Antimodernism and Genre from Country-Rock to Alt.Country, 1968-98

Kirby, Jason, Music - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Will, Richard, Department of Music, University of Virginia

This dissertation is a cultural history exploring expressions of and responses to antimodernism within country-rock and “alternative country” music, drawing on reception history, intellectual history of underground and mainstream left-wing American political movements, interview discourse with artists, and close readings of songs. In this dissertation I argue that despite styling itself as a type of purer root or “folk” form of contemporary country music, in terms of its ideologies, studio production techniques, fan and critical discourse, and business practices, is a type of rock music. It embodies some of rock’s core beliefs, particularly rock’s critique of the more bureaucratic and “rationalized” dimensions of postindustrial capitalism, particularly as this relates to the everyday impact of new technologies. I argue that this anti-modernism, emerging here from the American political left, has been different in different eras, from the back-to-the-land movement of the late 1960s, to late-‘80s/early-‘90s expressions of left populist punk’s longing for “folk” community. In this project I look beyond contemporary scholarly understandings of as mostly ironic, as ultimately I suggest that this music illustrates what Keir Keightley calls rock’s aesthetic of “seriousness,” more precisely than it does an understanding of country music ideology.

In Chapter 1, I discuss Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, placing this LP of humorously clichéd country tunes in conversation with the late 1960s back-to-the-land movement, ultimately arguing that Dylan’s work here is a sly critique of hippie counterculture. In Chapter 2, I argue that Linda Ronstadt became the rare musician able to “cross over” from the rock to country charts due to the notably blurred genre lines between rock, pop, and country of the mid-1970s, and ultimately the creation of a new musical “mainstream.” In Chapter 3 I suggest that the 1990s band Uncle Tupelo retroactively became a “founder” of in part because their left-wing populist music did not shy away from exploring the old-fashioned Christian thematic content sometimes historically associated with American populism. And in Chapter 4, I examine the work of singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, arguing that her gendered critical reception as an emotional “genius,” coupled with her glamorous anti-modern portrait of loss and longing in her signature album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, contributes to our contemporary understanding of the American south as a site of continual reimagining and contestation of meaning.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
antimodernism, country-rock,
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