countrypolitan recordings, made his own series of gently swinging instrumental albums, aimed at well-heeled, grown-up listeners with high quality hi-fis. Countless other stars, Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrell, Kenny Rogers and Faith Hill among them, leaned into Adult Contemporary pop balladry.

A moment of truth arrived in the 21st Century, when Taylor Swift arrived with her ability to speak to the fantasies and uncertainties of tween and teen girls through her artfully diaristic writing, the intimate inflections of her vocal delivery and her evolving, pop-savvy production. On her fourth album, Red, she worked of-the-moment beats, effects and phrasing into her explorations of young womanhood. It seemed possible that that might become one of the dominant country-pop approaches in the radio format going forward. But that same year, Florida Georgia Line released “Cruise,” a tune that borrowed party-hearty swagger from hard rock and hip-hop and, in a remix version featuring early 2000s rap star Nelly, became downright unavoidable and powerfully influential. That was the macho, youthful sound and feel, heavily indebted to decade-old hip-hop, that became the country-poop default mode instead—the unbounded, beat-driven confidence of young dudes.


Suburban Struggle: Conflict Between Punks and Urban Cowboys in Early 1980s Costa Mesa, California, Amanda Marie Martinez (UCLA)

In early 1980s suburban Los Angeles, conflict regularly arose between fans of two local music scenes, punk and country music. The center of this clash was witnessed in the frequent fights which erupted in the city of Costa Mesa between patrons of the punk bar the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the neighboring country bar, Zubie’s. While these confrontations were often blamed on acts of juvenile delinquency by punks, evidence reveals the conflicts were in fact most commonly initiated by patrons of Zubie’s, and were the result of clashing perspectives on life in suburban Los Angeles. While punks rejected the monotony of suburban life, urban cowboys–or “suburban” cowboys, as punks referred to them as–fully embraced the lifestyle.

This paper considers the role country music fans played in policing suburban life at a time when the country music industry had increasingly branded its music as the soundtrack of the suburbs and Reagan-era conservatism. Since the 1950s, the country music industry in Nashville had identified its listeners as formerly rural, white migrants who’d moved to urban areas and achieved social mobility. In no place were these listeners better defined than in suburban Los Angeles, where “Okie” migrants and their descendants dominated many suburban communities, including Costa Mesa. At a time when country music had also become a symbol of Reagan-era conservatism, the genre proved particularly resonant among community leaders in heavily conservative and Reagan-friendly Orange County. The efforts of country music fans to quash the local punk scene worked in conjunction with city leaders, who forcibly closed the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1981 and revealed a solidarity between country music fans and local politics.


G.I. Blues:The Military Roots of Country’s Teenage Rebellion, Joseph Thompson (Mississippi State U)

In the mid-1950s, Nashville’s country music industry weathered a brief but well-known teenaged rebellion. Elvis Presley and other musicians from Memphis had stumbled upon a new sound, sometimes described as rockabilly, that infused country music with a conspicuous influence of black R&B. Teenagers loved them for it. As rockabilly artists displaced some of country’s biggest names from the charts, Nashville struggled with how to handle this youthful insurgency and police its racial boundaries. The fact that rockabillies drew so heavily from R&B threatened to push white performances of blackness to the forefront of 1950s country and endanger Nashville’s commercial dominance.

While Music Row wanted to keep country music an all-white genre, many of the rockabilly musicians had already experienced an integrated world thanks to their time in the Cold War military. The U.S. Armed Forces began the process of desegregation in 1948, meaning that these young musicians lived and worked in integrated spaces as soldiers well before they would have in the civilian world. The military’s interracial, homosocial spaces formed an incubator of creativity for these aspiring country musicians, later branded as rockabillies, who led a youthful revolt within the genre. Presley’s guitarist Scotty Moore, along with labelmates Billy Lee Riley, Johnny Cash, Sonny Burgess, Charlie Rich, and Cowboy Jack Clement, all used their time in the military to work on their craft as country musicians. And after their time in the military, they all landed in Memphis. The armed forces offer an unexpected source for the roots of rock. Although the military never created an uncontested space of racial harmony, its integrated ranks opened these musicians to the possibilities of incorporating influences across the color line that led to the rockabilly revolution, a revolution that the military then helped to end when it drafted Presley in 1958.