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Book Review: Charles Hughes, Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South

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In the stories we tell about music and the South during the 1960s and 1970s, a common theme is that music was the place where race didn’t count, where white and black musicians could play together on an equal basis, be friends, have a few drinks, and craft some of the greatest music the United States has ever produced in the face of the massive racial animosity happening outside the studio. Memphis and Muscle Shoals were the centers of this music making. Patterson Hood has of course talked about how his father David Hood, who was a key member of the Muscle Shoals session players, recorded with everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones during these times. And although everyone knows that Sam Phillips turned his back on black musicians the moment he found Elvis Presley, the general narrative of racial harmony in the music studios of the region remains strong.

Charles Hughes pushes back against this narrative convincingly. He dates this to Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music, who claimed that in the 60s, the southern studios were highlights of integration until the assassination of Martin Luther King and the rise of Black Power destroyed the spirit of cooperation. This southern soul helped redeem the South from its racist past by helping young white southerners like Steve Cropper, Dan Penn, and Duck Dunn turn their back on the racist past of their people.

The problem is that these stories almost always privilege white heroes and leave the black musicians in the background, if they are really in the story at all. Hughes notes that a 1999 panel at the University of North Alabama about Muscle Shoals music history had only white panelists–Rich Hall, Buddy Killen, Sam Phillips, and Jerry Wexler. They all talked about how important R&B was for them and for music history. There was not a single black perspective on this. For Hughes, this sort of myth-making with white heroes obscures more than it reveals. From the beginning of the Memphis and Muscle Shoals studios, the whites involved promoted them as representing integration but that construction actually said that the music’s real value was liberating white people from both their racism and their sound. Thus Janis Joplin at the 1968 Stax Christmas show claimed “being black for awhile will make me a better white” and the Memphis studios based their big commercial investments on artists like Dusty Springfield recording in “black styles.”

Thinking about the recording studio as a workplace, he lauds and contextualizes the professionalism of the musicians in the studios with the reality that the country and soul produced in Memphis, Nashville, and Muscle Shoals was not only not a respite from the racial inequalities of the United States but helped produce them as white musicians found ways to profit and capitalize off black music while leaving those black musicians behind. This labor approach is quite valuable for it shifts us away from myth-making and to the actual conditions of work in the music industry. White musicians simply had more power than black musicians. That’s not to mention that nearly all the producers and executives were white, at least until Stax explicitly defined itself as the label of Black Power after 1968. White musicians could borrow from black styles and play in black bands but the same simply was never true for the opposite arrangement. The single large exception to this is the country musician Charley Pride, but Pride explicitly avoided anything remotely controversial or that would offend his audience. He was hardly the only black musician who loved country music, as Hughes shows again and again, but he’s the single crossover exception who could make it.

A number of figures come off looking not great here. Steve Cropper, the famed guitarist for Booker T & the MGs, was often described as perhaps a bit racist by black musicians and he openly complained about soul becoming the music of Black Power. Hughes notes how frequently Cropper, Dan Penn, and others basically used segregationist language like “outside agitators” who were “brainwashing” the good quiet black people happy with the way things were in response to the rise of Black Power in the studios after 1968. Of course, they were wrong about that, but if Cropper and Penn might have seen the studio as a place where race didn’t matter, black musicians saw and felt these things very differently. White musicians benefited from white privilege they did not recognize in themselves. Again, these musicians were professionals and played together as such. But there was no racial paradise in the studios. At times there was enormous tension, as when Aretha Franklin came to Muscle Shoals and her husband got into a racially charged fight with some of the white musicians in the session. Today, the white studio musicians of these movements remain much better known than the black musicians.

