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Real Country: Music And Language In Working-Class Culture

By Aaron A. Fox

Duke University Press, 384 pages, $22.95 paperback

Reviewed by Jon Weisberger, December 2004

Find it on Amazon
Books on country music aren't all that rare, but good ones are, and that's true - maybe even especially true - of academic studies. But though Aaron Fox is a trained ethnomusicologist, he's also a country musician.

So, when he puts these twin perspectives to work in this study of a working class Texas community and the role country music and musicians play in its life, the result is a book in which vivid stories drawn from personal experience and sharp, clearly expressed insights more than make up for its difficult passages. "Real Country" covers a lot of ground, from dense discussions of cultural and linguistic theory to detailed analyses of country songs and performances.

Yet at its heart, it is focused tightly on a particular place - Lockhart, Texas - and a small number of people who live and work there, for whom country music both reflects and shapes the way they interact with each other and the larger world.

Some of them are musicians, some are listeners, but for all of them, it is a constant point of reference. What Fox explores, first and foremost, is how country music and conversational language play off one another to underline and illuminate human relationships in a semi-rural, working class community.

That may sound dry, and indeed, there are many places in the book where a reader unfamiliar with the jargon of cultural studies and musicology may feel lost. Yet Fox never fails to illustrate the points he's making with transcriptions of actual conversations, with references to particular songs familiar to all but the newest and most superficial country fans, and with stories drawn from his own experience as both a player and observer.

By the end of the book, one not only has an understanding of how the people he writes about relate to country music - and through country music to one another - but an appreciation for them as individuals struggling to maintain their dignity and their places in an often frustrating world.

"Real Country," then, isn't for those looking for stories about country music stars, or, despite its title, for those seeking a polemic on how the contemporary industry is ruining the music.

It is, instead, a grass roots study - so much so that singer Justin Trevino is the only person making a direct appearance whose name might be familiar to readers. Indeed, much more attention is given to the late Randy Meyer, who passed away while Fox was working on the book - and that attention is paid because of his mastery of the roles of singer, bandleader and conversationalist, exemplifying the themes to which "Real Country" is devoted.

Yet for those who accept its terms, and are willing to plow through the tough stretches, "Real Country" is one of the most rewarding and insightful books yet written about country music.