The Rural Upsurge — A Brief History of Country Cool and Uncool

Country Mouse and Town Mouse
Arthur Rackham illustration for The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse

Since the US‘s founding, Americans have steadily moved from the countryside to the city but the story of our pop culture has always been the product of a dialogue between the two worlds, with urban and rural fashions coming and going. While being country might not be cool again, it does seem that American television‘s landscape is once again overwhelmingly rural in character — a world populated by catfish scammers, catfish hand-fishers, Sasquatch hunters, morbidly obese Mennonite mafioso, bootlegging bigamist Baptist beauty contestants, and other cryptozoological specimens. 43 years ago the television landscape was similarly dominated by rural caricatures when, at the end of March, the so-called “Rural Purge” resulted in a deliberate shift away from rural-themed shows to those set in cities.

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Americans have long generally migrated to the cities and their environs, including the suburbs, and today the percentage of America’s population who live in the country is at an all time low — about 16%. However, it wasn’t until the 1910s that America’s urban population overtook its rural.

In the 1930s and 1940s, American pop culture had perhaps approached its highest degree of urbanity. The Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rogers & Hart, and other Tin Pan Alley sophisticates all wrote witty, popular songs. The best films coming out of Hollywood were usually either artfully-constructed Film Noir or clever Screwball Comedies. Behind closed doors, however, the domestic entertainment scene was less cultivated. The most popular radio programs were Vaudeville-descended variety shows, juvenile Westerns, and sitcoms whose formula has changed surprisingly little over the decades that followed. As television increasingly entered the picture, more laughs and thrills were mined from hillbillies and cowboys.


 

Hillbillies had by then long served as popular comic fodder in the funny pages. Barney Google (later Barney Google and Snuffy Smith) debuted in 1919 and is still running in the 21st Century, although there’s no proof that anyone still reads it. Li’l Abner (1934-1977) spawned more than a dozen films and cartoon series. On the radio NBC‘s Lum and Abner (1931-1954), set in Waters, Arkansas, spawned seven films.

The cinema was safe for rural types too. The popular film Sergeant York (1941) was based on the true story of the most decorated soldier of World War I, who happened to be a hillbilly. Ma and Pa Kettle (1947) depicted a farming couple from Washington and spawned a nine-film franchise. Not that all country folks were depicted as bumpkins. Gone With the Wind (1939) — still the most popular film of all time — offered another popular country fantasy, that of the antebellum Deep South.

The term “hillbilly music” was first coined in 1925 but it was in the 1940s that national radio really opened up to rural music, embracing BluegrassBlues, CajunCountry, FolkWestern, and other forms of rural music — partly in response to the 1942–44 musicians’ strike staged by the American Federation of Musicians.

 


In 1946, The Delmore Brothers had a hit with “Hillbilly Boogie” and that same year, Harry Choates ignited a bonafide Cajun craze with his hit recording of “Jole Blon” — a the first non-English language national hit (the Sukiyakior Gangnam Style of its day).

The popular American music of the 1950s and ’60s Doo-Wop, Cool Jazz, Frat RockHard Bop, PopRhythm & BluesRock ‘n’ Roll, Surf — as well as the bands of the British Invasion — all had little of the country in them. Even Hillbilly music — by then more often referred to as Country (thanks in part to the efforts of Ernest Tubb to get it some respect) — attempted to citify thanks in large part to the slick production of Chet Atkins which characterized the Nashville Sound.

Mainstream country (as opposed to Honky-Tonk) musicians (or at least their promoters) seemed almost ashamed of being country and as country grew even less, well, Country, they coined the ironic portmanteau of “Countrypolitan” to describe performers like Charlie RichCharley PrideLynn AndersonTammy Wynette, and Glen Campbell (who was based in Hollywood, not Nashville) who owed more to Easy Listening than Country and often sounded more like Liberace than Lefty Frizzell.

On television, the hillbilly and his country cousins still ruled the roost. Programs like The Red Skelton Show (1953-1971), The Lawrence Welk Show (1955-1982), The Real McCoys (1957-1963), The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968), The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971), Petticoat Junction (1963-1970), Green Acres (1965-1971), Mayberry R.F.D. (1968-1971), The Jim Nabors Hour (1969-1971), and song-and-skit shows like The Johnny Cash Show (1969-1971), Hee Haw (1969-1992), and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour (1969-1972), and others all traded in cornpone humor and cornball country stereotypes… and all were quite popular.

