Exploration of the racial politics that defined the country and soul music scenes during the 1960s and ’70s.
Perhaps nothing better represented the racial divide in American culture in the wake of desegregation than country and soul music. The racial tension embodied by these dueling cultures was perpetuated by the “musical color line” separating black soul and white country. The crux of Hughes’ (History/Oklahoma State Univ.) analysis is the “country-soul triangle” represented by music communities in Memphis and Nashville, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and epitomized by the Stax label and FAME and American Studios. The musicians who traversed this triangle, both white and black, recorded for artists as disparate as Aretha Franklin and Hank Williams Jr. However, Hughes deftly notes the contradiction represented by country and soul studios as racially integrated workplaces whose music would only reinforce racial divides, despite the musicians themselves championing their music as symbols of interracialism and christening it the “Memphis sound” to reflect their progressive relationship. However, the idealism of this arrangement was not so perfectly enacted. Hughes corrects the misrepresentation of this narrative, which heralds white musicians as stewards of racial progress in the South but often downplays or outright avoids the contributions of black artists, such as Arthur Alexander. Moreover, black musicians saw their white counterparts not as “freedom fighters” but potential collaborators and competitors whose whiteness threatened their livelihood. Rich with anecdotes of major artists like the Osmonds, Willie Nelson and Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams, Hughes dissects the racial interplay that defined the triangle against the conservative “New Right,” whose reactionary politics were embodied by traditional country music. As the scenes continued to meld and the musical divide between country and soul became less noticeable and more commercialized, it was clear that white musicians benefited far greater than their black counterparts, while racial disparity continues to linger today in songs like the bungled collaboration “Accidental Racist” by LL Cool J and Brad Paisley.
An essential piece of Southern musical history.