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Rodney Clapp

From Holiness to Honky-tonks

There are people who think God doesn't like country music, but I tend to think he does.

--Country singer Mark Collie

It was Reinhold Niebuhr who suggested that American history is best interpreted through the category of irony. His argument was so suggestive that it was adopted and exploited by a parade of leading historians--from Perry Miller to C. Vann Woodward to Henry May, right on down to Martin Marty in our own day. And if this shotgun matrimony of incongruities, the passionate love-hate affairs of American virtues cohabitating with the vices they deplore most, captures something fundamentally true about the (formerly slave-holding) Land of the Free, then nowhere is it easier to be found than in the quintessentially American art form of country music.

Designating country music an art form straight-away lands us, like Dorothy deposited in Oz by a tornadic dream, deep in the territory of irony. Three-chord song structures, keening steel guitars, rednecks singing out their noses--you dare to call this art?

Even Nashville, as synonymous with country music as any place on earth, has doubted that it might be so. Blessed with several strong universities (preeminently Vanderbilt and Fisk), Nashville has long styled itself "the Athens of the South." In 1943 the governor of Tennessee denounced Roy Acuff and his Grand Ole Opry for making the state the hillbilly capital of the United States. Little matter: Acuff was then so astronomically popular and so prototypically American that the Japanese, in their banzai charge on Okinawa, cried out, "To hell with Roosevelt; to hell with Babe Ruth; to hell with Roy Acuff!" The fiddler impresario responded to the governor's anathema by himself running, twice, for the office.

There is much to be said about the aesthetic status of country music, but mainly I want to concentrate on ironies inherent within the art itself. It is, in fact, no small part of the art of country music that it teems with ironies both delicious and vexing. The three ...

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