At the same time as television milked laughs from rural sitcoms, the folk revival that had begun in the 1940s peaked in the mid-1960s and gave birth to citified, electrified Folk-Rock bands like The Byrds, The Leaves, and The Lovin’ Spoonful and, occasionally, in the case of The Dillards and Gene Clark, folks with roots in the countryside. Before long performers like The Byrds, Gene Clark, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and The Stone Poneys were creating Country Rock that, whilst rooted in rock, revealed a more obvious debt to traditional Country than contemporaneous Countrypolitan

Results of ACNielsen company research changed the way network executives looked at ratings. The audiences of many of their (especially CBS‘s) most popular shows were undeniably large — but they turned out to be largely comprised of old folks — the sort of people advertisers have little use for. In order to woo young, urban folks with disposable income, CBS executive Fred Silverman decided to axe much of the network’s roster or, in the words of Green AcresPat Buttram, they “canceled every show that had a tree.”

The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, The Jim Nabors Hour, and Mayberry R.F.D. were all felled by the end of March, 1971. Hee Haw too was put on the chopping block but survived for another twenty years after moving to syndication. The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour rode out the season, ending its run on 13 June, 1972. At ABC, The Johnny Cash Show last aired on 31 March, 1971 and The Lawrence Welk Show also survived by moving to syndication (where it remained until the sun set on it in 1982). At NBC, The Red Skelton Show (only acquired from CBS in 1970) was cancelled in 1971.

At CBS, the spring cleaning made room for urban shows like All in the Family, The Bob Newhart Show, CannonM*A*S*HThe Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Streets of San Francisco. In 1972 the Surgeon General found that television had grown, in part to to the urban surge, increasingly violent and Congress held hearings to determine what action to take. In 1975, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) created a new policy, The Family Viewing Hour, which charged each network with the responsibility to air family-friendly programing during the first hour of prime time.

CBS, happy with their new following supposedly stuck the throwback rural-themed series, The Waltons, against NBC’s The Flip Wilson Show and ABC‘s The Mod Squad with the hope that it would quickly fizzle and prove to critics of their new direction that audiences no longer wanted to see gentle, family-oriented series like that. To their surprise and possible dismay, The Waltons was a hit and aired until 1981. In 1974, it was followed by a similar series, Little House on the Prairie.  The Family Viewing Hour policy was overturned in the courts in 1977.

Both The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie were set safely in the sepia-toned Good Ol’ Days. No doubt in part due to the ugliness of the Deep South’s apparently endemic racism exposed during the Civil Rights Era, a darker image of the country — at least the Deep South — began to take prevail. Films like In the Heat of the Night (1967), Easy Rider (1969), Deliverance (1972), Southern Comfort (1981), and others fixed in stone (or celluloid, at least) the image of country folks as mostly murderous, inbred, crew-cut, tribal subhumans equally hostile to city slickers, the college boys, Papists, fruits, Jews, longhairs, and Lefties alike.

As the decade wore on, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Grizzly (1976), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), suggested that anyone not from the country would do their best to fly over it or at least stick to the interstate.

Despite their shoddy treatment by the East and West Coast establishments — and the fact that earlier roots rockers from said coasts like Bob DylanCanned Heat, and Creedence Clearwater Revival and the like had had about as much apparent connection to the boondocks as the minstrels of the 1840s had to black American culture, by the early 1970s redneck rockers were following in their coastal counterparts footsteps. The Allman BrothersBlack Oak ArkansasLynyrd Skynyrd, The Marshall Tucker BandMolly HatchetOzark Mountain Daredevils, and ZZ Top were among the many long-haired Southern Rock bands that sprouted in a countryside that had just a few years earlier been characterized as a place hostile to that sort of music. Perhaps they appreciated the sentiments of songs like Tompall Glaser & The Glaser Brothers‘s “Streets of Baltimore,” Gladys Knight & the Pips“Midnight Train to Georgia,” Glen Campbell‘s “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.),” and Jerry Jeff Walker‘s “L.A. Freeway.”

The large scale phenomenon of whites abandoning the inner city for the suburbs began in the 1950s but was truly under way in the 1970s. In 1971, as a result of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the US Supreme Court ordered desegregation busing, which is often pointed to as a reason that many more whites to abandoned even more urban areas. “Urban” became widely-used, coded shorthand for “black” in a country obsessed with race but wary of discussing it openly. In 1974, DJ Frankie “The Chief Rocker” Crocker coined the term Urban Contemporary when he was appointed as program director of New York City‘s WBLS, to describe the station’s format, which focused on black music forms — which in the mid-1970s meant primarily Disco and R & B.

