This Country Ain’t Low—The Country Music of Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash as a Form of Redistributive Politics
2. Theoretical Frameworks and Contexts
2.1. Cultural Dimensions of Country Music within the Broader Landscape of U.S. Popular Culture
- Viewing country music as the exclusive domain of a white, heteronormative, patriarchal, and mainly rural, non-college-educated constituency; both artists and audience are often drafted into this imaginary (DellaPosta and Shi 2015, np; Long and Eveland 2021, pp. 479–500; Shi and Mast 2017, pp. 231–14);
- The lyrical content and ideological subtext of country music largely reifies established social hierarchies and cements a reactionary worldview (Meier 2018, pp. 3–4).
“The privilege of the dominant classes is that they possess social legitimation which is based on the power of the dominant to impose, by their very existence, a definition of what is valued and authorized which is nothing other than their own way of existing—they are at ease in the social world because they determine the legitimated way of existing in it—it is a self-affirming power.”(Hubbs 2016, p. 246, in Pecknold and McCusker)
2.2. Redistributive Politics
“country music can be considered a form of symbolic politics […] seeking to define what is ‘America’ and what it means to be a true American. It is an effort to proclaim and endorse a set of values that are reflected in country music. As such it should be considered a form of redistributive politics—the effort to establish that these values are the important American values.”
“misrecognition can assume a variety of forms […], the core of the injustice remains the same: in each case, an institutionalized pattern of cultural value constitutes some social actors as less than full members of society and prevents them from participating as peers.”
2.3. The Popular, the Progressive, and the Populist
3. The Redistributive Politics in Dolly Parton’s and Johnny Cash’s Works
“[she] has fashioned her star image visually to accentuate a voluptuous, ample, overflowing body, with particularly large breasts, which she has embellished with showy, garish costumes and an exaggerated sculptured blond wig. This persona is a caricature of both the most outlandish country singer (in a predominantly male tradition of gaudy costuming) juxtaposed with the stereotypical ‘painted woman’ or prostitute whose sexuality is on display. In ironic contradiction to the parodic nature of her visual style, the articulate Parton has perpetuated and maintained a respected image as a wholesome, sincere person with traditional rural values.”
“parodic proliferation deprives hegemonic culture and its critics of the claim to naturalized or essentialist gender identities. Although the gender meanings taken up in these parodic styles are clearly part of hegemonic, misogynist culture, they are nevertheless denaturalized and mobilized through their parodic recontextualization.”
“[t]he sense of the value of one’s own linguistic products is a fundamental dimension of the sense of knowing the place which one occupies in the social space. One’s original relation with different markets and the experience of the sanctions applied to one’s own productions, together with the experience of the price attributed to one’s own body, are doubtless some of the mediations which help to constitute that sense of one’s own social worth which governs the practical relation to different markets.”
“press coverage of the park has emphasized the progressive affiliations and gay camp Parton brings to Dollywood. In reporter Kim Severson’s New York Times travel article, Dollywood: A Little Bit Country, a Little Bit Gay she describes as ‘the place on a Venn diagram where gay camp and Southern camp overlap.’”
“I wear the black for the poor and the beaten downLiving in the hopeless, hungry side of townI wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crimeBut is there because he’s a victim of the times[…]I wear it for the sick and lonely oldFor the reckless ones whose bad trip left them coldI wear the black in mourning for the lives that could have been[…]But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things rightYou’ll never see me wear a suit of white.”
“Cash implicitly rejected the racial politics of white backlash, especially in his prison albums. His rock and roots influences more openly displayed their debt to African American musical traditions than did most country music. At Folsom and San Quentin, Cash performed before prisoners of all races. One scholar estimates that when Cash played San Quentin in 1969, 30 percent of prisoners were African American and 18 percent were Hispanic. Photographs of the audience included with the LPs advertised this fact by showing faces of many colors.”
“[T]he first time I played a prison I said this is the only place to record an album live, because I never heard a reaction to the songs like the prisoners gave. They weren’t ashamed to show their appreciation or their enthusiasm for anything that we did.”
“I love ‘9 to 5.’ I’ve sung it at karaoke countless times, despite its basic incompatibility with my voice. I’ve put it on at Democratic Socialists of America meetings. It’s one of the greatest musical odes to class struggle in American history.”
“Workin’ 9 to 5What a way to make a livin’Barely gettin’ byIt’s all takin’ and no givin.’”
“In the same boatWith a lot of your friendsWaitin’ for the dayYour ship’ll come inAnd the tide’s gonna turnAnd it’s all gonna roll you away.”
“It’s a rich man’s gameNo matter what they call itAnd you spend your lifePutting money in his wallet.”