Even when country became the voice of white racial backlash by 1970 (I was unaware of Merle Haggard’s wretched and racist “I’m a White Boy” but it’s notable that he recorded this not long after the anti-racist “Irma Jackson,” suggesting that Haggard, like most musicians, primarily wanted to make money) and soul became the voice of Black Power, the two genres were still exchanging musicians and songs all the time. For as right-wing as country music became in the 1970s, it was borrowing more from black music than ever. Even the Osmond Brothers had their big hit with “One Bad Apple” that was a perfection of the soul style, so much so that black critics claimed whites were once again stealing black cultural resources. Soul studios at the height of Black Power still used white musicians while country singers still borrowed soul styles and songs. But not soul musicians, who were again left behind. By the late 1970s, soul music had lots its relevancy, with the new northern-based disco becoming the predominant form of African-American music, followed by another northern genre, hip-hop while country found itself easily adopting disco styles with soul’s decline. Country was able to transform its sound by adopting the new black styles while also changing its demographic from rural to suburban while soul music became the voice of nostalgia, not cutting edge innovation. The white musicians of the Nashville-Memphis-Muscle Shoals had little trouble continuing to work. The black musicians on the other hand, struggled.

I could say much more about Country Soul, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the intersection of music and race in American society.

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  • postmodulator

    Steve Cropper, the famed guitarist for Booker T & the MGs, was often described as perhaps a bit racist by black musicians and he openly complained about soul becoming the music of Black Power.

    Cropper is one of my heroes. That’s almost infinitely depressing.

    I think there’s a little more white influence on black music around that era than you’ve made it sound: Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” is a rewiring of a Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys song called Ida Red, and Ray Charles did at least one really great country record. But yeah, it sure goes the other direction more often.

    • Oh, no question and Hughes makes that point too. Lots of soul musicians were listening to country and really liked to perform in country music. But they were shut out of the genre, somewhat by record companies and somewhat by racial politics.

      Hughes also goes into how Duck Dunn became part of Booker T and MGs and it also makes Cropper look bad. Certainly the man Dunn replaced felt he was kicked out primarily because he was black.

      • 33lp

        Lewie Steinberg was black? Not having ever seen a photo of him, I would not have guessed that by the name.

        Was there someone of brief tenure after Steinberg but before Duck?

        • Nope, Steinberg was black. And light-skinned as well so he was frequently mistaken for white. But he identified as African-American.

        • postmodulator

          Edited to remove a mistake. But yes, “light-skinned” is definitely accurate, that’s him on the right here:

          http://memphismusichalloffame.com/img/inductees/btmgs/btmgs-greenonions.jpg

          • 33lp

            Thanks. I had just done an image search for Lewie Steinberg and most of what came up was promo shots of BT & the MGs with Duck (including the one at the top of the post).

            Does the book answer this: Was he fired for being black, or for not being black enough?

            • It certainly wasn’t the latter. Steinberg believed it was the former. Cropper said it was because Dunn was a better fit for the band. Others said it was Steinberg’s drinking. Hughes believes it’s a combination of Dunn being Cropper’s close friend, that Dunn was white, and that Dunn was just a damn good bass player. Hughes dismisses Cropper’s claim entirely, noting that these musicians switched genres in multiple gigs in the same day and that someone of Steinberg’s skill could easily play this music.

              • postmodulator

                Well, “better fit” hasn’t got much to do with skill, when it comes to bands. Goofy example: the Ramones would probably not have been improved by replacing Johnny Ramone with Eddie Van Ramone. (Although at least Dee Dee wouldn’t have been the worst addict in the band any more.)

                If black musicians who worked with Cropper thought he had racist attitudes, that’s probably more damning than firing a specific musician.

                • Yes, but Cropper’s justification is that Steinberg couldn’t play the right style, which really wasn’t true.

                • sparks

                  True. And to bolster that, Steinberg did recording sessions at Stax until 1965, after Dunn had started there. He must have been good enough since they could have called others into the session. There’s an irony in the PR shot reproduced above – the bass Dunn is holding is likely Steinberg’s.

                • Richard

                  I think its “some” black musicians thought Cropper had racist attitudes, some did not.

                  As far as Duck replacing Steinberg, listen to the records. Dunn is a far better bass player than Steinberg for the Stax-Volt sound. His bass playing has more punch, more attitude than Steinberg. I haven’t read the Hughes book (but I will) but if he is saying that someone of Steinberg’s skill could easily play the music that became the Stax-Volt style, he’s wrong. Steinberg was a jazzier player, Dunn a more rhythmic player. And Dunn’s playing was stupendous, not just standard bass playing that anyone could imitate.