Although the metonymic association of race to population density had ridiculously little to do with reality (for example, most black majority counties are rural and Southern (ie The Black Beltand whites continued to move to non-rural suburbs) at least, in a sense, it allowed blacks to enter the pop cultural dichotomy whereas Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans remained marginalized until around 2004, when the presence of urban Latinos at least was acknowledged by marketers who coined the portmanteau “Hurban” — a linguistically awkward combination of “Hispanic” and “urban.”

Despite “urban’s” then-increasing equation with black Americans, in the late 1970s the lines between rural and urban blurred. Country Rock grew increasingly slicker, smoother, and softer the supple hands of acts like The Eagles. By second half of the ’70s, Country, Soft Rock, Pop, and even Soul seem to have met somewhere in the middle. Case in point, in 1980, Lionel Richie (of The Commodores) provided his synth-soaked ballad “Lady” for Kenny Rogers (of First Edition) and — although I love it — I can’t point to anything musically in it that’s at all country nor in Lionel Richie, what’s R & B.

A less scary, feather-haired, post-disco, sequin-and-satin-friendly, Pontiac-driving image of the country jake and his daisy duke-wearing female counterpart arose alongside chart hits by the likes of AlabamaAnne Murray, Crystal Gayle, The Oak Ridge Boys, Olivia Newton-John, &c. Even this era of county acceptance couldn’t rally behind Hee Haw Honeys, however.

On B. J. and the Bear, the joys of CB radios, long-haul trucking, and chimpanzee companionship were celebrated, if not widely adopted. Also debuting in 1979, The Dukes of Hazzard assured us that, despite being fugitives from the law and driving a car emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag, the Duke brothers were “just some good ol’ boys, never meaning no harm.” The vibe of the scene was embodied by Florida-raised Burt Reynolds and his mustache.

A few years ealier, a tradition of Southern Regionals/Hixsploitation (e.g. Country Cuzzins (1970), Midnite Plowboy (1971), Preacherman (1971), Gator Bait (1974), Hot Summer in Barefoot County (1974), The Moonrunners (1975), Redneck Miller (1976), Polk County Pot Plane (1977) flourished in Southern drive-ins.

By the late ’70s, however, Hollywood was following their lead with bigger budget, nationally-released films like Smokey & the Bandit (1977), Every Which Way But Loose (1978), and Urban Cowboy (1980).

The Country Pop scene of the late 1970s/early 1980s quickly gave way to one of the more urban, future-oriented eras. Electro, Freestyle, House, Synthpop, Techno, all arose in the wake of newly popular (and decidedly urban — apologies to Crucial Conflict) Rap music. Even in the sticks people adopted nylon jackets and parachute pants and played futuristic 8-bit video games. For preppies, looking country meant wearing LL Bean. The country was Cousin Eddie whereas the city was Clark W. Griswold. Young people could think of nowhere better to congregate than inside large shopping malls.

Although Dallas and The Fall Guy remained popular on television for several years, they and films like Rhinestone (1984) seemed to belong to a different era, a time when a peanut farmer from Georgia had been the leader of the free world. During Reagan‘s watch, the emblematic television shows were Airwolf, Automan, Cagney & Lacey, Cheers, The Cosby Show, Dynasty, Family Ties, Hill Street Blues, Magnum P.I., Manimal, Miami Vice, Moonlighting, Street Hawk, &c. I barely remember a series that was marketed as the country version of The A-Team (the theme song included a lyric like “Love’s a magical wheel that makes the world go ’round”) but no one remembers what I’m talking about, which is probably an indication of its lack of success and just how banished to the margins the country was during the ’80s.

At the end of the decade, however, Roseanne (1988) appeared on television and offered a humorous if sometimes painfully realistic rural alternative to its less-groundbreaking and less-remembered peers like Dear John, Empty Nest, Murphy Brown or nostalgia-exhibitions like China Beach and The Wonder Years. Roseanne’s success opened the door for Grace Under Fire (1993), The Jeff Foxworthy Show (1995), and King of the Hill (1997) and possibly, the return of Country Pop (aka Hat Country).  Grungers, Gangstas and New Jack Swingers all had to make room on the pop charts for the likes of Garth BrooksShania Twain, Tim McGraw, Dixie Chicks, and Billy Ray Cyrus and his mullet.

