It is not always true that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Another hoary maxim--nothing endures but change--often gets closer to reality. A case in point is to be found these days in a corner of American popular culture, known for decades as "country" music, that is changing so rapidly that one can scarcely find the country in it.
Dramatic evidence arrived last week in a couple of sharply contrasting ways. The first was a new compact disc, "Hank Williams: Live at the Grand Ole Opry," which brings the genre's formative years so vividly back to life that the ache is palpable. The second was a story in the Arts section of the New York Times about a record producer named Pat Quigley who moved to Nashville two years ago, "a strong-willed stranger whose heart and head remain entrenched in New York and his international marketing background, bent on remaking country in his own image."
It is an image just about as far removed from Hank Williams and the Grand Ole Opry as one could imagine. Williams was 25 years old when the first of these performances was recorded, and country music itself wasn't much older; though its roots trace far back into the indigenous white music of the Appalachians--and the black blues of the Mississippi Delta as well--it did not become what we call country music until the late 1920s, when Jimmie Rodgers began performing and recording in a style known for many years as hillbilly.
The Hank Williams whom we hear in these Grand Ole Opry performances was an agent of deep and enduring change in the music that Rodgers brought to life. The tunes he sings (about half the performances are previously unreleased) are as raw as his voice and his Alabama accent, and the rapport he strikes with the down-home audience in the legendary Ryman Auditorium is immediate and powerful; those people knew, as Rick Bragg writes in his evocative liner notes, that "Hank Williams, as much as any singer, artist or poet before or since, understood [white country people], understood the complexities that others have always written off as peculiarities . . ." and they welcomed him as their true spokesman.
The connection between the music as Williams sang (and wrote) it and the roots from which it had sprung was intimate; the two were inextricable. But to a degree unmatched by anyone before him, Williams made country music popular music, not merely because he topped the country charts over and over again but because many of his best compositions ("Your Cheatin' Heart," "Lovesick Blues," "Cold Cold Heart," "Jambalaya," "Hey, Good Lookin' ") were covered by pop musicians of the first rank, Tony Bennett and Jo Stafford among them, and thus moved country into the far larger pop market.
No one really understood it at the time, but the gradual and probably inevitable separation of the music from its roots began then, and Williams may well have been its most important agent. Even if he was not, it certainly is true, as Colin Escott points out in his own, separate liner notes, that these recordings give us "an era of country music history on the cusp of obsolescence," with Williams only three years from his premature death and Elvis Presley within five years of his first Opry appearance, "giving a foretaste of the changes in store." Thus this is quite literally a lost moment miraculously recaptured, and it is powerfully moving.
It is not likely to move Pat Quigley, who is president and CEO of Capitol Nashville records. He is not a musician (or, so it seems, a music lover) but a marketer. As anyone who knows anything about book publishing or art dealing or any other similar endeavor does not need to be told, when the marketers take over, creativity and artistic integrity go out the window. Quigley is by his own proud admission a reader of that climbing guide for the socially ambitious nouveau riche, Town and Country magazine, which he fancies to be "elegant." With a straight face he told the Times: "Country for me in Manhattan was the Hamptons. Why does country have to be some backwards place in 'Deliverance'?"
Thus Quigley aims to do for country music what Ralph Lauren did for genteel fashion: transform it into a fake image of itself, sleek it up for the "big volume" pop market, turn it into (he's trademarked the phrase!) "town and country music." The contrast with what started to happen a half-century ago is stark and instructive. Hank Williams--and, after him, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings and Tammy Wynette and the rest--were responding to, and absorbing, the music all around him; cross-fertilization is what it's called, it's the key to the soul of American music, and it's a natural process of which those engineering it are sometimes completely unaware.
By contrast Quigley--like all other marketers--knows music not as a living, ever-changing being but as a commodity wholly susceptible to manipulation, one with as much soul as the (to quote the Times) "audience research statistics and sales charts" that are his life's blood. He's of the new ruling breed of American mass entertainment, men and women for whom content means nothing and numbers mean everything. They work for big multinational corporations run by automatons who are chauffeured to the Concorde in stretch limos and who really, truly believe that "country" is an afternoon of boutique-hopping in the Hamptons. In their hands country isn't country anymore, and "Cold Cold Heart" takes on a whole new meaning.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.