Jul 20, 2020, 05:57AM

It's Not That Far From Memphis to Nashville

The notion of cultural appropriation only makes sense if the cultures are distinct to begin with.

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Here's my claim: soul and country are, roughly, the same genre of music. The conclusion I want to reach from it is that Americans are, as Zora Neale Hurston put it, "a mingled people." As well as all sorts of struggling and pain, that mingling has eventuated in musical styles (blues, jazz, rock, country, hip-hop) that have largely defined the shape of popular music for a century; it’s our artistic contribution to the world. And we did it together, black and white American people.

Soul and country music emerged around the same time, more or less in the same place: the American South. They both rest on the structure of the blues, itself a cross-racial form well before the 1950s (the first "country star," Jimmy Rogers, was as much a blues singer as his younger contemporary Robert Johnson). The lyric themes are similar, focusing on the joys and difficulties of cisgender heterosexual romantic love (remember that?). Above all, both country and soul are built around charismatic andextremely or volcanically emotive singers. Also great singers: Dolly and Aretha, Mavis Staples and Tammy Wynette, Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, George Jones and Al Green.

There are many moments of direct overlap. In his definitive history of soul music, for example, Peter Guralnik dates the codification of the genre (with many precursors and premonitions, as in 1950s recordings of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke) to Solomon Burke's recordings in 1961, and in particular Just Out of Reach, Burke's cover of a 1952 country hit by Faron Young. The lush arrangement on Burke's definitive performanceis similar to Patsy Cline's version, issued the following year. It's hard to avoid the centrality of Ray Charles to soul, or the centrality of Charles' 1962 album New Sounds in Country and Western Music to both genres.

I'm not going to draw out many of the direct parallels and overlaps, except to mention artists such as O.V. Wright (hitting a tried-and-true country theme), Ronnie Milsap, and Mickey Gilley. I recommend both James Carr's version of "Dark End of the Street" and the Kendalls'. They have a similar emotional frame of reference. Shirley Caesar is one of the greatest living soul and gospel singers, and also one of the greatest living country singers, specializing in material about motherhood, with a (sort-of) Bill-Anderson-style recitation at the bridge. It would be a fascinating exercise to narrate the overlaps, both in musical structures and with regard to session players and production styles, but it would take a long time.

Also, it’d be silly to deny various differences. The instrumentation on both strongly features drums, electric guitar, and bass, but where soul music came to rely on horn sections, country (though it uses horns here and there as well, of course), leans on fiddles and pedal-steel guitar. One of the biggest distinctions between the singing styles is subtle but pervasive in creating the emotional effect: classic country singers often sing behind the beat, creating a sense both of ease and melancholy; in some cases, the band slows down as the song progresses, waiting on the vocalist. Soul, on the other hand, is often propulsive, the singer ahead of the beat, driving the band forward.

If you want to regard this as showing that soul and country are different genres after all, I won't object too strongly. I could put my point slightly less provocatively by saying they’re closely related genres, which isn’t, after all, surprising. The races were divided directly by segregation in the place and the period in which soul and country music emerged. But they were both going, say, to Southern Baptist church services. They were both listening to the AM superstations, such as WSM out of Nashville. As every biography of an early white rocker or country star enshrines, the musicians were crossing the tracks to sneak a listen. The "appropriations" went in both directions. But the notion of cultural appropriation only makes sense if the cultures are distinct to begin with.

I could put the point more provocatively, perhaps, and more comprehensively, by saying that black and white American cultures are not distinct. Even as they face somewhat different conditions, due both to divergent origins and conscious structures of exclusion and exploitation, they’re in continual interaction. They’re each inconceivable without the other: there’s no white identity or culture without black identity and culture, nor the other way round. They’re conceptually intertwined, but also intertwined concretely, interpersonally, and economically, each emerging in relation to the other throughout the country for hundreds of years. Even exclusion is a mode of influence, and black and white culture are partly–and pretty consciously–defined by their contrast or by their rejection of one another.

But races can’t own musical genres. The 20th century in the US was marked above all, as W.E.B. DuBois predicted at its outset, by its color line. But it was a line bisecting a single space: black and white people inhabited the same cities, endured the same economic slumps (albeit with different outcomes), fought in the same wars, worshiped the same god, played the same sorts of instruments, and tended to dig the same shit. Like soul and country, black and white America are and aren’t the very same genre.

—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell


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