What does country music look like?
I’m not asking for a definition of sound; I’m asking for what comes to mind when you think of a country music singer. For me, I immediately picture a cowboy hat and a rhinestone suit, even though it doesn’t reflect the image of current mainstream country music, at least not fully.
Like with sound, synthesizing country music down to one simple image isn’t as easy as it appears, yet it’s important in shaping how we perceive the genre at large. Country music, arguably more than any other musical genre, is closely identified with visual style, and understanding the deeper intricacies of that shows how identity is portrayed as much through its aesthetic as it is through the actual music. Through this piece, though, understand that even discussing that is harder than it seems, and like with how musical styles are easier to discern from listening to them than through writing about them, the same principle applies to visual style; and it’s easier to draw general observations than it is enduring the difficulty of documenting the true meaning.
One such generalization, for example, is tracing country music’s “hillbilly” roots, and finding how the rural working class has historically been the object of stereotypes and prejudices. A mere struggle for survival at its core, really, but one met through a passionate loyalty to tradition, small social scale and a belief in cyclical relationships over progressive ones – a direct opposition to the American Dream, and a reflection, to those who’d enforce those prejudices, of a backwardness that simply must further reflect a lack of intelligence and sophistication.
To be fair, early country – or, rather, hillbilly – performers were quick to adopt a reactionary point of view. Take Roy Acuff’s 1941 hit “Stuck-up Blues,” where the protagonist calls out a high society man, who came from the same impoverished background as the protagonist, to not “get above his raisin’,” to which the other man insists he’s still just a simple country boy at heart. The location, therefore, may change, but the sense of pride doesn’t.
That song speaks to the strange, complicated dichotomy of country music’s image as both as a musical genre and cultural identity that’s reverberated throughout time since and before – a desire to break free of social barriers while knowing not to go too far or, to reiterate the phrase, “get above your raisin’.” Really, too, that dichotomy exists because of country music’s place as a commercial musical genre. Had it been strictly a family affair confined to its folk-art roots – a way to provide amusement around the house and nothing more – outside opinions would have likely remained irrelevant.
But that’s not how the story goes. An art form originally targeted to white, working-class southerners naturally moved with the times as the technology of recording and radio made it possible to sell the music beyond its aforementioned boundaries. Those outside opinions mattered, indeed; the question, then, was, “how does one present themselves?”
Again, a complicated question only made more difficult from an early case study of country music’s first two legitimate A-list acts – Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. Neither speak to the earliest images of overalls and rustic farm clothing that encapsulated the barn dance format, but they do speak to the dichotomy nonetheless. All three members of the Carter Family – Maybelle, Sara and A.P. – stand straight and serious in their press photos, evoking images of a God-fearing family in their Sunday best, linked to each other by blood, further fostering the very look of harmony and tradition as home folks.
Rodgers, on the other hand, is looser. He’s a man in motion constantly adrift in the world and ready to embrace its impending modernity. The bowtie-and-straw-boater outfit is contemporary for its time, and the music tells of a white recording artist freely borrowing from the black blues tradition. He’s in tune with the times, but somewhere in the middle overall – urbane without being elitist, casual but still sharp. Rodgers is himself, and he’s able to translate that personality into country music’s first shot at national stardom. The music lives on forever in both cases; the spirit of the image in which it’s presented does, as well – at least, to a certain extent. Timing is everything at any point, and part of Rodgers’ success was his way of connecting with those suffering through the turmoils of the Great Depression years by subtly communicating that he knew what they were going through, because he was enduring the same pain.
With Rodgers came another enduring debate between country music’s intended portrayal of itself and the larger reality of it – that, being a relentless exercise in offering realism versus escapism, and arguably more pronounced than the usual traditionalism versus progressivism debate that shadows the larger conversations today.
Should’ve Been A Singing Cowboy
Which is to say that, following the Depression years, audiences began viewing the hillbilly image with increased negativity, divorcing its homespun, nostalgic roots from what it had become – an image of ignorance and foolishness. A blessing and a curse, really. Performers no longer had to limit themselves to the radio barn dance circuit, but the challenge came in adapting with the audience, favoring, in the 1930s, a “singing cowboy” image that offered relief while the nation burned. In came cowboy clothes, western boots and Stetson hats, all modeled after the appeal of Hollywood B-movie westerns that offered respite, unreal and utterly silly for the time as it all was. But the conversation is less rooted in sociopolitical circumstances as it is economical ones. The highly embellished cowboy outfits worn by country and western performers alike were highly visible on a stage and presented a thrilling escapism for its audiences, all while distinguishing its performers from a burgeoning mainstream culture. For a performer like Gene Autry, his promotional brochures emphasized his wardrobe (through his “Gene’s Closet” feature) just as much as they did his act.