                • sparks

                  I was amused to see Steinberg get a songwriting credit on the Booker T. and the MG’s last album, Melting Pot.

                  Stax didn’t use Dunn hardly at all after the MG’s broke up. I only know of him showing up on one single. The other MG’s all had outside interests and left.

            • 33lp

              a better fit for the band.

              That’s what John, Paul and George said about Ringo. (Not to Pete Best; they never spoke to Best again, by all accounts.)

              Anyway, thanks for this. Another book to add to the list.

              • It really is quite good and a bit provocative.

                His next book is evidently on race, Americanness, and professional wrestling.

                • 33lp

                  I assume you are serious but that reads as a well-crafted joke. I laughed out loud.

                • Well think of the performances in professional wrestling in the 80s. It’s all about replicating American foreign policy through good guys and bad guys, among other things.

                • lige

                  A solid topic – professional wrestling really reflects the political climate. David Shoemaker (formerly of the late Grantland) covers a lot this territory in his book The Squared Circle: Life, Death and Professional Wrestling.

                • Jackov

                  Despite its Islamist origins, I may have deployed the “Camel Clutch” on a sibling back in the day. Probably on a watch list for allegedly doing so.

                • LeeEsq

                  According to Dr. Wikipedia, the idea of combining theatrics with wrestling started in France during the 1830s. Making that bit of knowledge common should be enough to destroy the sport.

    • dp

      Same here about Cropper. Like most things about race and America, it is intensely depressing.

      • sparks

        About Cropper, I’m not shocked. The scuttlebutt was that he was Jim Stewart’s lieutenant. If the Wiki entry about him setting up a studio with Jerry Williams and Ronnie Stoots is true, that doesn’t seem to strongly support the racist theory. Racist attitudes he may have had, but they didn’t always meant his actions were racist.

        Muscle Shoals and AGP however were pretty much whites-only.

        If you read the Guralnick, there’s a lot between the lines that Pete just saw through his rose-colored shades without much thought. It left me with a lot more questions than answers and was a most frustrating book.

        • Racist attitudes he may have had, but they didn’t always meant his actions were racist.

          And that can often be the case. It’s hardly surprising that a southern white man of the 1960s would have racist attitudes, even if he was liberal compared to most other southern whites.

          • sparks

            Good point.

            • postmodulator

              The expression I use is “grading on a curve,” e.g., Elvis Presley was probably in some sense a racist but he might have been the least racist white man living in Memphis at that time.

    • john fremont

      It’s interesting to me on many of the Blues singers of the 40’s and 50’s cited Gene Autry and Jimmie Rodgers as influences on their singing style. Howlin Wolf said he picked up his some of his sound from Jimmie Rodgers yodeling.Otis Rush, Bobby Bland, Little Milton and Bo Diddley all have spoken of watching Gene Autry’s movies as influences on their singing. Bo Diddley even said his shave-and-a-haircut riff came from trying to play through some chord changes off of a Gene Autry recording. Both Bobby Bland and Little Milton said they knew just as many country songs as they did R&B but often couldn’t add them to their normal setlists. They have both remarked they could have gone the Charley Pride route but it would have limited their setlists to just country songs. Country audiences then didn’t want to hear that much soul and blues with country. Bland also named Bing Crosby as a personal favorite as well FWIW.
      l

      • Richard

        BB King also cited Autry as one of his big influences. And it was reported by contemporaries that Robert Johnson often played Blue Skies in his live performances. Black musicians listened to and were influenced by white music. White musicians listened to and were influenced by black music. Always been the case.

        • Yup, always has been, I expect it always will. A couple examples from the late 70’s/early 80’s: It’s well known that one of Prince’s favorites, maybe the favorite, is Joni Mitchell. And in Detroit, the first DJ to start playing Prince was a guy who had a nighttime show on one of the R&B stations and who played crazy, legendary shows with lots of Prince and other contemporary R&B/soul/disco/funk, but also a lot of Kraftwerk & B-52’s and New Order & prog rock. Pretty much all the Detroit guys who had a major role in the rise of techno cite Mojo’s show, in particular the exposure to stuff like Kraftwerk & New Order.

