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The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry

By Diane Pecknold

Duke University Press, 294 pages, $22.95 paperback

Reviewed by Ken Burke, November 2007

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Academic and scrupulously researched, "The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry" scholarly examination of country music's business tendencies proves enlightening as both history and pop culture.

Author Diane Pecknold expertly traces country's roots as a radio-based barn dance phenomenon - wherein listeners were encouraged to believe the genre actively preserved a bygone culture - through its struggles to shake off the "hillbilly" identity. At a time when country music was a cottage industry that relied heavily upon fan-clubs led by housewives to promote their artists, they continued to seek the respectability that only money could buy. Eventually, the industry learned all the tricks that the pop music boys used, i.e. demographic surveys, counter programming and changing the product to fit audiences with less rural tastes.

Although Pecknold reveals that Elvis Presley's early rockabilly success was initially claimed as a triumph for country music and discusses the impact of Robert Altman's satiric film "Nashville," she largely shies away from citing how other musicians changed the music for good or ill. Stripping all the rhythmic romance away from the genre's story, her final chapter declares that country music now competes favorably with rock and pop in the high tech arena of entertainment, and that is the only stamp of approval it ever really needed. The business angle is a tad dry at times, but this even-handed tome deftly explains the phenomenon of country music's history as a commercial commodity.