© Henry Horenstein, Dolly Parton, Symphony Hall, Boston, MA, 1972, from Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music 1972-1981.
© Henry Horenstein, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, Nashville, TN, 1974. Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music 1972-1981.
© Henry Horenstein, Conway Twitty, Annapolis, MD, 1975S, from Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music 1972-1981.
Describing country music as a storyteller’s art is no mere attempt to give it an intellectual Benjaminian chic. Its self-conception as “a storyteller’s medium,” widely recognized by scholars, is even clear from the way that “other song elements are generally kept simple to highlight the story. The chord structure is simple and predictable, the melodic range is slight, the rhythm is regular, and the orchestration is sparse or at least clearly in the background so that the words can be understood.” In the words of one country singer-songwriter, “If you can’t hear each word, it ain’t country, son.” Country’s words get their importance not from their specific poetry but from the stories they embody, stories that can capture an audience far beyond those who prefer country’s simple melodies and rhythms. Challenged about his taste for country music, jazz great Charlie Parker replied that he simply loved the stories.
Country’s narratives succeed not only through the elements of tradition, orality, and life-experience that Benjamin notes. Narrative form itself intensifies the pathos and comparative authenticity that country deploys. The progression, development, and anticipation that constitute all narratives contribute to the build-up of emotions. The archetypal commonality of country’s stories (with their focus on fundamental feelings of love, failure, and mourning) serve to trigger emotional memories that reach both deep and wide. And this same archetypal, formulaic simplicity of story-line permits extreme plot condensation, thus promoting emotional intensity by forestalling fatigue of attention.
Condensation and credibility are further enabled by the fact that country’s sung stories are often recognized by listeners as biographically linked to the singer, allowing them to imaginatively enrich the tales through details they know (e.g., George Jones’s bouts of drinking and Garth Brooks’s marital infidelity and reconciliation). To heighten its power of pathos, country thus productively blurs the presumed division between art and life, artistic persona and real individual. Finally, the narrative frame that country deploys is most useful for making contrasts of comparative authenticity that are emotionally charged and hence more convincing. Narrative temporality provides not only the retrospective memory of country’s older days of purer authenticity, but suggests the ongoing struggle to develop or recover greater authenticity in the face of present corruptive pressures.
excerpt from: Shusterman, R. (1999) Moving Truth: Affect and Authenticity in Country Musicals. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol.57, No.2, pp.221-233
© Henry Horenstein, Patron, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, Nashville, TN, 1972, from Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music 1972-1981.
© Henry Horenstein, The Willis Brothers, Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, TN, 1972, from Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music 1972-1981.
© Henry Horenstein, Ralph Stanley, Coeburn, VA, 1974, from Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music 1972-1981.