Chet Atkins

Christmas With Chet Atkins

(Razor & Tie)

Louvin Brothers

Christmas With the Louvin Brothers

(Razor & Tie)

Richard A. Peterson

Creating Country Music:

Fabricating Authenticity

(University of Chicago Press)

By Tim Sheridan

What could be more perfect than Christmas in the country, watching the snow bend the pine boughs while in your little cabin a crackling fire warms the kinfolk and sends fragrant smoke up the chimney to the twinkling stars above? So strong is the nostalgia that even native urbanites who’ve never experienced them long for these simple pleasures at this time of year. Credit TV, and also a little phenomenon known as the country-and-western Christmas album.

While almost every type of music has been used to celebrate the yuletide, nothing heralds the season like the twang of a lap steel and a high-lonesome yodel. What we’re after, after all, with the real tree and the homemade gifts and all the other pains many of us take, is authenticity, and no music says authenticity like country.

But why? That’s the question Vanderbilt sociologist Richard Peterson sets out to answer in his new book, Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity. He posits that ingenious marketing, in response to trends in both the entertainment business and national politics, streamlined a wide range of traditions into the music that we now choose to represent our idealized rural past. And two reissues of country Christmas classics, Christmas With the Louvin Brothers and Christmas With Chet Atkins, arrive just in time to put his theory to the test.

Back in the 20s, when Jimmie Rodgers, the singing brakeman, began recording, the music was known variously as “old-time,” “traditional,” “cowboy,” or just plain “hillbilly”; Hank Williams started out as a “folk” singer. But in 1952, when perhaps the best-known folksinger of the day, Pete Seeger, was called up in the McCarthy hearings, the industry adopted the blanket term country, and by the time Williams died the following year, it had been firmly established in the public consciousness. And what tied together the cowboy, the hillbilly, and the southern gentleman was a carefully crafted reputation for authenticity.

The definition of authenticity went beyond instrumentation or content. Lap steel guitars weren’t actually used in turn-of-the-century barn dances, and early country lyrics, with not-so-subtle double entendres like “The old hen cackled and the rooster’s going to crow,” bore more resemblance to the blues than to anything you’d hear at the Grand Ole Opry. Today gangsta rap and indie rock have issues of credibility too, but only in country music did the standard come from the top down, and only in country is the industry able to manipulate that standard, creating a renewable resource of “authentic” artists.

This is particularly remarkable considering the range of styles within country-and-western music. Peterson points out that as country developed in the marketplace, it split into two camps: “soft-shell” artists, like Patsy Cline, and “hard-core” artists, like Bill Monroe. Which camp an artist fell into was based on everything from singing style to personal lifestyle. Hard-core musicians shared a more direct link, via sound and appearance, to early string-band performers like Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, and enjoyed popularity with predominantly rural fans. Soft-shell artists played a more refined pop style targeted to a rapidly expanding urban fan base. But whatever the audience, it was always essential that the artist be considered authentic.

There were many ways for record companies to cement a new performer’s authenticity. Having him pay tribute to early country greats, like Rodgers or the Carter Family, was (and still is) useful. But such a move might create an undesirable association with the past, so a safer bet was the Christmas album, and the clever exploitation of holiday spirit helped to endear many performers to the music-buying public.

Consider the Louvin Brothers. Their bluegrass-inflected sound, which featured mandolin and high, nasal vocal harmonies, was part of a tradition that was fading from favor in Nashville in the 50s and early 60s. Rock ‘n’ roll was storming the nation, changing everything in its path. As they struggled for success, Charlie and Ira Louvin seemed as doomed as dinosaurs. Luckily they had an ace in the hole: early in their career they’d established themselves as country gospel singers, which meant they could appeal to conservative, Christian Middle Americans. Capitol Records recognized the value of their background, signed them, and infused their sound with soft-shell elements like electric guitar and rock rhythms. Their success with religious tunes opened the door for their secular love songs, though they rarely mixed the two on a single album.

The original release of Christmas With the Louvin Brothers included only traditional songs, a decision that played up the hard-core side of the band’s sound and established a more old-timey holiday spirit. Not that any old-time string band would have played these tunes the way the Louvins did, with electric piano and smooth background vocals. The reissue mars the facade further with the inclusion of two rockin’ original holiday songs that were originally released as a separate single.

The extent to which marketers manipulated the authenticity of the Louvin Brothers pales in comparison to what they did with Chet Atkins. A producer and record executive as well as an artist, Atkins was a key figure in the development of “countrypolitan,” a slick, highly produced brand of country tailored for urban consumers who preferred their twang with the crusts cut off. It was the softest of the soft-shell; the cynical listener might lump in Atkins’s recordings of the 50s and 60s with what Tom Waits has called “shopping music.”

The fact is that Atkins himself worked the authenticity angle with unprecedented genius. While his success was in no small part a direct result of immense musical talent, there’s more to the Nashville game than just good picking, and his image was carefully molded to represent both down-home simplicity and urban panache, gaining him the nickname “the Country Gentleman.” Christmas With Chet Atkins is a perfect example of this expert handling. The songs are a mix of contemporary tunes like “Jingle Bell Rock” and traditional carols like “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Atkins switches from acoustic to electric guitar halfway through, but on the original album cover (now used on the back of the CD), in an inviting winterscape, an electric guitar leans against a snow-covered pine.

Hank Williams once claimed that a country artist had to do time behind a plow and a mule to achieve authenticity, and while both the Louvins and Atkins did in fact grow up in rural poverty, modern country is a different animal. While hard-core country may spit tobacco juice at soft-shell’s $1,000 alligator boots, thanks to years of careful indoctrination both camps rest assured that they’re the keepers of the flame, which in the end crackles on the same hearth in the same Christmas cabin of the American imagination.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.