Open Country

A Film About Politics and Country-Western Music

By glenda drew & Jesse Drew

cowboy image with Open Country title

With the twang of a steel guitar, the whine of a fiddle and the plunk of a banjo comes an instant association; the pick-up truck, the cowboy boots, the rolling hills, dusty fields, lonesome highways and the flag. Lots of flags. The twang of Country-Western puts you into the American heartland, on the ranch, the farm, or in the honky-tonk or beer hall. For many, it has also come to signify conservatism, “traditional values,” American chauvinism, or even racism, bigotry and the confederate flag. Country-Western music has been prominently featured by every major contemporary Republican figure, from Richard Nixon to G. W. Bush. George Bush the elder claimed Hee-Haw as his favorite TV show. Consequently, no one is too surprised when Country -Western radio disc jockeys smash CDs or ban music from groups taking positions frowned upon by the right-wing.

Does Country-Western deserve this reputation? Like the flags they fly so fervently, the right wing likes to promote this claim to ownership. But history and facts do not bear them out.

Although one wouldn’t realize it from listening to today’s pop Country-Western radio stations, country music has been anything but a rightwing soundtrack. To the contrary, the roots of Country and Western lie firmly in classic American traditions of resistance to capital, freedom from government interference, and in defense of the right of workers, poor farmers, and the dispossessed to live their lives in dignity.

This film will situate the origins of country music as being drawn from the same well as what was originally called “hillbilly” or “folk”. Much early country music was written from the perspectives of Southern tenant farmers, Appalachian coalminers, working Southwestern cowboys, Western farmworkers and other marginal poor folk. These tunes were passed along generation to generation, with the lyrics often evolving as times and conditions changed. As the radio and recording industries grew up around the music in the 1920s and 1930s, vested financial interests formed and developed a stake in the financial viability and political identity of the music. In the 1930s and 1940s, a star system arose, as country music developed a fan base and began to challenge the hegemony of tin pan alley and urban popular music. In the 1950s, McCarthyism played a prominent role in the extraction of Country-Western from that of folk music, with its left-wing associations with artists like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

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