If we were to lay out the Euro-American musical spectrum from the most daring to the least daring, one end might include several of the participants in this weekend’s Big Ears festival. If there’s a musical frontier, maybe artists like Terry Riley and Adrian Belew have reached it, and maybe pushed it a little farther.
On the other end of that spectrum, the more predictable end, I suspect many of us would put the music for which Knoxville was once well known. Nowhere near any edges or frontiers of music, country music is nestled in safe luxury, wrapped in a big pink Snuggie lined with money.
When Nashville music changes, it changes to incorporate aspects of popular music from Los Angeles, usually years after those aspects have convinced Nashville accountants that they’re profitable. That’s why most country music that’s come out of Nashville in the last 30 or 40 years—admit it—sounds like dumbed-down rock. It’s pop music, slowed down and sung by models in cowboy hats. Country music as we know it today does not break new ground. No one expects it to.
It wasn’t always so. A long time ago, in the first half of the last century, country music thrashed on the dark edges of American consciousness. Country music as it was before 1950, when Knoxville was most intimately involved with it, is so different from what’s known as “country music” today that we probably ought to use a different word for it. At the time, they did use another word. They called it Hillbilly.
Hillbilly musicians were young, mostly, and lived outside of the mainstream. They played in the streets for nickels and dimes, lived in cheap rooms, and moved often. They didn’t get rich; most hardly even made a living. They didn’t expect to. Some of them drank way too much, several of them died young. Some just disappeared. They probably didn’t describe themselves as bohemians, but Knoxville in 1925 could form a credible setting for a production of La Boheme.
They took risks with their lives and their music. They incorporated traditional forms, yes, but early country musicians brought previously exotic sounds into the American mainstream: the Spanish guitar, the African banjo, the recently invented autoharp. In the mid-1930s, a teenager named Clell Summey joined Roy Acuff’s Knoxville-based band, the Tennessee Crackerjacks, and began playing a strange instrument on the radio. Invented by Hungarian immigrants in San Francisco, the Dobro modified the Hawaiian steel-guitar sound. It sounded weird to American ears, and people turned the knobs of their Philcos and wondered, what the hell is that?
Chet Atkins was still a teenager when he was showing off a complex guitar-picking style of his own invention, hardly known before he started playing here. Some didn’t think it sounded “country.” Hillbilly borrowed from a promiscuous combination of sources, including vaudeville tunes and black music. Early country introduced some African-American musical forms to the white mainstream, with exuberant banjo madman Uncle Dave Macon ignoring the boundaries of propriety and singing his own jumped-up “blues.” If the old traditional songs were Irish and British in origin, the early hillbilly musicians brought in Hawaiian picking styles and Austrian yodels to surprise their crowds with something different. To America’s first radio audiences, accustomed to operatic arias, church hymns, marching bands, and the smooth orchestration of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, hillbilly music’s raw production challenged preconceptions.
It was visceral, defiant, impertinent. Was it the punk rock of its day? Maybe that’s a stretch. But there was some deliberateness in its challenge.
Country’s earliest vocalists didn’t even try to sound like the popular crooners, Rudy Vallee or Bing Crosby or John McCormack. Ignoring the conventions of successful popular music, they sang in rough-edged howls or high whines that struck 1920s ears as dissonant. As vocalists, some of Knoxville’s first professional musicians were too rough to record, like blind guitarist George Reneau. (Some musicians were born outside of the mainstream.) He eventually did record in New York, sometimes with a pro dubbed over his instrumentals. He returned to resume living in the streets and died at 32.
Some lyrics were sentimental, but some told extreme stories, about real life and especially death. About dying trapped in a cave, life in a chain gang, illegal whiskey, cocaine addiction; about train wrecks and broken boilers and being scalded to death by steam, about bludgeoning your girlfriend to death for no reason, as in the ballad of the Knoxville Girl. Many of them were true stories. Country songwriters seemed drawn to harrowing subjects people don’t like to think about, including death itself. The classic country song, “Oh, Death” describes the process: “I’ll fix your feet ’til you can’t walk / I’ll lock your jaw til you can’t talk / I’ll close your eyes so you can’t see....”
Death is still with us, strange as it may seem, but you don’t hear it discussed much in popular music. We’ve lost our nerve for it.
Some of the songs were sexually risqué, some had obscure meanings like “the Great Speckled Bird,” which somehow resonated with the majority who didn’t recognize the reference to an obscure verse in Jeremiah.
The performers dressed differently, often deliberately. In Knoxville in the 1920s, a man out in public without a tie was an odd duck. Even country people dressed up when they came to town. Jeans were for farm work, not for walking on the sidewalk, around ladies no less. Hillbilly musicians showed up on the streets and even on stage, in ratty hats, and blue jeans. They knew they were outside of the standards of Arrow-collar America, and didn’t care much.
A lot of it was a gag, of course, talented kids who put on straw hats and camped it up. Some dealt with life with a loony sense of humor and a taste for absurdity, like many of those who turned out for the St. James Hotel recording sessions in 1929-30.
Were they avant-garde? They didn’t think of themselves that way. They were just making music that had never been heard before.