The spirit of that survived as country music modernized to meet the changes in general twentieth-century American consumer culture, commercialism and mass media in the years following World War II. Performers like Hank Williams, Ray Price, and Webb Pierce all enlisted the help of rodeo tailor Nudie Cohn to create some of the most unique stage costumes in country music history – the aptly titled Nudie suit. Yet the wardrobe, again, both is and isn’t a way of communicating an identity. It helps the performers stand out, but for as western-inspired as it is, none of these singers spoke of little dogies or lonesome nights on the prairie. Williams, for example, isn’t like his predecessor in Jimmie Rodgers. He looks as sharp as his contemporaries to embrace the changing trends, but all he really wants is a stable, happy, loving Christian home and family, and his living nightmares and personal demons won’t allow for it.
For an act like the Maddox Brothers and Rose, though, they needed the flashier, Hollywood western style to match the fiery new brand of country music they were playing, especially to match the stage show. One can’t take that for granted, either. Bob Wills’ shows, for example, were as flashy as they were musical, with plenty of folks entranced by his handmade boots as they were his musical prowess. Wanda Jackson even drew inspiration for her own music career after attending a Maddox Brothers and Rose show. It’s no surprise, then, that Jackson took charge of her own visual representation at the beginning of her career, eschewing the Grand Ole Opry’s expectations of how young, unmarried, female country music performers should appear in favor of designing her own stage and promotional costumes. She was trying to portray her identity as a country and rockabilly singer.
Sadly, it wasn’t easy to exercise that freedom for a woman in the music industry. In the documentary film Welcome to the Club: Women of Rockabilly, Jackson was told, right before her first appearance on stage at the Grand Ole Opry, that she’d have to cover her shoulders. She didn’t have another dress, so she put on an old coat she’d brought and performed anyway, rightfully upset over being denied her chance to express herself.
Rocking A New Look
The men of rockabilly were fine, shocked as I’m sure you are. Producer Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley worked together to sell an image of black folk music enhanced by a leap in novelty, energy and sexuality to white audiences. Which is to say, in comparison with actual rockabilly music, Nashville’s version was tame; it needed to appeal to the youth rebellion, but instead appealed to the opposite target market: the mature, conservative, urban, middle-class population.
Which, in a musical sense, is how the Nashville Sound came to be, a fusion of country melodies with a lavishly pop production, complete with backing vocalists and supple strings. As far as the marketing and imaging go, it was the complete opposite of the hillbilly image – a sophisticated effort to appeal to, according to producer Billy Sherrill, “the housewife washing dishes at 10 a.m. in Topeka, Kansas.” Fake as the image was for certain artists, and as much as critics have argued it stripped the soul out of country music, it also bought a newfound freedom for female artists within the genre.
Patsy Cline, for example, broke the mold of country music’s visual and aural expectations of its female performers in the late ‘50s. In her autobiography, Jan Howard described the first time she saw Cline perform on the Grand Ole Opry, noting the following:
“When she walked up on stage in her fringed cowgirl outfit and her white cowboy boots and sang ‘Walking After Midnight,’ I thought, ‘Now that’s show biz.’ Suddenly I felt frumpy in my gingham dress. It wasn’t what I felt good in, but I’d been told that was what I should wear if I was going to be in country music. I couldn’t wait to take it off.”
Cline was adamant in her determination to present herself as a country singer, and though she wasn’t the first to take control of her visual style, her ascent into superstardom allowed for great changes in the visual perception of women in country music going forward, thwarting dominant paradigms of both fashion culture and gender roles. She also proved one could dress “country” and still be modern.
But the arrival of the Nashville Sound put its titular town in a paradoxical state. On one hand, it was the place where Kris Kristofferson recorded his early work, the place where college-aged kids of the ‘60s and ‘70s came to worship the old-timey folk and bluegrass music they loved, and where Bob Dylan came to record Blonde on Blonde and Nashville Skyline. But it was also a town that valued rural political conservatism and a commitment to a suburban social convention, resisting the urge to mingle with the “hippies.”
The “image” of country music as a commercial genre arguably held stronger roots in California during this time, from the collaboration of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris to the acoustic traditionalism of the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead (among others), these acts carried the spirit of the aforementioned Jimmie Rodgers – refusing to be bound by traditional boundaries and content to bring their version of country music to the masses, but longing for acceptance from the established home ground of the music, too.
