A review of Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (University of California Press, 2014) by Nadine Hubbs
If I had been told a short while ago that I would soon read a book by the Professor of Women’s Studies and Music at the University of Michigan, I would not have believed it. Had I further been told that the author would defend the Southern working class against bigoted stereotypes and offer an in-depth analysis of a vulgar David Allen Coe song about homosexuals, I suppose I would have been intrigued.
I consider it beneficial to occasionally read contrary viewpoints from authors with whom I have little in common. Nadine Hubbs (whose first name leads me to believe is a woman, but whose picture on the back cover of Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music leaves the issue in doubt) fills that role for me nicely.
Hubbs’s previous publication for University of California Press was The Queer Composition of America’s Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity. Sounds like a hoot. Alas, I will not be reading that one, as my tolerance and diversity only go so far.
Hubbs spends a great deal of time in the first half of this book contrasting the white, largely Southern, working class (“rednecks”) with the larger American middle class. These rednecks (with whom I identify) form the core base of the fans of traditional country music, and they always have. Country music and its fan base are a genre and a class largely disdained by all other classes as being the home and fertile growing ground for racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and all sorts of other uneducated views. Hubbs details the “Anything But Country” selection for so many asked about their musical preferences. To be sure, it is due to being so scornfully rejected by such large segments of society that adds to country’s allure for many of its enthusiastic devotees.
There were points in this short work that dragged. I have been known to enjoy constitutional theses many consider bone dry, but there were times I almost nodded off myself during large segments of Hubbs’s book that read more like a college report written to impress a pretentious professor than any lively discussion of working-class values. Maybe it’s the country bumpkin in me.
However, Hubbs did do a complimentary job differentiating among the various styles of music that fit under the country umbrella. Covered are what is known as The Nashville Sound, honky tonk, countrypolitan, and Bakersfield. Over one hundred songs are cited. But this is interspersed among citations of studies by sociologists and anthropologists and repetitive terms and phrases such as “gender-normative identities,” “the present homonormative moment,” and looking at things through a “metronormative lens.” My redneck self is probably just not capable of being captivated by such woke nuances.
Being a Deep-South redneck who adores country music and its history, I was on guard against how it would be handled by the Professor of Women’s Studies and Music from up North. Whether she (or he) is a fan, or admirably did her (or his) research, Hubbs deserves credit for presenting it through a thorough, balanced light shed of the condescension and mockery we have come to expect. She proclaims its distinctiveness and reality from other music, quoting historian Bill Malone’s observation that country song lyrics “describe life as it is, not as one might wish it to be.”
Hubbs reports, “Ultimately, I read country music’s themes and values as unified by an ethos stressing substance over style and surface appearance.” That’s fair and accurate.
Much of the first half of the book is devoted to showing the unification of country music and the working class, their association with “walk the walk” values, Southern masculinity, and a chip-on-the-shoulder outlook mixed with humility, family and community pride, and a humility saturated with admonitions to count your blessings, remember where you came from, and “Don’t Get Above Your Raising.” God, family, and country are paramount. For country folks, moral value trumps economic value.
These characteristics contrast sharply with the elites of the world, those once described by George Wallace as those who sip tea with their pinky finger in the air. To elites, country equals uneducated, which equals white trash. If you are wondering who it was Hillary was talking about when she castigated “The Deplorables,” well, that’s us, a class the elites dismiss out of hand.
I found it unusually extraordinary that Hubbs, who is definitely not one of us, recognizes this and calls the elites on it by challenging views of “class apartheid” and a “segregation and opacity [that] allows middle-class people to presume that they understand the working class.” It is this arrogant presumption about country people that feeds the class resentment that echoes throughout their music. Hubbs does a great job of using a popular country song from 1988 to describe this phenomenon:
“After all, it takes a modicum of knowledge to recognize the extent of one’s ignorance in any sphere. But there is a further notion at work here, an assumption of transparency in one’s social inferiors… This situation may help to explain the resonance of a line made famous by Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens in their Tejano-flavored duet, ‘Streets of Bakersfield’ (#1 1988). The song opens with a pair of back-to-back verses, after which the instruments drop out for a full bar to frame the arrival of the chorus. Yoakam and Owens enter climatically in a cappella harmony, singing, ‘You don’t know me, but you don’t like me.’”
