BWW Reviews: COUNTRY SOUL is a Valuable Contribution to Its Subject
Charles Hughes' Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South, starts with some serious limitations. It's a short book about a large subject. It's an academic approach to music that has affected millions of people on the deepest possible emotional level. And, I'm not sure the author always used the best logic and/or examples to support his own arguments.
No small things, then.
Within those limits, though, it's still a valuable book. For starters, the principal subject has rarely been approached with the skepticism found here. Hughes rightly identifies a strain of self-serving utopianism in both the "remembering" and the reporting from the era when the southern soul and New South country music emanating from Memphis, Muscle Shoals and Nashville in the sixties and seventies stepped a now-lively, now-wary dance in, over and around each other. To that end, he's assembled some compelling evidence of a countervailing narrative and, while it's hardly the last word on this fertile subject, it's a necessary and effective beginning.
On the down side, Hughes occasionally falls into some common traps:
Sometimes he's just wrong as when he states that Stax records was "one of only two prominent soul labels controlled by African Americans (the other being Motown)," thus giving it a "unique opportunity to connect with Black Power's energies and demands." That overlooks Curtis Mayfield's Curtom (founded in Chicago, 1968), Holland-Dozier-Holland's Hot Wax (Detroit, 1968) and Invictus (1969), and Gamble and Huff's Philly International (Philadelphia, 1971). Mentioning them wouldn't have weakened Hughes' argument, but not mentioning them is bound to raise eyebrows among knowledgeable soul fans who make up the book's likely readership and also begs the question of why more southern black entrepreneurs didn't follow the example of Willie Mitchell, who took over Memphis' Hi label, and pick up the slack when white-owned southern studios began concentrating on white artists selling to white audiences.
Elsewhere, Hughes' reliance on anecdotal evidence can lead him to make more general arguments that aren't entirely convincing. Arthur Alexander, the evocative singer whose fate he uses as a framing device, was an eccentric talent who did indeed play a vital role in driving the Muscle Shoals' stake into the Northern Alabama point of Hughes' "country soul triangle" (a deft phrase that deserves to stick). But he was hardly such an unstoppable force that his lack of subsequent success could be attributed entirely to race and the shady business practices of white record men. (For one thing, he was a black singer with a country-ish sound who rarely scored with black audiences. Hughes might have done better to focus more on singers like Candi Staton, Millie Jackson or Joe Simon, quoted but not featured here, who had huge success with black audiences but only occasionally reached the Pop charts.)
Most troubling, though, is Hughes' tendency to counter his refreshingly skeptical take on white self-congratulation with a frequent resort to anecdotal, as opposed to systemic, black grievance.
For instance, he quotes soul singer Betty LaVette at length, expressing her bitterness over losing what she felt was a hit to a competing "cover" version by white singer Bobbie Gentry. Hughes rightly notes that Gentry's recording "was not actually a major hit" itself, but he nonetheless validates LaVette's anger at losing her "hit," writing "Gentry's recording appeared to prevent that possibility" and (regarding the record labels involved) "Capitol's relationship with FAME may have stalled LaVette's career."
The only problem with those assumptions, based entirely on crediting LaVette's memories, is that Gentry's version of the record in question ("He Made a Woman Out of Me") wasn't released until several months after LaVette's fell off the charts and, when LaVette's record actually was on the charts, Gentry had two other records out. In other words Betty LaVette might have any number of legitimate grievances against a recording industry controlled by white men, but this didn't happen to be one of them.
None of this undermines Hughes' basic premise, which is that there needs to be more attention given to voices who paint a less than sunny picture of race relations in the country soul triangle. I just wish he had been a little more careful.
Because once you set those caveats aside, he's got a great subject and he's done yeoman work digging into its forgotten corners, beginning with a good, if inevitably sketchy, history of "race" music as an industry construct that "paralleled the rise of Jim Crow segregation and established a 'firm correlation between racialized music and racialized bodies' that structured the subsequent recording industry."
God knows plenty of southern white music men (from Sun's legendary Sam Phillips on down) have patted themselves on the back so hard for promoting racial tolerance that one begins to wonder if they ever looked at a bottom line. Hughes makes it abundantly clear that their politics, however admirable, never got the best of their business sense. When black music sold, they sold black music. When it looked like white music would sell better, Phillips, FAME's Rick Hall and others, moved on.