    • Jackov

      56 of Ray Charles’ “country” tracks including Blue Moon of Kentucky, Seven Spanish Angels and Take Me Home Country Roads. Charles’ original country albums were Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music(Volume 1 and 2) released in 1962 while these tracks are from The Complete Country and Western Recordings released in 1998.

      • Kathleen

        “I Can’t Stop Loving You” was a monster hit for Charles in 1962.

  • In the stories we tell about music and the South during the 1960s and 1970s, a common theme is that music was the place where race didn’t count, where white and black musicians could play together on an equal basis, be friends, have a few drinks, and craft some of the greatest music the United States has ever produced in the face of the massive racial animosity happening outside the studio.

    Which just goes to show that good old daysism is always ridiculous.

  • Kathleen

    The story of King Records in Cincinnati provides different perspective on this. While King has not been featured prominently in discussions about the history of country or R&B and blues like Stax and Sun have been, it has its own unique and in some ways uplifting story about how African Americans and whites worked together throughout the company in a very segregated 1950’s Cincinnati (which in some ways is more Southern than midwestern). At King, the African American musicians played for the country records and white musicians played on R&B records. Henry Glover, the African American Vice President, produced both genres. I thought this New York Times story did a good job of telling the story:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/arts/music/25smit.html?pagewanted=all

    I’ve had the privilege of listening to several African American artists and writers talk about their time at King and what it meant to them (there are a few Rock & Roll Hall of Famers in that group). They are fighting to prevent the demolition of King’s building and promoting development of a recording studio/museum. They have said they want to make sure the memories of all the musicians, writers and producers who worked there were not forgotten.

    • busker type

      Supposedly members of James Brown’s band provided background finger-snapping for a Stanley Brothers record at King studios… probably the weirdest and coolest intersection of Soul and Country music I can even imagine.

      • I want to see a picture of Dr. Ralph and James Brown together.

        • sparks

          Would you have liked to meet Syd Nathan?

        • Bootsie

          The universe would’ve frozen solid from the sheer cool exuded by such a picture.

      • Richard

        The Stanleys recorded Hank Ballard’s Finger Popping Time, probably the record you’re referring to

      • Kathleen

        The Sisters of Righteous, James Brown’s back up singers, did back ups for all of the King artists, including the country performers. Two of them were high school students at the time, and the other was a student at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music (her daughter is working with Donny Hathaway’s daughter on an album project).

        Also, Syd Nathan would have R&B artists perform one record and the country artists perform the same record (and vice versa) in order to get the most revenue from a single song.

        Side note – the entire King Records operation (detailed in the Times article) was integrated, again, an anomaly in Cincinnati.

  • lige

    Merle Haggard was never a particularily consistent political thinker.

    • dp

      Or even a political thinker at all, as opposed to someone who was trying to sell records.

      Really, I love a lot of his music (most especially “If We Make It through December”), but I wouldn’t turn to him to develop my worldview.

  • sparks

    The one business empire I found fascinating was Chess Records. I read two books, one fairly extensive, on the label and wondered how big a conman Leonard Chess was, while still admiring his savvy. Most of the label owners of that era seemed to have a very difficult time with anything related to ethics, especially paying the talent.

    • John Revolta

      Keith Richards tells the story of the first time he went to Chess studios and met his hero, Muddy Waters…………….painting the ceiling.

      • sparks

        At least one of the books I read made a point of that being untrue with quotes from people who worked at Chess during the time.

    • jamesepowell

      Most of the label owners of that era seemed to have a very difficult time with anything related to ethics, especially paying the talent.

      emphasis added.

      As opposed to what other era?

      • sparks

        As opposed to the era when talent had their own lawyers.

  • Hughes is a great guy. I only know him virtually through mutual friends and I only “talk” with him once a year. He advised a hs student of mine on her senior project. He was incredibly generous with his time. Glad to see the book is having success.

  • Fats Durston

    “One Bad Apple” that was a perfection of the soul style

    Dunno if I’d call “One Bad Apple” soul perfection, but rather a decent Jackson 5 rip (about the equal of Chee Chee & Peppy, but inferior to Foster Sylvers “Misdemeanor”).

  • Mac the Knife
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