And upon first glance, the fact that this music didn’t emanate from the industry town is the immediate red flag for its lack of acceptance. But then there’s Parsons himself – a long-haired kid who wore marijuana leaves and pills on his Nudie suit, immediately typecasting and blocking him out. To be fair, Harris and Linda Ronstadt would later be accepted into the genre, while Parsons suffered an untimely demise. But it was a missed connection nonetheless.
Plus, the very image Parsons was shunned for would later be accepted by the country music establishment under a new moniker – the outlaw movement, a fascinating, if dangerous image to indulge in. Another paradox to explore, too, if only because these dangerous, shaggy performers were nothing like the glossed-up performers of the Nashville Sound era, nor were they looking to provide the same escapism as the singing cowboys of yesterday; they would have likely been the villains in those plots.
Another Paradox: Mainstream Counterculture?
That is, if we’re actually assuming the hero is Nashville itself. In the larger sphere of fashion culture, cowboy hats and boots typically represent an alternative expression of person style. Of course, as this conversation should surely suggest by now, attire is subject not only to the time in which it is worn, but also the spirit, as well. Minnie Pearl’s comedic act, for example, largely stood to represent a rural southern past in a modern present, with her spinster character keeping a price tag stapled to her straw hat. Johnny Cash, nearly three decades later, developed the “man in black” image to not only reflect his somber physical appearance and demeanor, but also reflect the darker themes of his music – oppression, violence and a search for social justice in all. More than that, it gave his voice to communicate those messages a larger, distinctive presence to meet the changing social culture. Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson wore bandannas on the head rather than around the neck (the horror), and their cowboy boots were faded and scuffed … unless Nelson just opted for the occasional pair of tennis shoes anyway, that is.
And it wasn’t just the outlaw men that enjoyed their freedom. Tanya Tucker blazed the country music scene with skin leather jumpsuits, modeled after Elvis Presley. Dolly Parton initially wore conservative dresses to play the part of Porter Wagoner’s duet partner, but her looks rivaled that of a Las Vegas showgirl once she attained her freedom to truly launch her solo career. Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn followed in Parton’s footsteps, abandoning down-homey denim for sequin-studded ensembles. The music was better for it, too. No longer did the youth market see images of deadhead middle-aged suburbanites or hippie-bashing rednecks when they thought of country music. They saw real people expressing themselves in their own ways, just as everyone wants to do, singing about concerns and sensibilities that mirrored their own.
Even when fashion trends changed once again in the early ‘80s, where a cultural phenomenon like Urban Cowboy and rising newcomers like George Strait and John Anderson ushered in a western wear resurgence, former rodeo cowgirl Reba McEntire chose to express herself through a Hollywood-style wardrobe; she’d change into as many as ten different outfits in a single show.
Expression, again, came in the finer details. Garth Brooks took western traditionalism a step further with his oversized hat, crisp jeans and busy-print cowboy shirt with an equally oversized yoke – a style to reflect the large personality, really. Brooks & Dunn followed suit with their own flamboyant set, manufactured by Panhandle Slim. Shania Twain wore midriff-barring tops, miniskirts, hot pants and skin-tight catsuits to compliment the flashier stage presence and music. Kenny Chesney was a Key West cowboy whose style was noticeably looser – he looked like he did and didn’t fit the part, really.
Which is a note on the time period, too. When Brad Paisley debuted just a decade later, he insisted on wearing a cowboy hat, even when, according to his record executives:
“There was a little bit of negative stigma attached to it, because they’d had so many cookie-cutter, wannabe people just throw them on.”
Why did he keep the cowboy hat? To him, it was a visual representation to fans that he was a link to the country music chain. Uncommon for when he debuted, but a conformist wardrobe choice just a decade earlier – and in other points in time.
And, even if the music couldn’t be much different, it’s fitting, then, that someone like Keith Urban – who could hardly be donned a traditionalist in any capacity at any point in his career – chose to express himself without a cowboy hat, letting his long, blond hair flow, adopting a rockist attitude toward the genre. Ironically, then, rockers of the time like Jack White, Mike Mills and Beck all donned decorative Manuel western suits.
In other words, it’s all a pendulum effect, for better or worse. Better in that, identity, as expressed through visual style has become as significant to country music’s development as the music itself, and can’t be synthesized down to one simple image. Worse in that, what artists choose to express may not reflect the larger reality of how far the genre has come. As redneck culture invaded country music over the past decade through “bro-country,” images of wallet-chains were certainly different, but also represented a hyper masculine scene, only further reinforced by the lyrical tropes and subject matter.
Perhaps thankfully, though, while certain images will always play a role in shaping country music, the general visual style remains fluid and paradoxical – as vast as the identities of its performers. Like with those images, too, it’s important to continuously foster an environment where those identities – musical, visual or otherwise – feel welcome and encouraged.