Country Music Audiences

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Hillbilly music, as country music was more often called in its early days, emerged as a form of mass entertainment with the rise of radio broadcasting in the 1920s. Using a variety show format featuring folk, popular, and ethnic music, the producers of the first radio "barn dances" hoped to appeal to audiences composed mainly of middle- and working-class white listeners in rural areas and small towns. Different styles predominated in different regions, as stations tailored their shows to local talent and preferences. The available anecdotal evidence and the listener mail received by the most popular barn dances suggest that the initial audience for hillbilly music was sizable and socioeconomically diverse.

In the absence of systematic demographic information, observers constructed a fanciful image of the country music audience. As soon as commercial hillbilly music appeared, critics began to indulge in the worst kind of stereotyping. Variety 's oft-quoted 1926 description of hillbilly listeners as "illiterate and ignorant, with the intelligence of morons" was a particularly vitriolic expression of the popular hick image that was applied to the country audience.

Despite such negative stereotypes, however, fans embraced country music to establish social identities, build communities, and negotiate change and tradition. In the 1920s, many listeners viewed hillbilly music as a way of preserving rural culture against encroaching urbanism. Listening patterns, which often assimilated the new medium into older social occasions such as dances and group work, helped to create a sense of continuity and allowed listeners to imagine a rural community on a national scale. Barn dance radio also helped ease the transition to modernity and city life for rural-to-urban migrants by offering images of family, home, and tradition that allowed them to remain connected to their personal pasts.

Hillbilly fans were not only consumers. They also played a pivotal role in the economy of the nascent industry, which relied heavily on personal appearances at local community and church events. Women usually organized these events; their importance in the early hillbilly business likely provided a foundation for later fan club activity.

Urban Migration

Shortly before the start of World War II, millions of rural Americans began moving to urban centers in search of industrial jobs. They took their music with them, exposing new audiences to the sounds of fiddles and steel guitars. Honky-tonks—nightclubs featuring live and jukebox hillbilly music—sprang up throughout the urban North and West and created a new, somewhat unsavory context for listening to country music. At the same time, the regional diversity that characterized the barn dance era began to give way to a more homogenous sound dominated by southern styles and produced primarily in Nashville.

The rise of the honky-tonk and the distinctive southern sound created popular stereotypes about class and country music that narrowed the genre's potential audience. The family-friendly, middle-class appeal of barn dance radio receded, and country music became firmly identified with the urban working class. Lewis Killian, a sociologist observing post–World War II migrants to Chicago, noted that honky-tonks were perhaps the most important social institution in the migrant community, offering a public space to meet and create a common culture. Indeed, he speculated that the derogatory term "hillbilly" was applied to all southern white migrants, regardless of origin, because of the recognized popularity of hillbilly music among them.

Fan clubs appeared in the 1940s and multiplied in the 1950s, even as the music's general popularity waned. Fans were encouraged to understand and participate in the business of country music. Club participation offered members an alternative to mainstream commercial media, provided an opportunity to develop friendships with other fans, and affirmed the value of a genre that was often portrayed as trashy. Club officers fulfilled many public relations, management, and concert promotion duties that would later be assumed by professionals. Many promoted the genre as a whole by working for several stars or for club-monitoring organizations.

Mass Appeal

In spite of its rough honky-tonk image, the country industry aspired to mainstream popularity for most of the 1950s. But the advent of television as the primary mass appeal medium and the subsequent fragmentation of the radio audience rewarded specialization over general programming. In the 1960s, Nashville embraced the genre's working-class image, capturing radio's blue-collar advertising market, even though the statistical correlation between social class and a preference for country was low by decade's end. In its effort to sell its working-class audience to advertising sponsors, the industry worked to revise popular understandings of southern migrants, emphasizing their economic success and consumer power in contrast to prevailing hillbilly stereotypes.

During the early 1970s, the country audience became an emblem of working-class conservatism. Observers of all political stripes identified country as the music of the Silent Majority, an assessment that persists in the historical debate about country's role in the "southernization" of American culture. Proponents of the southernization theory argue that country music became popular among northern, white, ethnic workers during these years because its traditionalism expressed their rising disaffection with liberalism in the civil rights era. Opponents counter that beneath their "superficial conservatism," country lyrics frequently celebrated notions of individualism and rebellion more in keeping with countercultural values than reactionary politics.

Ironically, just over a decade after the industry's decision to narrow its demographic focus, country music became popular with a mass audience. By the mid-1990s, country was the most popular radio format in America, dominating more than half of the hundred largest urban markets and attracting the best-educated, wealthiest audience of any genre. Even country's traditional racial imbalance diminished. Although the industry remained segregated, one survey found that about 25 percent of African American listeners over eighteen listened to country radio in 1997.

Country Music Audiences

During the 1960s, the country industry used its audience's working-class image to attract advertising sponsors, as in this ad for San Francisco radio station KSAY. Sponsor, 8 August 1966.

"It would be interesting to know how many people there are in this class [hillbilly listeners]. The writer, as one might suspect, is a dealer in sound-reproducing machines. He sells these records daily to farmers, laborers and mechanics, to young and old, rich and poor——yes, even to bankers, contractors, salesmen and merchants."

Smith, Arthur. "'Hill Billy' Folk Music: A Little-Known American Type," Etude Magazine 51 (March 1933): 154, 208.

Professionalization and centralization in Nashville ultimately minimized opportunities for fan involvement in the industry, but the rituals of country music continue to celebrate fans. At Fan Fair, Nashville's annual tribute to its fans, country's biggest stars host tens of thousands of devotees for free barbecues, concerts, and autograph sessions. The event traces its origins to a fan convention, originally held in conjunction with the industry's annual business meeting, organized by club members so they could network and share information. In the early 2000s, although its business functions have long since dissipated, Fan Fair remains an important pilgrimage for many aficionados and demonstrates the unique audience culture of country music.

See also: Rap Music Audiences, Rock Concert Audiences, Southern Leisure Lifestyles, Traditional Folk Music Festivals


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Diane Pecknold