With the notable exception of Arrested Development, before the rise of The Dirty South (coined by Atlanta’s Goodie Mob in 1995), Rap was pretty firmly associated with the country’s major metropolises. In the 1990s and 2000s, the music industry turned away from the east and west coast and turned to more rural states like Florida (Khia, Trick Daddy, Trina), Georgia (Lil’ Jon, OutKast, Ying Yang Twins, YoungBloodZ), Louisiana (Juvenile, Lil’ Wayne, Master P, Mystikal), Missouri (Chingy, J-Kwon, NellyMass 187), Tennessee (Eightball & MJGProject Pat, Three 6 Mafia), Texas (Mike Jones, Paul Wall, Slim Thug, UGK), and Virginia (Clipse, Missy Elliott, The Neptunes, Timbaland). Ultimately, a commercialized and less-regionally identifiable Dirty South sound arose — a sound that still predominates weddings and bar mitzvahs in the country and city alike.

No doubt informed by the rise of the Dirty South, white trash stereotypes were appropriated and reconstituted into a rural-urban blend by the likes of Kid Rock and Bubba Sparxxx. Hick-Hoppers Big & Rich and Cowboy Troy seemingly emerged prepackaged from within the Nashville machine. Modern-day-minstrels like Larry the Cable Guy (played by Nebraskan Daniel Whitney) and New Haven, Connecticut‘s George W. Bush rose to prominence never breaking character as dumb Southerners. The unfunny (with the exception of Ron White) folks of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour attempted to offer themselves as the white, rural alternative to the more successful, black (and therefore, although not fairly, “urban”) comedians of The Original Kings of Comedy.

America’s film and music industries, faced (especially in the latter’s case) with possible oblivion have increasingly played it safe in recent years, eschewing regionalism for the generic, placeless, formulaic and safe. With the exception of a few smaller films like Nebraska, Osage County, and Winter’s Bone, the big screen doesn’t seem especially dominated by anything but franchises, re-boots, prequels, sequels, and requels.

From the little that I’ve gatherd, the mainstream music scene is dominated by tween-targeted “whoa-whoa-whoa” jingle-ready pretindie and epileptic, throbbing Disney dance music — although Taylor Swift and her ilk is not-exactly-sure-what’s-country-about-this country pop stars like Shania Twain and Kenny Rogers before her.

White southern rapper Yelawolf might incorporate country imagery into his  lyrics, videos and costume but the music doesn’t have any apparent Country influence. The same doesn’t apply for the country-rap hybrid Rebelcore scene, although performers like Bandits, Big Smo, Bottleneck, Cap Bailey, Charlie Farley, Cypress Spring, Jawga Boyz, Justin Gee, Mikel Knight, Moccasin Creek, Redneck Social Club, Redneck Souljers, Sarah Ross, and Twang & Round aren’t exactly household names. The charts are occasionally regrettably troubled by calculated but inevitably awkward country-and-rap collaborations like the accidentally funny “Accidental Racist” by Brad Paisley and LL Cool J or the surprisingly not-unlistenable “Over and Over” from Nelly featuring Tim McGraw
Television, however, is another story. Most of the urban-fare could take place anywhere. The The New Girl, though set in the Eastside-adjacent Arts District, is seemingly Latino-less by design. Portlandia, though the funniest show on TV, could almost as easily be relocated to certain corners of Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco — or basically any city other than almost exclusively dudebro Phoenix). The current crop of rural fare, on the other hand, is specifically (if cartoonishly as ever) rural with a capital “r”… like an atrocity exhibition/freak show apparently meant to confirm the unnecessity of ever leaving the city. There are rural-themed scripted dramas, like Justified, True Detective, and The Walking Deadbut the real site of the real rural upsurge is on“reality” shows like Alaskan Women Looking for Love, American Bible Challenge, American Hoggers, Amish Mafia, Appalachian Outlaws, Bayou Billionaires, Bring ItCall of the Wildman, Clash of the Ozarks, Deep South Supernatural, Duck Dynasty, Gator Boys, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Hillbilly Blood, Hillbilly Handfishin’, Legends of the OzarksLizard Lick Towing, Moonshiners, Mountain Men, My Big Fat Redneck Wedding, My Five Wives, Party Down South, Prospectors, Redneck Island, Redneck Rehab, Rocket City Rednecks, Snake Salvation, Snake Wranglers, Southern Charm, Southern Fried Homicide, Swamp Murders, Swamp People, Swamp’d, and Yukon Men.

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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