Of course, any story as complicated as this one is bound to keep doubling back on itself. Here's Hughes at his best, describing a key moment when Ted Bell, an African-American who had taken control of Memphis' Stax soul label, was trying to achieve a pop breakthrough for the Staple Singers:
"Instead [of keeping them in Memphis], he sent the Staples to work with an entirely white ensemble [in Muscle Shoals]....'I'll Take You There' combined a gospel-influenced lyric written by Al Bell and Mavis Staples with a Jamaican-style rhythm track lifted from a recent ska hit...On top of the bubbling beat, Staples offered a series of gospel-style testimonies, promising to take the listeners to a place where racial discrimination and economic inequality are things of the past. Driven by Hawkins's snapping snare and David Hood's thumping bass, the song never abandons its gospel feel. It features no horns, one guitar, and only the barest keyboard work from Barry Beckett. In the middle of the song, each member of the band (except for drummer Hawkins) is singled out to take a solo. Beckett and Hood each showcase their supple playing. When it comes time for the guitar solo, Mavis calls out to 'Daddy' to play one of his spare, powerful licks. But the guitarist playing the solo is not group patriarch Roebuck 'Pops' Staples. It is young white guitarist Eddie Hinton, who plays a solo in Staples's trademark style."
As Hughes points out repeatedly, this, and many other "landmarks of southern soul" were made well after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which many have noted as the downturn in racial harmony inside the integrated studios where the great southern soul music was made. Though I suspect many of the musicians quoted here and elsewhere regarded the assassination and its aftermath as the beginning of the end rather than the end, Country Soul certainly makes the case that the end was a long time in coming and the period between was hardly that of straightforward musical and social decline that's been so often depicted.
And, in case you think all that's complicated, wait until you get to the story of the Osmonds imitating Motown's Jackson 5 well enough to ride high on the soul charts with a black man's songs recorded in a white-owned studio with integrated musicians who had, in some cases, taken over for white musicians previously known for playing the soul music that was routinely considered more "authentically" black than anything coming out of Motown. As too many people have forgotten and Hughes is only too happy to remind us: "Given the most essentialist of the era's rhetoric, one might expect that soul fans lampooned 'One Bad Apple' as a silly attempt by white pop stars to recreate black music. But this was not the case. Instead 'One Bad Apple' was criticized for doing it too well."
After that, you can find out how this all played out when white soul musicians made their way to Nashville and helped country music adapt to the soul-rooted "disco" era more readily than the soul labels themselves. Or get the lowdown on the story of legendary soul eccentric, Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams, winning a country songwriter of the year award and Nashville misplacing his invitation to the ceremony.
The web was thus forever tangled. When Sam "Play it Steve" Moore, tells us that white guitarist Steve Cropper really "didn't have that much love for blacks" it might not tell us anything about Cropper's actual state of racial enlightenment, but it certainly tells us what Moore felt and those feelings are indeed evidence that the message of universal racial harmony inside the racially mixed southern studios that produced so much "authentically" black music, a message that has been drummed pretty constantly for decades, has another side.
Given the space limitations I mentioned, Hughes doesn't always manage to cut through these thickets. But its to his credit that he keeps wading in. If he doesn't get all the way to the bottom of, say, "the disconnect between the visual and musical components" of a white studio band like the Mar-Keys playing "the chitlin' joints out in the cotton field" where "the club owner, the bartender, the guy barbecuing and everybody else would say, 'Where's the Mar-Keys?,'" when a bunch of white guys showed up, it might be because he's trying to say too much for 190 pages to bear.
But it might just be there is no bottom. At least not one we've found.
I'm one who believes that the music that came from Hughes' country soul triangle is as close to that bottom as we've come and, whatever the motivations of the participants, black or white, the result was the creation of a psychic space that made new political visions possible and helped some very old ones come a little more sharply into focus. If we didn't reach as high was we might have, it will still always be worth looking back at this "country soul" moment, when so much seemed possible, to understand why we came short.
Country Soul may ask more questions than it answers, but the questions are the right ones. Anybody who seeks to go further will be in debt to the work Hughes has done here. And any soul or country fan who wants to know more about where we've been would do well to make the book's acquaintance in the meantime.