Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South

Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South

Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South

Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South

Synopsis

In the sound of the 1960s and 1970s, nothing symbolized the rift between black and white America better than the seemingly divided genres of country and soul. Yet the music emerged from the same songwriters, musicians, and producers in the recording studios of Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama--what Charles L. Hughes calls the "country-soul triangle." In legendary studios like Stax and FAME, integrated groups of musicians like Booker T. and the MGs and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section produced music that both challenged and reconfirmed racial divisions in the United States. Working with artists from Aretha Franklin to Willie Nelson, these musicians became crucial contributors to the era's popular music and internationally recognized symbols of American racial politics in the turbulent years of civil rights protests, Black Power, and white backlash.

Hughes offers a provocative reinterpretation of this key moment in American popular music and challenges the conventional wisdom about the racial politics of southern studios and the music that emerged from them. Drawing on interviews and rarely used archives, Hughes brings to life the daily world of session musicians, producers, and songwriters at the heart of the country and soul scenes. In doing so, he shows how the country-soul triangle gave birth to new ways of thinking about music, race, labor, and the South in this pivotal period.

Excerpt

In 1975 a black singer named Latimore released a single called “There’s a Red-Neck in the Soul Band.” Over a propulsive groove, Latimore tells the story of a visit to a “club in the ghetto” where a large audience of African American fans have gathered. Latimore’s protagonist asks one clubgoer why the crowd is so big and receives a simple answer: “There’s a red-neck in the soul band [and] he’s gettin’ down.” When the protagonist finally gets inside the crowded club, he is surprised to see “a tall, skinny white boy” playing guitar with the otherwise all-black ensemble. Latimore adopts a twangy country accent when relating the white guitarist’s words to the audience: “Every time I start to playing this ol’ guitar, I get a funny feelin’ and—by God—I start wonderin’ about my own family tree.” As the record fades, Latimore offers a simple moral to his story: “It makes no difference what color you are, when the spirit hits you, you’ve got to move!” It was only a minor hit, but “There’s a Red-Neck in the Soul Band” illuminates one of the most important chapters in U.S. cultural history.

Latimore had good reason to think that listeners would understand the racial surprise at the core of his song. In the 1960s and 1970s, nothing symbolized the rift between white and black in the United States more than the musical genres of country and soul. Journalists and scholars presented country as the authentic voice of working-class whites and celebrated soul as the aesthetic and economic property of African Americans. Politicians and activists described country as the soundtrack of white conservative backlash to the civil rights and Black Power movements heralded by soul. Record labels, radio stations, and retailers used this language as a central part of their promotional strategies, tailoring . . .

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