Bill C. Malone,
Sing Me Back Home: Southern Roots & Country Music
(University of Oklahoma Press, 2017)

Bill C. Malone was probably the first historian to take country music seriously. He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the genre and later turned it into his first book, the magnificent Country Music USA, the first major history of the category. It has remained steadily in print since its original publication back in 1968. Now, in Sing Me Back Home, he brings forth a collection of his essays on country music, its early practitioners and their roots in southern culture.

The pieces collected here range widely through the field. Their subjects include Malone himself; the first essay is autobiographical, about growing up poor in East Texas, surrounded with hard work and homemade music, while the last describes the birth of Austin, Texas, as a center for the music, concentrating on Threadgill's, a club where the folk revival and early country mixed easily, as University of Texas students and wandering troubadours both found a home away from home.

Not that the book is an autobiography; only those two pieces contain personal history. Other essays focus on topics like the music of the Southern plain folk, an examination of the ballad tradition in the south, and the interaction between African-Americans and southern whites in their music. The South, for all its horrid racial attitudes and practices, has always been the most musically integrated part of America as the races borrowed from each other freely and openly. Malone brings this little known aspect of our history to the forefront.

Other pieces profile the dominant figures in American music but always for a larger purpose than mere biography: Jimmy Rodgers' life is used explore the rambler tradition, while the Blue Sky Boys demonstrate the hardscrabble life of the musician who carved out a living playing school house shows and doing radio broadcasts, back before the time of comfortable tour buses and interstate highways.

Albert Brumley, almost completely unknown today, was a songwriter who came up with such classics as "I'll Fly Away" and "Turn Your Radio On." Currently, his music is far better known than he is. Malone tries to bring him his due. Elvis Presley, far better known than his music, gets a treatment that explores the pre-jumpsuit and star of lame movie days. Malone goes back to when he was first starting out, touring the south as "The Hillbilly Cat," and points out that Elvis made his bones in the South and first found fame there because he was, in essence, pretty much a typical southern country boy. It's a fascinating look at how the times and the culture made the artist.

As a historian, Malone has a clean style and a nice sense of narrative drive. Coming from a strong story-telling tradition, he tells a story well and gives us a good balance of the artists' personalities and the larger meaning they are a part of and symbolize.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

13 May 2017

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