The book is divided into two parts, with two chapters for each part. The second part is entitled, “Rednecks, Country Music, and the Queer.” The first chapter of this part deals with “Redneck Woman” Gretchen Wilson and class rebellion. But it is the final chapter that attracts the most attention.
David Allen Coe was at the peak of his career in 1978 when he decided to release the first of what would become known as his “X-rated” or “Underground” albums. On the first of these was a track Hubbs uses as the backdrop of her chapter about “The Queer Politics of Being Political.” The title of the song is “F*** Aneita Briant,” the misspellings of both names indicative of the level of sophistication of the whole project.
Anita Bryant was Miss Oklahoma and third place Miss America in 1958. She followed that up by becoming a pop singer and then a Christian activist. In 1977 she was at the forefront of Save Our Children, an organization in her hometown of Miami, Florida, that campaigned against the homosexual “rights” influence on politics. Specifically, Save Our Children objected to Dade County adding a sexual orientation clause to their civil rights statutes.
Enter Coe. In the song, its lyrics not fit to print here or pretty much anywhere, Coe blasts Bryant and her crusade. In extreme lowbrow commentary, Coe, who had spent time in prison, lauds the benefits homosexuals and their “talents” can be to a man confined in such a setting.
In a bizarre situation, we have here an author on the left end of the political and social spectrum casting David Allen Coe and his song “F*** Aneita Briant” as defenders of LGTBQ interests against a busybody, religious zealot. Considering the language and epithets Coe uses in the song to refer to homosexuals and Bryant, Hubbs asks the question: Whose side is Coe on? Apparently, she concludes he sided with the “homosex’als.”
I do not claim to have any idea what was going through Coe’s mind when he penned and recorded this song. But the totality of the music on both of these obscene albums (which I wonder if Hubbs spent much time perusing) leads me to believe he was more intent on shocking and mocking all involved in the situation rather than trying to make any serious social statement.
So what does all this mean? Hubbs is attempting to use the song to make a connection to the overall antibourgeois expression prevalent in country music. Coe might not care for homosexuals and their lifestyle (except in a desperate, confined, prison setting…unless that was all just his idea of a joke…and, with him, who knows?) but he also chafes at what he perceives as a well-to-do, Christian buttinsky trying to dictate lifestyles (Coe’s lyrics on these two albums are concretely anti-Christian).
Hubbs concludes with a recapping of recent popular country songs, such as Garth Brooks’s “We Shall Be Free” (1992), Rascal Flatts’s “Love Who You Love” (2009), and other “live and let live” songs she characterizes as “antihomophobic and queer-friendly.” She bemoans “middle-class liberals and progressives [who] would rather maintain moral and cultural superiority over the white working class than build alliances with them.”
What Hubbs sees as “progress,” we traditionalists tend to view as continued civilizational decline. While it is true that Christian Southerners have a history of shunning government interference, that does not mean that we neglect what the law of God says about sin. Biblical principles do not change.
What Hubbs sees as “progress” within the country music world is also lamented by traditional country music fans, who do not confuse what passes for “country” today to be the real deal, but rather indicative of what it takes in 21st Century America to be popular to the masses. In country music, we have went from Hank Williams singing about “straight is the gate and narrow the way” in the 1950s to imposters like Kacey Musgraves singing “Love who you love…when the straight and narrow gets a little too straight” in a #1 country hit in 2013. The spirit of defiance that once led to that chip-on-the-shoulder, class-resentment attitude has yielded to a can’t-we-all-get-along, love-who-you-love sentimentality.
Regrettably, Western Civilization and Southern culture are in their descent. Country music has not escaped it. We are in a condition not unlike what the Israelites of the Old Testament found themselves in, when we are told that “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”
That’s anything but progress.