“I can think like a workingman because I know what a workingman goes through…. Where I came from, people never dreamed of venturing out. They just lived and died there. Grew up with families and a few of them went to Detroit and Ohio to work in the graveyards and car factories. But I’m talking about venturing out into areas that we didn’t understand.”
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
In this article, the term “popular culture” rests on the definiton given by Tim Delaney, who writes that popular culture presents “the products and forms of expression and identity that are frequently encountered or widely accepted, commonly liked or approved, and characteristic of a particular society at a given time […]. Further, popular culture, unlike folk or high culture, provides individuals with a chance to change the prevailing sentiments and norms of behavior […]. So popular culture appeals to people because it provides opportunities for both individual happiness and communal bonding” (Delaney 2007, np).
Sadie Rehm notes in the article “Country Music and the Construction of the Southern White Working Class” that “[t]he construction of country music as the music of the southern white working class obscures its diverse origins and influences, serving to legitimize the history and privilege of white racial identification. The appropriation of country music as ‘white’ defines it against ‘black’ music, naturalizing racial distinctions by assuming that genre labels arise spontaneously out of the separate musical traditions of different racial and ethnic categories” (Rehm 2015, p. 15).
My usage of the term “class” is largely informed by Pierre Bourdieu’s writing on social class, i.e., a social category impacted by access to economic, social, and cultural capital (Bourdieu 1987, pp. 1–17).
Geoff Mann suggests that nostalgia in country songs, for instance, genereally revolves around the valorization of “simplicity”, social stability, and cohesion: “with its musical and vocal qualities, the temporal orientation is thoroughly conservative: there is nothing of Benjamin’s messianism or his openness to revolutionary immanence, merely the adopted pose of rustics resigned to the march of time” (Mann 2008, p. 87). In my analysis, I will illustrate how Johnny Cash’s work engages in a form redistributive politics in terms of historical narratives, keeping the door open for Benjamin’s revolutionary immanence.
Simultaneously, the term “conservative” in this anaylsis refers to the tendency to naturalize and defend status-quo social hierarchies in regard to class, race, gender, space and to view these hierarchies as integral to personal and collective identity. The term reactionary is used to denote a particular form of conservatism characterized by a retrospective gaze (Capelos and Katsanidou 2018, p. 1273) and much more virulent opposition to social change.
In the dissertation From Countrypolitan to Neotraditional: Gender, Race, Class, Region in Female Country Music, 1980–1989, Dana C. Wiggins offers a different take, writing that “Parton’s emphasis on virtue combined with a more mature look provided a nonthreatening and passive way to appear sexual but simultaneously powerless. In this time period, country music women constructed both sexual and wholesome images; they manipulated social standards to gain sexual power and still seemed submissive” (Wiggins 2009, p. 62). This observation demonstrates how conflicting social ideologies can be combined into and projected Parton’s stardom.
Aviva Chomsky writes in “Histories of Class and the Carceral State: A Response to Paul Durrenberger and Dimitra Doukas” that “[g]iven its disproportionate impact on the poor and people of color, virtually all studies of the carceral state see the intersections of race and class as central to its nature” (Chomsky 2018, p. 34). In other words: Talking about the prison system and its inceracerated is a way of talking about race and class in the United States.
In the podcast Citations Needed, Nima Shirzai and Adam Johnson point out that “country music [is] a descendant of the blues, folk, Tejano, and other genres, with connections to labor organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World” and mention that later “popular conceptions of country music have long been deliberately shaped by a series of broader ideological projects. Throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, conservative politicians and other right-wing forces have exploited the genre to promote illiberalism, racism, revanchist white grievance identity politics, and runaway anti-intellectualism.”
Nadine Hubbs comments on this social dynamic in the book Rednecks, Queers, & Country Music: “Country is a rarity on the American media landscape inasmuch as it addresses working people and their lives, and not for laughs or in an objectifying frame. As a cultural symbol, country music not only sonically evoked a certain type of social persona—usually figured as working-class, white, and provincial—but often stands as proxy for that persona” (Hubbs 2014, p. 13).
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Ben Mna, I. This Country Ain’t Low—The Country Music of Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash as a Form of Redistributive Politics. Arts 2023, 12, 17. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts12010017
Ben Mna I. This Country Ain’t Low—The Country Music of Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash as a Form of Redistributive Politics. Arts. 2023; 12(1):17. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts12010017Chicago/Turabian Style
Ben Mna, Ilias. 2023. "This Country Ain’t Low—The Country Music of Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash as a Form of Redistributive Politics" Arts 12, no. 1: 17. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts12010017